Stories and Selves

View from the TrainI have written often about the restorative, healing power of story. Much of the work I do as a psychotherapist is engaged in narrative explorations. Very often, folks who request aid with a life challenge are struggling to understand multiple, often competing stories about identity. Our job together is to examine those stories and their meanings and influences, and to seek out stories that open a way forward that is true to the person and their values.

It is easy to forget just how all-encompassing narratives can be. The other day, in the midst of a family session, one of the family members noted that another seemed to be struggling with shame. I was thunderstruck. I had spent many hours, stretched out over several years, with the person who was wrestling with shame. Somehow, I had become entranced by the client’s label as a person with a major mental illness, and missed the dominating influence of Shame. Yet, once the meta-narrative of mental illness was upended,  possible pathways towards healing became apparent. Suddenly there were more interesting, and potentially more healing, story lines to explore.

Our culture tends to isolate mental health in the consulting room. That is, we don’t like to talk or think about the influence of social forces on the mental, emotional, or spiritual health of our people: individuals, families, and communities. Yet, social forces, especially economic forces, play an enormous role in the self-esteem of people. This is especially evident in the consumption focused societies of North America. (For a thoughtful discussion of shopping as pseudo-therapy see Juliana Farha’s post, Retail Therapy.)

Of course, there are many places throughout the world where shopping therapy is not an option, and social and economic forces assume crushing intensities. One such nexus is the slum.  Having spent time in India and Brazil, as well as in North American inner cities, I have some, if limited,  firsthand experience with slums and the folks who live in them. Even so, I have, at times, found myself entranced by, and my perceptions shaped by, the dominant cultural narratives about slums and “slum dwellers”. Such places and people are described as dangerous, dirty, impoverished, and transitory.  They are, all to often, situated close to hazardous waste sites and other dangers generated as byproducts of the affluence surrounding them. (See, for example,this powerful post from Global Voices about the impact of waste plastics and medical refuse on the people of Pakistan.)

These descriptors are sometimes accurate, and almost always woefully insufficient. A more encompassing view of slum life must include densely connected communities, persistence over decades of time, and histories of rich cultural production. Yet, these counter-narratives are often suppressed by dominant political and cultural institutions. Such erasure of the real life stories of slum based peoples and their communities serves to keep slum dwellers in poverty, and their communities fragile, and at risk from violence, illness, and urban development schemes.

Still, around the world people are flocking from the countryside to the cities, into the waiting arms of the slums. Every year tens of  millions of people join the migration, seeking jobs, education, and an end to poverty. Now, new media are allowing slum-dwellers’  stories to be told,  often in their own words. (To learn more, take a look at slumstoriestv.)

Narratives are immensely powerful in shaping our lives. Whether these narratives are stories others tell about us, stories we use to explain our lives to others, or simply the many versions of identity we spin in our minds, their influences run broad and deep. At our best, clinicians, activists, and socially engaged new media producers play a role in the way folks tell and understand the deep stories of their lives. Sometimes we do this well, and the door is opened for healing and truly liberating change.

Do you have deep stories to share? We’d love to hear them.

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2 thoughts on “Stories and Selves

  1. I’ve been reading a lot about ‘shame’ recently – shame versus guilt. It’s something I saw a lot of when I was working with kids in out-of-home care. They had what I called “an all pervasive negative view of self”. The shame deriving from a lack of a sense of personal worthiness, an absence of ‘belonging’.

    Dr Bryan Post and Dr Dan Hughes write about shame as it relates to children.

    Shame needs to be opened right up and talked about a lot more. I see a lot of children with a deep sense of shame due to punitive parenting practices. The shame leads to more extreme behaviour from the child which is met with more inappropriate adult responses. It quite often leads to trauma.

    With positive parenting, all of this can be avoided. You are right, when people realise they are functioning from shame, the healing process can begin.

    Timely post Michael.

    • Hi Narelle,
      Shame is, indeed, a powerful social force. We parents often forget that we are embodiments of social beliefs and conditioning, and society works through us to inculcate children. Yes, all too often this is accomplished through shaming.

      Learning to forgive ourselves for our short comings (those in others’ eyes) is a good road to walk.

      Thank you for your shared thoughts. I look forward to your comments.

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