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Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

Once upon a time there was now, right now. The past has been written by many perspectives but the future is still blank and right now is the act of writing. Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that uses the narrative or story of our way of looking at our life situations. We look for that crack in the lens that tells an alternative way of perceiving our predicaments. Not to change the story but to tell it from a different view. Narrative therapy honors these stories and yet accepts that each view is imbued with meaning that family, society, culture has preordained as the “right” meaning. Existential therapy tends to focus more on the individual stance and with a focus on the “now” instead of the past or future. In turn it examines limits and expansiveness. The four main areas of examination within existentialism are meaning (vs. meaninglessness), freedom (vs. confinement), death (vs. life), and isolation (vs. inclusion) (Yalom, 1980). Narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy can help fill in the gaps leftover by each other. Including a past, present, and future tense and to give meaning to both as an individual and collective stance.

The term meaning has eluded philosophers for thousands of years. To give it a precise definition has proven to be almost impossible. The way we use meaning is a thread that runs throughout most of the major schools of psychotherapy. The view within narrative therapy is that meaning is not a given, nothing is imbued with meaning, but instead it is the interpretation of experience. That interpretation is through the theory of social construction of reality. Accordingly (:”The Social Construction of Reality”, 2009):

“The central concept of The Social Construction of Reality is that persons and groups interacting together in a social system form, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other’s actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process of this institutionalization, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conception (and belief) of what reality is becomes embedded in the institutional fabric of society.”

A more general way of stating this is that through language, symbols, and interactive dialogue we give meaning to an experience. First comes experience and then that experience is filtered through these cultural transactions which then creates interpretation. Just because we see the color blue it is only “blue” because that has been the assigned meaning that has happened within a cultural context. A quick formula for meaning in narrative therapy is experience plus interpretation equals meaning.

One of the core tenants of existential psychotherapy is the often quoted phrase from Sartre “existence precedes essence.” Meaning is personally constructed, as compared to socially constructed. There are givens such as we are all going to die that we will all have to face. Meaning then is personally constructed within this framework. Since we are going to die at some point in the future what does the current moment mean? This meaning is believed to come from the individual. We become a more honest or authentic human being when we acknowledge this constraint but ask ourselves what are we going to do about it? First there is just being, as in the present moment, and then from that we create the essence. Meaning within existential psychotherapy tends to be about the over arching beliefs such as the question of “what is the meaning of life?”

A key theoretical move within narrative therapy is to pay attention to what is called the sparkling moment. While a client is relaying the story of what brought them into the therapist office the therapist is listening for an episode within the story that contradicts the main story. A story that tells a different picture of our preferred way of being, as an example, if a client is telling a story of depression then the therapist listens for an event or time that the depression was not present. The telling of this alternative story in narrative therapy is called “re-authoring”. The therapist can help this along by also evoking what is called a “remembering” conversation where a major focus is on the identity of a past significant other who has helped contribute greatly to the client’s life. This could be a friend, a lover, a parent, a musician, or even an author.

To help the client along on this path the therapist needs to stay de-centered, and non-influential. They can do this by helping the client “thicken” the preferred storyline by encouraging the details of what is being told, instead of having a thin description of an event. For example, instead of just saying the weather is nice outside, ask questions about why the client thinks it is nice outside. What is it the smells, the air, the feel, does it remind them of something, The therapist would do well to keep in mind the rich history of existential psychotherapy to help thicken the preferred way of being.

Existential psychotherapy has a rich history of being cognizant of the way we use what Howard Gardner has called multiple intelligences. They are, according to Wikipedia, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, and musical intelligences (“Theory of multiple intelligences”, 2009). Howard Gardner has proposed a ninth intelligence which would be an existential intelligence. The existential intelligence would consist of the ability to be able to question bigger issues in life such as death, life, and possible spiritual meaning (“Theory of multiple intelligences”, 2009). Narrative therapy also embraces this notion of multiple intelligences even if this is not explicit. The therapist is encouraged to explore with the client the best possible way of expression. This could be through music therapy, writing therapy, or even art therapy. Existential psychotherapy in conjunction with humanistic psychotherapy has historically promoted the concept of the whole self including from an exploratory angle. The therapist comes not from an expert role but rather from an interest in the genuine person or phenomenological approach. In order to be fully present with this approach the intelligence that the client best works from should be the avenue of exploration for further development.

