This little parable about a farmer and his water pots is a good narrative metaphor for how our self-narratives can make or break us:
A farmer carried his two pots to the river to collect water. On his way home one day, one of the pots said to him:
“Farmer, I have a crack. When we get home from the river, I am only half full. I have become useless. You must replace me with a new pot.”
The farmer replied: “When I look at the path to the river, I see green sprouts coming up on the side where I carry you. I think I will keep you.”
The farmer offered the pot a new way of looking at its values, capabilities and potential. By changing its perspective, the pot was able to change its single self-narrative and add new layers to it. Its narrative moved from feelings of worthlessness, to having a renewed purpose in life.
Narrative arts therapy helps us to express and reframe the multiple stories we tell ourselves in beneficial, healing ways. It helps us to distance ourselves from our story, reflect and understand the thought patterns that shape the layered stories we carry inside of us. Brain scientist, Dr David Eagleman, describes it in this way:
“All the experiences in your life, from a single thought to your broader culture, shape the microscopic details of your brain and therefore your stories. Neurally speaking, who you are, depends on where you have been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry. Because your interpretation of your experiences is so unique, so are the vast, detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches end point.”
“Our thoughts, dreams memories and the stories we carry within us, all arise from the brain’s neural material. Who we are is found within its intricate firing patterns of electrochemical pulses. When that activity stops, so do you. When that activity changes character, due to injury or drugs, you change character in lockstep. Unlike any other part of your body, if you damage a small piece of the brain, who you are is likely to change radically. To understand how this is possible, let’s start at the beginning (Eagleman 2017)”.
Since the moment we are born, our human brain allows itself to be shaped by the details of our life experiences, accumulating multiple layers of story.
The human brain comes into the world with some amount of genetic hardwiring, for example, breathing, sucking. caring about faces and the ability to learn their mother tongue. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, human brains are unusually incomplete at birth. The detailed wiring diagram of the human brain at birth gives very general directions for the blueprints of neural networks. The individual person’s world experiences fine-tune the rest of the wiring, allowing it to adapt to the local details. Throughout our childhoods, and less so during adulthood, our local environments refine our brains and sculpt our stories.
Human beings are able to change and adapt. Here is a simple illustration in the form of an old Persian tale.
One morning, a grandson asked his grandfather why he was looking so unhappy. The grandfather replied:
“My heart is divided into two and fighting with each other. The one side is angry. The other side is peaceful.”
His grandson replied: “Which side will you feed Grandfather?”
The story seems to ask: who is in control? Do we have a choice in how we feel? What does it mean to ‘feed’ an emotion? What happens when we choose to stop feeding an emotion?
Narrative therapy offers us philosophical and psycho-social tools to map out our story and look at it from different points of view. This process helps us to recognise our narrative patterns, reflect on them intelligently, chose what direction we want to take and what we want to feed. In the process, we learn life-long skills and become better equipped to change and re-construct stronger, meaningful personal narratives.
Brain scientists call this process of change and adaptability to circumstances plasticity. Something that can be shaped, and hold that shape, is what we describe as plastic. Your experiences in life change your brain – and it retains that change. Art-making and Narrative Therapy help you to learn the skills to re-configure your brain constructively and therefore change your problem narrative.
One of the leading 20th century psychologists in the global Narrative Therapy movement, Michael White, had this to say about people’s problem stories:
THE PROBLEM IS THE PROBLEM.
THE PERSON IS NOT THE PROBLEM.
Narrative Therapy helps you to separate yourself from the problem and view it from a distance. This space offers you a bird’s eye view to yourself and helps you to recognise what it is you would like to change and transform about your life story.
To book an appointment, call Carlin at the Corner Health Centre in Fish Hoek at 021 782 6958.
For an online zoom consultation, call + 27 (0)833925153.
Dr Marlene Winberg | marlenewinberg.com | Design by True Identity