I’ve been spending some time going back over some of the work I did in my studies this semester, attempting to synthesize and solidify my learning from multiple courses and reflecting back on some of the key moments of realization I experienced. I wrote a couple posts ago about narrative therapy, which is based on social constructionist thinking and the work of Jean Piaget. The idea is that we create meaning based on how we perceive the environment around us. If I grew up in a social environment in which I was taught that the sky is green, I would believe that the sky is green until convinced otherwise. We see evidence of this all the time, such as when two people experience the same situation in a very different way. I often have discussions with my wife in which we have very different memories of the way in which a particular situation played out. Does that mean one of us is wrong, or simply that we perceive differently?
According to narrative thinking, these perceptions form the narratives or lenses through which we continue to interpret future experiences. When these narratives guide us to interpret experience in unhealthy ways, we tend to get bogged down with problems. This is where re-authoring comes into play.
The notion of re-authoring highlights one of most amazing evolutionary adaptations of the human brain: we are able to change the way in which we perceive reality. It is when we lose site of this ability that we feel stuck and unable to move forward. What could be more self-empowering, and more indicative of the ability to effect change, than the realization that we can actually change the way in which we perceive our story, thereby changing the way we experience our story, and thereby becoming empowered authors of our own stories.
A young man set out to walk upon a path. While on the path, he encountered other walkers. One was an elderly gentleman who required the aid of walking sticks in order to make the walk easier on his aging body. Another was a young woman who walked with an animal companion for comfort and for safety. Yet another was a pair of lovers in their middle age, holding hands and smiling gently as they remembered how it felt to be young and imagined how it would feel to be old. All of the walkers came from different regions, spoke in different tongues, believed in different gods, and devoted their respective lives to different causes. They each experienced the path in a different way, at times even walking in opposing directions.
And yet, they all walked the same path.
I have been in finals mode for the last couple weeks: staying up late and sleeping in, showering only when I remember to, not keeping my beard well-groomed and, much to the chagrin of my bride, not doing a great job keeping the house in cleanly order. But I always like this time of the year, especially when the final projects involve a synthesis of learning and reflecting back on the content of the semester. One of the projects I completed this semester was a Genogram, which is sort of like a family tree but with therapeutic details like relationships that are distant or fused, mental health and substance abuse issues, loss and grief, etc. Along with the assignment I wrote a reflective piece and I thought I’d share part of it here. It feels slightly odd to share something this personal in a publicly visible place but I decided long ago that part of my writing and career would always be to maintain a brutal sense of honesty and genuine vulnerability. Besides, it’s not like anyone actually reads this thing.
I spent some time on the phone with my father as part of this project and gained a fascinating perspective about my motivation to build a career in the field of psychology. I was raised in a fairly conservative evangelical Christian tradition that I later rebelled against. I felt forced to believe something that never made sense to me. This has created an occasionally contentious relationship with my father as I struggle with the faith tradition to which he has committed his life’s work. One of my lifelong concerns has been a desire to build a career and accomplish things that would elicit pride from my father, the desire of any son. I tried both of his career paths, church ministry and teaching public school, and neither one of them fully made sense to me. One of the biggest things that excites me about a career in psychology is that my job will never be to convince anyone of anything. Rather, my role will be simply to listen, provide education, and try to objectively empower and guide people toward making their own decisions. I was raised in a faith tradition that taught me the only way to truly save people was to convince them to believe in Jesus. That was so exhausting for me and I lived under a constant state of chronic stress that I wasn’t doing enough to save the world in the name of Jesus. It has been hard for me to understand how my father could be happy in that type of ministry. I was inadvertently projecting my own baggage onto him and his life’s work.