We are forever in the temporal now but are always focused on future plans, worries, hopes, or even dreams. Likewise when we are not future focused we are past focused. Past focused on our worries, shame, even our doubts. This tends to be the realm of narrative therapy. That is linking a sequence of events through a specific time period and giving that meaning. Narrative therapy struggles with the moment of now. It postulates a center or self as contrasted against the Buddhist concept of the no-self. This stance of a self is referred by a state of an observer researching or remembering the storyline. The concept of the no-self contradicts this position and has no observer but this is in the temporal now. The concept of existence is the current now or the becoming (such as a flower opening up into what it could be). Existential psychotherapy pays tribute to the past and possible future but the main source of temporal time is the now. James Bugental calls this the living moment (Bugental, p.20). While in the phase of re-authoring and thickening the storyline within narrative therapy this existential stance could prove to be very informative. It could also be used within the problem saturated phase of storytelling. If the client seems stuck on issues of the effects or judgments of a particular event then ask what seems to be the current emotions, thoughts, smells, etc. in order to unclog the blockage. Staying in the temporal now there are many facets that could be examined for example the current kinesthetic experience. This is one possible way to help with the issue of being stuck.

Existential psychotherapists tend to narrow in on four different realms for meaning making. They are freedom, death, isolation, and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980). Each of these realms can be constructed as being on a continuum. Freedom would have two extreme sides to it. On the one end of freedom there would be the complete restraint of any freedom at all. Not having any type of choice such as being shackled in a dungeon. The other end would be complete freedom such as is found in libertine philosophies of everything goes with no restraints. Existential psychotherapists posit that each of us fall somewhere on this continuum. In order to move, to find relief from our struggles with our mental illness or anguish, we need to come to an individual understanding on where we are currently on this continuum and where we would like to go or what we would like to become. For example, if we feel we have too much freedom due to overindulgence with no restraints we might need to move a little on this continuum for more restraint to help us balance out. There is no right or wrong answers but where the individual feels is appropriate. To help thicken the preferred way of being within narrative therapy this theory could seem to be a limitation on what meaning is. This meaning being created by the therapist and client, but I argue that if we use it as a map, it can help keep us focused.

This opinion piece is not meant to be a position that is grounded in a complete theoretical stance. The author acknowledges that both narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy both come from very rich philosophical but very different backgrounds. There have been only a few philosophers that have tried to examine the similarities between post-modernism and existentialism. If one is looking for connections they could always find, in some small detail, those connections but each philosophy is really a different project altogether. The therapeutic stance, or pou sto, are quite a different thing altogether. Narrative therapy does not just use postmodernism as a philosophical background and existential psychotherapy does not just use a strict philosophy of existentialism. Instead these philosophical backgrounds are an applicable way of using these various therapeutic stances for the use of trying to help heal our mental illnesses. As Foucault stated in his last known interview (William V. Spanos, P.153) “For me Heidegger has always been the essential philosopher… My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger.”

What are some of the future directions for thickening narrative therapy with existential psychotherapy? First narrative therapy would do well to further elaborate what is meant by thickening the preferred story. What does it mean to make this story more real or the main focus over the grand narratives? There needs to be more philosophical discussion on the idea of meaning as both forms of therapy have as a major emphasis on meaning making but they just come at it from different angles and different projects. The question could also be asked are these two different therapies as compatible as this author suggests they are. If not, why not? And is there a way forward?

As this story (theoretical positioning) comes to a close it is important to remember that these are questions and not absolute truths. The story can still be changed by adding subtle detail and subtracting the distractions. The one thing that can be stated is that narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy are strangers traveling the same road.

1. Bugental, James F.T. (1999). Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think: Bringing the Psychotherapeutic Engagement Into the Living Moment. Phoenix, Az.: Zeig Tucker & Theisen Publishers.

2. The Social Construction of Reality. (2009, July 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:46, July 8, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Social_Construction_of_Reality&oldid=301080937.

3. Spanos, Williams V. (1993). Heidegger and criticism: Retrieving the cultural politics of destruction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

4. Theory of multiple intelligences. (2009, August 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:07, August 4, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theory_of_multiple_intelligences&oldid=306033977.

5. Yalom, Irvin D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.