The Power of Transforming Your Story in Psychotherapy

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This is the 5th in a series of posts about how clients can use depth psychotherapy effectively. For an introduction see my post 10 Tips to Make Therapy Work for You, and for a complete description of these 10 tools see my book: I'm Working On It In Therapy: How To Get The Most Out Of Psychotherapy.

Whether we're aware of it or not, we live our lives based on certain fundamental stories we tell ourselves: stories about how we came to be who we are, stories about what life and people are like, and stories about the best way to live. Some of these stories work well for us, others don't. Part of our work in therapy is to connect the dots between the different aspects of our lives to determine the patterns and themes that have evolved so that we are aware of the stories we live by -- and so that we can create better ones if we need to.

Here's what I mean by connecting the dots: Notice the similarities between the events you discuss each week in your sessions, the experiences you have in your sessions, and the stories that emerge in your dreams. As you connect the dots the bigger picture will begin to emerge. If you can identify two or three themes that have the most impact on you, that will help you to connect your work in session with life outside of session.

For example, let's imagine a client named Sherry. For three weeks in a row Sherry spoke about different people who had let her down after she had treated them well. She noticed that she wasn't completely sure that she could count on her therapist to help her get out of her depression, even though she knew that her therapist cared about her. Then she dreamed that she cleaned her mother's entire apartment, and her mother walked away from her.

Sherry was able to pour all of this out spontaneously in her sessions, and then stand back and identify the common factors: generosity, trust and disappointment. Then she connected the dots to outline her story: "I believe that we should all be generous and return generosity, but, because of what I've been through, I also believe that I will always be disappointed because people won't -- or can't -- help me." It was understandable she was depressed; her story left her in a seemingly unsolvable bind.

Sherry's story was painful enough in itself, but what made it worse was that she had unconsciously been behaving in a way to prove this story most of her life, giving to others even when she knew on some level that her generosity would not be returned. It was as if she were saying "See? See what it's been like for me?" Further, it seldom registered with her when people did help her.

Once she became aware of this, over time she was able to create a new story that went something like this: "While I have been disappointed by many people, if I consciously decide who to be generous to, some of them will return it. Some people may not return it -- and that's OK -- but most of the ones I choose will."

Ideally a small number of themes describing the struggles you experience will emerge from your sessions. If you feel that you walk into therapy each week and tell your therapist about different episodes that seem disconnected, then it's time to connect the dots. How does that incident with your boss connect with the way you relate to other people and what you went through with your family and how you relate to yourself? Ask your therapist for help in seeing these underlying themes.

I tend to focus on the present in my work with clients -- what they're feeling as they sit with me in my office, and the issues that they're currently facing in their lives outside of session. But I believe that it's also usually helpful to understand why certain themes developed when we were young. No childhood was perfect, and we all wrote stories that helped us to adapt at the time, stories that helped us to deal with difficult circumstances. But those stories often don't work as we move into adult life.

We developed many of these stories to cope with our caregivers' shortcomings. While some people had relationships that lead them to believe that people can be trusted, many others learned to survive by avoiding closeness, surrendering, complying, competing, dominating, or controlling other people.

But some of the stories we tell ourselves have less to do with early caregivers and more to do with archetypal patterns that humans have lived out for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. Sometimes we get pulled into these patterns without being aware of it. We may identify with Hercules and try to power our way past everyone and everything in our lives, or with Cinderella, hoping that our virtue will eventually pay off when a Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming comes to the rescue. These archetypal patterns are still very much alive today and may show up in the films and books that move you, in how you relate to your therapist, and the themes that emerge in your dreams.

Once we identify a story that doesn't serve us well, we can choose to let go of it, develop a new narrative, and live more consciously. Letting go of the old pattern may require persistence and some sacrifice. Living by the new one may require developing conscious intentions and courage.

But changing personal stories is possible. Neuroscience has shown that we can build new neural pathways that override the old ones. By noticing patterns and themes in your sessions, along with the empathic presence and insight of your therapist, you can reshape your narrative so that you can lead a more fulfilling life.