What's your story?

The Power of Story-Telling in Therapy and in Life

On my recent trip to Nicaragua, I learned at least two things: 1. That when looked at from a Venezuelan/ Nicaraguan socialist perspective, the US is a country of police brutality and moral decay, and that, 2. Spirit Airlines are not stingy with their amenities, they are just engaging in “frill control”. Funny how reality changes when you tell a story differently…

A Cultural Lesson on the Power of Story-Telling:

Nicaragua is currently a country that receives a lot of financial aid from the Venezuelan government, due to their mutual sympathies toward a kind of socialism practiced by the now deceased political leader, Hugo Chavez. For that reason, you can find posters that pay homage to the former Venezuelan in places all over Nicaragua. You can also, I discovered, watch unadulterated TV transmitted straight from Venezuela.

When I would settle in at night after a long day of sightseeing in the tropical heat, I would turn on the TV in my air-conditioned hotel room, and would find myself fascinated by one particular Venezuelan station and the entirely different world-view presented there.

The US was on this channel depicted as quite morally depraved. The evening’s news included a segment on police brutality against civilians in various places in the US, presented as if it were breaking news.

The news was followed by a theme show featuring all the wonderful socialist initiatives of the Venezuelan government: First you saw how many modernized apartments were being built through the decree of the government, and then coverage followed of other government initiatives: workers would now be able to pay fair prices on everyday goods due to government intervention, the environment was now being saved through nation-wide programs to plant trees…. The initiatives were seemingly never-ending…

Every segment introduced one hopeful initiative after another, and the clips were always of people doing things together – collectively – making political decisions about what kind of society and destiny they wanted. This was a society that valued people and community over and above raw capitalism, and it reminded me a little bit of the Obama campaign’s “Yes, we can!”, which had that same kind of optimist spirit, before it lost its fizzle.

After watching this Venezuelan station for just 30 minutes I was left with an indelible impression of optimism, although a part of me of course knew that this was quite a different spin on reality than the one I had typically been presented with. From a North American perspective, Chavez was always depicted as somewhat of a selfish dictator, and socialism, of course, always depicted as bad.

However, crossing cultural boundaries, not just geographically, but mentally, is quite eye-opening. It made me think of the power of stories as a mediator of the reality we experience, the emotions we feel, and the actions that become conceivable. It also made me think of the tendency of stories to hide their story-like nature behind a presentation of facts.

The Venezuelan news station was not consciously telling stories, but merely reporting facts, and many of the stories we tell in the US media, to ourselves, and to others, have that same pretension to transcend their story like nature.

The Story of Psychological Disorders

The idea of the unadulterated fact is, however, itself the product of a story: the story of the enlightenment or of science. According to this story, we can access reality purely as it is in itself outside of the logic of a certain story line and pre-understanding. And yet, as hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer has pointed out, even science takes place within a prior understanding of the world. There is never such a thing as approaching the world without making certain pre-judgments or assumptions about it.

A research study about the effectiveness of a certain therapy for Bipolar Disorder for example, may seem like it is only reporting facts (looking at quantifiable variables and measurements of probability), but it is assuming an illness model of psychological distress which is not itself part of what is studied. An illness model, of course, is a story about why people suffer that attributes the suffering to a disease process or cause underneath the actual life of the person, and is by no means the only possible story.

The medical or biological view of psychological distress has a particular strong-hold in our current North American and European zeitgeist. People are always wondering: Do I have ADHD? Am I Borderline? Do I have a psychological disorder? …As if assigning a label and naming one’s suffering as a generic underlying “thing”, solves the problem, and alleviates the discomfort of figuring out why I suffer in some more human or existential sense.

And yet, these “entities” which we like to label ourselves with are themselves largely the product of stories. What appears to be science and is presented in an officially sanctioned diagnostic manual (DSM) as if it were, is really the product of a political process of debating different research studies, naming conventions, and inclusion criteria. Psychological Disorders are voted into existence. The other side of a disorder is all the contentious opinions that had to be tabled in order for the construct to appear as an independently existing noun.

Therapy as Story-Telling

Rather than try to fit people into categories of a medical story, therapy offers a space where alternative stories can be told. Therapy as a “talking cure” is really about telling your own unique story. A person is helped to unearth memories, feelings, and experiences that sometimes pose challenges to existing stories, and require the reorganization of one’s understanding of oneself and of the world. The medical narrative is here often a hindrance that disallows people from pondering the idea that symptoms exist for a reason, that feelings contain useful messages, and that our bodies express that which we cannot yet say.

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And so it is that a trip to Nicaragua made me wiser about the power of the stories we tell and about the need to examine the stories we live as our own personal and cultural truths.

The Venezuelan government has their story…

Spirit Airlines has theirs…

What’s your story?

About me: I am a psychologist in Houston, Texas who likes to think outside the box and is committed to helping people find their unique personal truths. Read more by visiting my website.

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