I learned that a few years ago my father completed a similar project as part of one of his classes in a Doctor of Ministry program. In talking with him about the project, I understood why Christianity is so important to my father. It’s the same reason Psychology is important to me. It helps to make sense of life. My father saw multiple people in his family experience redemption through Christianity, leading to more healthy and fruitful lives. The story of and belief in Jesus was redemptive for him and he has helped many other people throughout his life to experience that same healing and redemption because it also made sense for them. What was redemption for him, however, resulted in feelings of bondage for me. I felt bound to behave a certain way, to believe certain things, not ask certain questions, and get everyone in my life to think and believe the same way even if it didn’t really fully make sense to me. I just needed to have faith and press on.
As it turns out, my father and I are quite similar though our paths may look different. His job is to meet with people individually and provide counsel, share teachings to larger groups on a regular basis, and publish his thoughts in writing. That is exactly what I want my career to look like. The process will be the same but the substance will be slightly different. Conceptualizing my relationship with my dad in this way allows me to move beyond my boyhood desire for his approval and begin to learn from him as a fellow adult. As I move beyond those boyhood insecurities and feel confident in my career choice for myself, I begin to see that there is much I can learn from my father. He has spent the last 20 years ministering to people and has countless lessons from which I can learn in my quest to build a successful career in Psychology. I hope that we can continue to learn from each other.
I just finished writing a paper on family narrative therapy and it got me thinking about the nature of reality. Here’s an excerpt:
Narrative therapy is based on social constructionist thinking, which purports that meaning is not something that simply exists; rather, we construct meaning and our specific ways of understanding the world based on the interactions we have with our environment. The consequences we experience from these interactions teach us, at a young age, certain principles and established truths about the reality in which we live. These established truths then influence the way in which we interact with our environment in the future. Subsequent experiences can challenge, confirm, or alter our understanding and continue to construct meaning. Often we as human beings are indoctrinated into narrow ways of thinking about ourselves and the possibilities that exist for us. The meaning that we construct based on our experiences can often result in narratives or schematic frameworks that we utilize to continue interpreting future experiences, thereby extending the problem-saturated story. We also are often influenced by oppressive cultural narratives, which tell us how to properly function in gender and various other roles. When the stories that we adopt lead us to perceive experience in unhelpful ways, we tend to get bogged down with problems. The goal in narrative therapy, then, is to alter these stories in a way that results in more healthy and productive ways of interpreting experience.
Merriam-Webster.com defines neurosis, in part, as a mental disorder accompanied by a less distorted perception of reality than psychosis. Which, to me, begs a question. If we all perceive reality in slightly different ways because of our experience-based schematic framework, aren’t we all just a little bit neurotic?
I was listening the TED Radio hour today (as I’ve become accustomed to do lately while attempting to get my ass into shape on runs). This particular episode was called “Unstoppable Learning” and featured a discussion with a Psychologist named Alison Gopnick who introduced herself by saying “I study babies and young children and what they can tell us what it means to be human. After all, we’re just babies and young children that have been around a little bit longer”. I was fascinated to hear Dr. Gopnick describe her research, which suggests that the minds of babies are like the minds of “the most brilliant scientists”. It reminded me of some reading I did back in undergrad about the activity in a young child’s brain and how they are capable of more learning at that stage than any other but do not yet have the adaptive skills to communicate it in a way that we as adults are able to understand. I was most fascinated when Dr. Gopnick started to talk about an experiment she ran in which she presented a baby with crackers and broccoli. She made facial expressions and used vocal inflections to communicate a distaste for crackers and a preference for broccoli. When she asked the baby to share with her, to give her some of what she liked, he gave her broccoli. Dr. Gopnick stated that this shows the child going beyond empathy; it suggests a journey into altruism in which the child is actually taking the perspective of another person into consideration.
At the end of this particular interview, Dr. Gopnick said something that really hit me, “if what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time, we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children”.
What was it that Jesus said about letting the little children come to him? Only children can enter the kingdom of heaven?
What if heaven was when we all saw the world like little kids, without the rigid boundaries that we have set up for ourselves? What if we could truly understand other people’s perspectives? Lion laying down with a lamb? What if heaven could happen now?