Exploring Feminist Narrative Therapy: Chapter One

The power of meta-narratives: A personal account of the political

Artwork by Scott Murphy
Artwork by Scott Murphy

The Power of Meta-Narratives: A Personal Account of the Political

With just a mere glance at the history of Psychology, one can’t help but notice the influence of the political climate on the various therapeutic modalities, diagnostic practices, and models of mental health. As the clinical field was dominated predominantly by white men within Western patriarchal societies, so, too, was the ‘treatment’ of mental health issues. Therapy sprang from an aim to ‘cure’ women, LGBTQI communities, people of colour, etc.

Reading about the history of how therapists participated in upholding oppressive structures left me disheartened. The story I was hearing revealed a familiar but disconcerting pattern. It revealed a story rooted in the powerful and privileged silencing the powerless using their profession as a tool throughout each century, whether done wittingly or unwittingly. Although there has been much change in the field of psychology since the establishment of psychiatric institutions in the sixteenth century, therapy is still constantly impacted by the socio-eco-political climate that surrounds it, whether it wants to or not. The story of therapy is in a sense constantly entrenched in a re-authoring process (or creation of alternative story-lines)— its’ narrative varies depending on whose hand is holding the pen, and more importantly, from which vantage point the story is being written or revised.

At the beginning of my journey as a learning therapist, I was enthused to be a part of this re-authoring process.  I was filled with hopes and dreams of combining activism and advocacy in my future practice. When I began seeking out new learning outside of the classroom setting, I realized how dense problem stories are in actuality. The dominant cultural stories surrounding us—also known as meta-narratives—have a strong grip on our own, personal stories, and this is partly what Feminist Narrative practitioners are curious about.  I began noticing just how powerful these meta-narratives were—effacing, editing and censoring any stories of resistance. I saw these potent and forceful meta-narratives occlude the values and principles of friends, colleagues and classmates. I became, and still am, fearful of the power that these insidious narratives carry.

For the learning therapist and client, an example of an active meta-narrative of considerable influence regards the measuring of our therapeutic work through the lens of success or failure. Both therapist and client can feel discouraged when overt change (as per the prescribers definition of success) does not seem evident. We can become sidetracked with our own stories of concern and fall into measuring our work through dominant ideas of what constitutes improvement and what does not, without exploring why we have had this binary view of the therapy process, and where it comes from.  We may neglect to consider the deeper meanings and effects that the binary of success or failure might hold.  Instead, these problem stories can take hold of both the therapist and client. We can carry our own problem-saturated stories of guilt, incompetence, and the idea that “I failed”, but we forget that there is a world out there much bigger than the therapy room and the work within those walls.

I believe that sometimes we can lose our grasp on enacting our values and principles because these meta-narratives are tightly grasping us in turn. What I am discovering to quiet and quell this dominating voice, feels to be an act of resistance and it comes, I am experiencing, with practice. Social justice theories are great concepts, but I am interested in how i can hold and engage it in action. How can we re-author stories and speak over the voice of these meta-narratives? I am thankful that I have found a place at ProChoices that allows us to explore these concepts not only in theoretical discussion, but in practice, both in our own lives, amongst each other, and with all of you. We are learning how to explore therapy and what it stands for so that it is written by the community, not solely for the community.

Written by Alisha Gori (Sept 2016 Cohort) and the ProChoices team.

Alisha Gori (Learning Therapist, Group Coordinator, Researcher/Writer) began her journey with ProChoices as a volunteer leading a research project that explored therapists’ understandings and meaning involving collectivist intention, unified values and principles, and the activity of individualism. The research data synthesized from her work project has made a contribution to the development of the ProChoices Clinic Council. Alisha later joined ProChoices as a Practicum student while completing her MA of Counselling at Adler University, and fell in love with the learning and practice of Feminist Narrative Therapy and the mission and guiding principles of the ProChoices Community Clinic. Alisha continues to work as practicing certificate program graduate therapist at ProChoices, co-facilitates client groups and offers her experiences as a learning therapist with other ProChoices therapists and in a blog series, exploring all aspects of Feminist Narrative Therapy from client, therapist, and a life-long student perspective.