Cognitive Narrative Psychotherapy: The Hermeneutic Construction of Alternative Meanings

Article excerpt

Cognitive psychotherapies are experiencing dramatic conceptual changes. An increasing constructivist orientation along with a narrative model of the knowing processes is apparent in the most recent developments in cognitive theory. These changes demonstrate the need to develop new therapeutic methodologies able to effect deep changes in the knowing processes. This article tries to address these issues by presenting an illustration of a new therapeutic methodology hereafter referred to as cognitive narrative psychotherapy.

Cognitive therapies are undergoing important changes (Gonçalves , 1989). Among several dimensions of change, the following are worth noting: (1) a shift from a rationalist towards a more constructivist philosophy (Mahoney, 1991); (2) a shift from an information processing model towards a narrative model of the knowing processes (Gon çalves, in press; Russell, 1991); (3) a shift from an emphasis on conscious processes towards an emphasis on unconscious dimensions of experience (Kihlstrom, 1987); (4) a shift from an emphasis on strict cognitive processes towards an acknowledgment of the emotional dimension of experience (Greenberg & Safran, 1987a, 1987b); (5) a shift in therapeutic methodologies from personal and logical procedures to more analogic and interpersonal strategies (Gon çalves & Craine, 1990; Guidano, 1991; Safran & Segal, 1990).

Central to all these changes is the core theme of cognitive theory-the problem of mental representation. That is, how do individuals come to mentally represent information about themselves and the world? Two conflicting positions are currently apparent regarding the nature of cognitive representations: the rationalist paradigm and the narrative paradigm (Bruner, 1986,1990; Lakoff, 1987; Mahoney, 1991; Polkinghorne, 1988; Russell, 1991).

The rationalist paradigm states that: (a) Humans are mostly rational beings; (b) thoughts are constituted by an algorithm computation of abstract symbols; (c) the manipulation of abstract symbols obeys the principles of a universal logic; and (d) reality is seen as a puzzle accessed only through reason and logic. The narrative paradigm, on the other hand, states that: (a) Humans are seen as storytellers; (b) thoughts are essentially metaphorical and imaginative; (c) the manipulation of thoughts is an intentional pursuit of meaning; and (d) reality is seen as a set of ill-structured problems that can be accessed through hermeneutic and narrative operations (Lakoff, 1987).

The narrative conception of mental representations advanced by recent cognitive theory (Bruner, 1990) calls for the development of new therapeutic methodologies able to effect deep changes in the knowing processes. This article attempts to address these issues by presenting and illustrating a new therapeutic methodology hereafter referred to as cognitive narrative psychotherapy.

I will begin with a clinical description of a client1. Next, the main features of cognitive narrative psychotherapy will be presented and illustrated.

THE CLIENT

Fernando1 came to the University Counseling Services complaining of persistent academic underachievement, and difficulties in concentration and memory.

Fernando is a 23-year-old single college student. His parents own a small business. His mother was described as an accepting person, very concerned with his school achievement, valuing the importance of an education that she was not able to get for herself. Fernando's father was presented as a cold and distant person, always very involved with his work and exclusively focused on ensuring a stable financial situation for all the family. Fernando is the eldest of five children. He described a good relationship with his two sisters and two brothers. However, the relationship between him and his family has been mostly affectionless across his life history.

The client did not describe any significant problematic occurrences before college. …