Angus & Greenberg's book "Narrative in emotion-focused therapy" (3rd post): narrative modes & phases
Last updated on 5th April 2012
In the last post in this sequence "Angus & Greenberg's book ... (2nd post): narrative types & modes", I began exploring Angus & Greenberg's recent book "Working with narrative in emotion-focused therapy: changing stories, healing lives". I talked about their model of "three narrative types" (external, internal & reflexive) and introduced the first two of their "five processing modes" - (a) awareness & contextualization of emotions, and (b) symbolizing emotions. I'd like now to look a little more at the further three processing modes - (c) narrative construction of emotional experience, (d) transformation of emotion and story outcomes, and (e) identity reconstruction. I then want to go on to discuss their four phases of therapy.
First though, here is Angus & Greenberg's explanation of (c) narrative construction ... "The third processing strategy entails the conscious articulation of narratives in which symbolized feelings, needs, self-experience, thoughts, and aims are clarified and organized into a coherent story. Reflection on lived experience and its organization into an unfolding narrative enable the experience to be fully understood and accepted as part of a life story ... The reflexive system is a conscious, controlled level of emotional processing that generates 'cooler' emotional representations (i.e. emotional representations with lower arousal levels) and provides higher level conceptualizations of who did what to whom. It creates a storied understanding of what happened, what was felt, and what it means." And still using what I feel is both "jargony/clunky" and "helpful/descriptive" language, they say "People's self-reflections are generated both bottom up by emotional and sensorimotor processing and top down by conceptual processing in which self-understandings incorporate more socially acquired cognitive views that were obtained from others and inferred from past experience ... Finally, the narrative organization of emotional experience enables people to coherently articulate and share their personal experiences with others and increases the likelihood of receiving support from others in time of need." This is interesting territory. The importance of both "self-reflection ... generated ... bottom up by emotional and sensorimotor processing and top down by conceptual processing" rings so many bells and links across to so many other related fields. One example is the well known Kolb/Lewin "Learning circle of experience", another is the literature on reappraisal as an emotion/self-regulation strategy described, for example, in the post "Reappraising reappraisal", a third is the finding in Yalom's groupwork research that people who benefited most were those who both became strongly emotionally engaged and also took time to reflect & learn from what had happened, a fourth is the distinction between the effects of verbal exploration and imagery exploration (see the lower diagram in the post "Emily Holmes & imagery"), and a fifth is Whelton's assertion that "There is accumulating evidence that both the in-session activation of specific, relevant emotions and the cognitive exploration and elaboration of the significance and meaning of these emotions are important for therapeutic change" - see the post "EFT workshop series (eighth post): internal critic dialogues - practice points".
I have a mini "Aha" experience around this material. I know very well how a top-down understanding of a situation is so often emotionally cool and fairly fixed. To challenge and potentially change this "accepted story", going down into the richness, unknowness, and emotional heat of one's internal felt-sense allows a melting of the "accepted story" and a bottom-up re-forming into a fuller, changed understanding. Just as the hot cross-currents of emotion in response to an as-yet-not-fully-processed upsetting experience can so helpfully be cooled and settled by beginning to "understand" through the lens of a useful theoretical/conceptual model. As Kurt Lewin put it "There's nothing so practical as a good theory", but also maybe, nothing so limiting as a fixed, assumed theoretical understanding that isn't open to the hot melting of new information. I see this, for example, in working with conflict between myself and another person. While we each stay behind the protective ramparts of our already fixed understanding of the situation we are unlikely to get further than a cool diplomatic appreciation of the other person's position. When we are wise enough, experienced enough, and brave enough to go down into our felt-sense around what has happened, then a much deeper, more authentic, more heartful connection and healing has the chance to take place. As Wendell Berry put it in his poem "The country of marriage" -
"Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in."
Or as I wrote about the intimacy of "enquiry" in the post "Different kinds of group, different kinds of friendship" - "It's like dropping down a well or over a cliff. I've tried in the past, talking from a more intellectual, "heady" space. It's dissatisfying, at least for me. So in this enquiry process, I very deliberately sink down into my body and my feelings, sharing what emerges - a process of "not knowing" and "finding out". These are at levels five to seven on the well-known "Experiencing scale". This kind of "intimacy" and closeness soaks into my body. It profoundly changes me." Fascinating. Of course it's not new, but I find emotion-focused narrative therapy's map of three narrative types (external, internal & reflexive) and the construction of meaning from the melting space between internal & reflexive narratives very helpful.
What about "(d) transformation of emotion and story outcomes"? This is more typical EFT territory. The authors write "In EFT, a maladaptive emotional state and the meaning it conveys are transformed by activating a more adaptive emotional state. A shift in emotional response activates specific action tendencies that result in new story outcomes ... In addition, a key narrative change event occurs when clients shift from expressing secondary feelings, such as reactive anger and blaming, to experiencing primary adaptive emotions ... ". Plenty of opportunity here to use classic EFT interventions like focusing, empty chair, and two chair work. And in "(e) identity reconstruction" they comment "Therapy then is a process of clients coming to know and understand their own lived stories and articulating them as told stories - and in so doing, changing their stories. In the process of articulating and reflecting on life experiences in psychotherapy, personal narratives become deeper (i.e., fused with emotional meaning and significance) as well as larger (i.e., taking more information into account and becoming more integrated) ... In a narrative-informed approach to EFT, the self is thus seen as being constructed continually, in an ongoing, self-organizing process." Some years ago I explored what it was like to be a client in therapy. It was very helpful to experience the therapy process from "the other chair". It's a good description of what I experienced - "In the process of articulating and reflecting on life experiences in psychotherapy, personal narratives become deeper (i.e., fused with emotional meaning and significance) as well as larger (i.e., taking more information into account and becoming more integrated). And it wasn't just that. There was something that felt very important about crisscrossing across the landscape, the countryside of my life and life history with a loving, appreciative, empathic, insightful fellow traveller. The therapist as mother, as friend, as fellow explorer seems so important too. And the process brings light, like spring coming on the landscape. I was very happy and doing well before I started the therapy, and the process did add something, did allow sunshine on old shaded places, gave life. Yes, it's good. It does in many ways feel to me that "The self is ... constructed continually, in an ongoing, self-organizing process".
And in what I find a somewhat clunky but informative way, the authors go on to say "We now delineate four phases of narrative-informed EFT that provides a guiding framework for the effective application of the dialectical-constructivist processing strategies described earlier. These phases are (a) facilitating bonding, narrative unfolding, and awareness; (b) facilitating evocation, exploration, and articulation of narrative themes; (c) facilitating transformation of emotion and new story outcomes; and (d) facilitating consolidation and narrative reconstruction. Furthermore, key narrative-emotion tasks occurring within and across stages are distinguished by specific client narrative process markers. These narrative markers are outward signs of an inner state of interest in, and readiness to work on, a partiuclar problem ... We believe that EFT therapists can help facilitate productive narrative change by undertaking specific interventions to address different narrative-emotion markers that will be addressed fully in the second half of the book."
(This diagram is downloadable both as a Powerpoint slide and as a PDF file).
More to follow ...