The Personal-Story Approach

Article excerpt

The Personal-Story Approach presented here instructs psychotherapy clients how to listen intelligently and courageously to their own accounts of the events and experiences of their lives, as well as how to listen carefully and compassionately to those with whom they seek intimate connectedness, The approach provides clients with the armamentarium to recognize and face their self-deceptions and the means to work them through in their quest for personal authenticity. A case example is provided.

"A man is always a teller of stories. . .he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story."

-Jean-Paul Sartre

We present here a psychological strategy for psychotherapeutic work that is concerned with the crucial existential question that each of us, unwittingly, tries to answer for him or herself: How should I actually live my life?

We contend that each of us in our own way responds to this challenge by means of personal stories. Personal stories are the narratives that we tell ourselves and others that arrange the events of our lives in an episodic order-that is to say, our personal tales relate our experiences in a story format with a plot that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, together with an implied moral-namely, a personal judgment that evaluates our experience.

We tell stories about ourselves because each of us is a natural-born storyteller. On the basis of considerable empirical evidence, developmental psychologists (1-6) contend that the maturation of our sense of self and our narrative capacity constitute the same process of identity formation. Indeed, there even seems to be some evidence that our personal narratives are products of a built-in function that our brain employs to make sense of both our inner and social experiences (5).

Consequently, as meaning-oriented beings that evaluate the events of our lives, our personal identity is constituted in ways shaped by our judgments about our experiences as expressed by the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us.

Accordingly, we all have, if not a favorite story about ourselves, then certainly we harbor several prototypical stories that have direct bearing on how we respond to the world-in regard to its resources, opportunities, and challenges, as well as the scenarios we have composed about the various impediments to the attainment of our desires.

On the basis of our clinical experience (one of us, C.G., a psychologist and psychoanalyst, the other, V.C., a social worker involved in the treatment of seriously medically ill patients) it seems to us that to meaningfully respond to the question we posed above- about how we should live our lives- we must discover aspects of our self that we have not fully considered or of which we were previously unaware. We refer to this uncharted domain of our personality as our undiscovered self.

THE UNDISCOVERED SELF

Each of us has a right to an enlightened, cohesive self. An enlightened self, however, is not provided for us ready-made. It is tested first by our willingness to enter the shadows of the greatest mystery any of us will ever face: Who am I as a human being? Carl Jung claims that we deny our dark side at extreme risk, because that which we do not bring into consciousness appears in our lives as fate. His notion is that a person's past inescapably clings to him or her, and if the shadows of some of these events seem too terrifying to examine, the cast of their shadows become that person's eventual destiny.

Accordingly, since obtaining knowledge about ourselves may be the most difficult task we ever face, the great challenge of self-exploration is finding the courage to follow our personal journey in search of our undiscovered self wherever and however it may lead us through the deep venues of our hearts and minds. Consequently, curiosity about ourselves is a crucial concern for each of us-regardless of our level of education or psychological sophistication-who seeks personal enlightenment and an advanced consciousness. …