We build reality when we relate to others through language. The process of knowing is inherent in us. How we are is how we tell ourselves we are. This is the art of narrating life. Gonçalves claims that cognitive-narrative psychotherapy seeks to optimize the way in which we narrate ourselves.
Just as physics has focused on finding all the elements that constitute the essence of matter (such as atoms, protons, and neutrons), psychology has sought to answer questions such as what constitutes behavior. Are emotions the essential element? Or, is it thoughts? Cognitive narrative psychotherapy claims it’s everything: behavior, emotions, and thoughts, all spun into the fabric of our conversations.
“Being narrative isn’t a choice, it’s who we are, it’s connected to how our brain is designed.”
– Gonçalves –
Psychopathology is a social construction
Diagnostic systems are a reflection of cultures, people, and the thinking of mental health experts at a particular historical moment in time. The problem, for cognitive narrative psychotherapy, is the product of the difficulties we have in creating narratives that coherently capture the complexity of our existence.
The difficulty of narrating our lives
For Gonçalves, narrative difficulties can be produced by three aspects:
- The content. There are people who are trapped in stories that systematically repeat themselves. They’re like broken records. However, as human beings, we need a variety of experiences and flexibility.
“A good example is found in people with depression. They have a tendency to repeatedly tell the same story from which they’re unable to escape.”
– Gonçalves –
- The structure. As human beings, we try to find meaning in our lives. That said, we’re not told that, in order to do this, we need to feel that we’re the authors of our own existence. To try and find meaning, we seek to give internal coherence to each of the stages of our experience, so that our experiences ‘fit’ with each other.
“The coherence between stories builds our identity. The absence of this coherence in our experiences makes us lose the feeling that we are the authors of our lives and we perceive experiences as separate, split, and broken.”
– Gonçalves –
- The process. Sometimes, to try to feel coherent, we reduce the richness with which we narrate our stories. We might talk about some things, but ignore others. For instance, a person with depression may think that they’re incompetent and unworthy of being loved by anyone. They ignore the fact that, when they’re okay, they’re well-known for their hard work. Consequently, their friends worry about them and their capacity to enjoy the little things in life.
Narrating life through cognitive-narrative psychotherapy
Cognitive narrative psychotherapy seeks for the client to acquire a narrative attitude. In other words, to build a discourse that’s rich, with various contents and nuances. Furthermore, a discourse that’s complex and coherent. By doing this, the individual remains open to the full complexity of their experience.
The therapist is completely ignorant as to what the client should achieve or think. However, they’re quite expert at helping to promote changes in the way their client narrates their life. To do this, they employ various techniques that allow the client to develop a narrative attitude.
- Memory is the ability to record the circumstances of life, in the form of episodes. In fact, they’re like the chapters in a book. Organizing their experience in this way allows the client to structure it and differentiate certain chapters from others.
- Objectification is the ability to explore all the sensory richness that experience gives. If the client can immerse themselves in everything that they’ve lived through and that they’re living now, they’re able to narrate their life in a more complex and diverse way.
- Subjectivation is the ability to differentiate and diversify the emotional lived experiences (past or present). It allows the client to enrich their inner experience.
- Metaphorization is the ability to construct many meanings from their experiences. For example, María, a person who comes to the clinic with a diagnosis of depression, focuses her memories on episodes in which she felt abused and exploited, first by her brothers and then by her husband. With the help of the therapist, she concludes that she’s ‘a kind of Cinderella to whom life owes a Prince Charming’.
- Projection is the ability, thanks to the past, to foresee the experiences of the future.
A narrative therapy
Cognitive-narrative psychotherapy is a highly structured narrative therapy, in which sessions are planned in advance. It’s designed so that it can be applied in 15 sessions. The first one is dedicated to establishing the objectives and explaining the work system. In the second and third sessions, they work with memories. Finally, from the fourth, work with techniques begins.
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