The nature of stories

The story metaphor is one of many possible ways of enabling us to make sense of our experiences. Rather than viewing some metaphors as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’ or as less or more correct, we could ask the question, which metaphors are useful in creating contexts for liberation? Moving away from metaphors of human beings as machines that work well or break down, narrative as a metaphor has transformative power, because stories are constructed and can be deconstructed and reconstructed. This metaphor is not predicated on there being an objective reality. It is fluid rather than static, requires authors and audiences (a community), tellers and listeners, and is therefore inherently social.

The word ‘story’ has different associations and understandings for different people, not all of which are positive or enabling. Stories are often associated with childhood, with theatre, drama and entertainment. Stories are also associated with less useful concepts for a collaborative therapy, such as fabrication, fantasy and triviality. In a narrative sense stories are simply the events of our lives, linked in a sequence across time in a coherent way and in accordance to a plot (Morgan, 2000).

In order to author a story, certain events are selected out and privileged over other events. Once privileged, they are linked with other events across time, to form a story about a particular issue such as ‘being difficult to love’. When a person goes to see someone in the ‘psy’ field, often the stories they have for their lives have become dominated by problems that oppress them - what narrative therapists call problem-saturated stories. Problem- saturated stories can also become identities that have a powerful negative influence on the way people see themselves (for example, ‘I’m unlovable’). There are always other events that are outside of this dominant story that remain hidden or less significant. Because our lives are multistoried - that is, there are many stories occurring at the same time and different stories can be told about the same events - no single story can be free of contradiction and no single story can encapsulate or handle all the complexities of life (Morgan, 2000).

From a narrative perspective people are never the problems they face, and there is always a context in which the stories of our lives are formed. This context of gender, class, ‘race’, culture and sexuality contributes to the meanings that we give to events and to the plot of the stories by which we live (Morgan, 2000). For example racism and sexism, and my responses to them, have impacted on my life in ways that have both strengthened and challenged the story that I am not lovable. How we tell our stories is also important. For example, we might tell and live our stories as though: the end is predetermined; the end is yet to be written and we write the end; they are accurate descriptions of an unchanging reality; or reality is fluid and subject to revision. We might tell stories as if they are devoid of cultural and political context. We might tell stories that leave out our agency and responses to our experience. We might have difficulty telling our own story while being profoundly open to the stories other people tell. The client in therapy is assisted to develop a different story and a different way of telling stories that might better fit how they want to see themselves and live their lives (Pearce & Pearce, 1998).

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