The Stories We Live By

Sometime life just does not make sense. There are moments, despite our best intentions, that we find ourselves reflecting on our self and our relationships and trying to work out how we arrived at this point yet again. Such moments can often be inflected with loss, pain and confusion. We tell ourselves we know better, we will change, we will be different and yet we might continually find ourselves with familiar feelings and experiencing familiar situations. The good and the bad of the human condition is our complexity and the conflict that this can create. People present in therapy with many questions, am my feelings ‘correct’, why won’t my partner change (put the bins out!), why do all my relationships end the same way?

One of the most painful moments in therapy can be when we recognise that we have a stake in our own sadness, are part of our own difficulties, whether individual or relational. We all find it difficult to reflect upon the parts of us we would rather deny, perhaps our fear, hate, guilt or aggression; it is far easier and satisfying to see these in others, especially in such uncertain and turbulent times. Following closely from Lacan, Zizeck suggests we enjoy our symptom, rather than seeing therapy as a project in which we sanitise ourselves of the ‘bad’ bits, it is an act of radical acceptance wherein the kernel of our suffering we might find hope and meaning.

There are many ways through which we might come to understand our personal and relationship dynamics and to begin to reflect upon how they are helpful and unhelpful to us. Many different strategies and approaches exist to help clients appreciate this and then change, if that is desired. One approach that speaks to our cultural location is through the use of story, as Young-Eisendrath notes “I use stories to guide me in understanding what I cannot grasp in reason” (1984: 9). Story and metaphor are powerful ways in which to see those aspects of ourselves and our relationships that would rather stay hidden or unconscious.

As we grow we are told many stories some may be parochial and short, “boys don’t cry”, “if you play with it will drop off/you’ll go blind”, “if the wind changes you’ll stay like that”, etc. Whilst these may not be a story in the traditional sense of having a beginning, a middle and an end, they link back to those types of stories. The one’s that intimate sexuality is bad, especially female sexuality (Little Red Riding Hood) or one’s that construct certain ways of being as ‘ugly’ or ‘beastly’ (Beauty and the Beast, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and in need of either transformation or death.

Understanding our story can help us reclaim the lost parts of ourselves and also see where assumptions and fantasies help perpetuate our shame and act as barriers to relating and intimacy. Do we long for an encompassing and symbiotic relationship, a return to Eden as Hollis (1998) discusses or perhaps we think we can sculpt a perfect mate from the raw material of our partner, a modern-day Pygmalion. Therapy is a process in which we tell and live our story and sometimes these relate to others much older than ourselves. Such stories can help us unpack our relationship dynamics see the bully in our hero, the hag in our Cinderella and begin to question those parts that are devalued within ourselves and in our relationships.

Through therapy we can begin to deconstruct ourselves and the stories we live by, doing so helps us to understand ourselves and our cultural location whilst beginning to bring these into question. Working with diversity means understanding how we are affected by social discourses of race, ethnicity, sexuality and heteronormativity and through this develop new narratives that can aid are development. By helping us to rethink these things therapy destabilises us, as we become more ‘real’ to ourselves and others, relationships may change, develop or end; here therapy’s goal is to live a fuller more fulfilled life, an outcome that is defined by the participants rather than fixed or predetermined.

Antony Johnston MSc, UKCP Reg.
Alumni LDPRT

Hollis, J. (1998) The Eden Project: In search of the magical other: a Jungian perspective on relationship, Toronto: Inner City Books

Young-Eisendrath, P. (1984) Hags and Heroes: A feminist approach to Jungian psychotherapy with couples, Toronto: Inner City Books

The views and opinions expressed in these blog posts are held by the author(s) and are for general interest in the field. These blog entries do not attempt give advice to the reader, they are for educational and information purposes only.

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