Re-membering Conversations and the “Saying Hullo Again” Metaphor

hulloRE-MEMBERING CONVERSATIONS AND THE “SAYING HULLO AGAIN” METAPHOR

For those not familiar with the idea of “re-membering conversations,” it is a Narrative practice associated with the notion that a person’s identity is shaped by their experiences with other people and their contexts. In summary, re-membering practices aim to acknowledge “members” in a person’s life–from their past, present, and desired future. In therapy, a re-membering conversation would make it possible for the person consulting a therapist to explore all the memberships in their lives–those from the past that have shaped their story and identity conclusions and those in their present that encourage the performance of such identities. Through a process of exploration and revision of these memberships of life, the person is able to make informed decisions that will influence their preferred future realities.

Maybe it is because I have too many members in my club of life, but re-membering conversations have always been a Narrative practice that I have found challenging to fully and openly engage with. Not that I don’t connect with the idea or practice, I think it is the complete opposite, I might connect emotionally with it so much that it causes discomfort. When I was younger, I left many people behind as I chose a different path in my life. Over the years, I have failed to reconnect with these people. As a consequence, I would say I kind of abandoned some aspects of my story when I moved away. But I also know that some of the members of my club of life are the keepers of those stories and perhaps I am just not ready to accept those stories back into my life, but I want to one day. Despite this, I am willing to allow myself to experience discomfort and continue welcoming re-membering conversations and practices into my life and into my work because of the potential for growth that exists within these practices.

When I first learned about re-membering as a practice of Narrative Therapy, I thought what I believe most therapists typically think, that it is just about reconnecting with past experiences, journeys, and people in your life. Instead, re-membering conversations are more about the relationships one establishes throughout one’s life and the contributions these relationships have made and continue to make to one’s always developing identity. This makes the process of re-membering quite intricate actually, but it also makes it more important and valuable. In my practice, I have learned that persons truly begin to believe important aspects of their identities that may have been neglected or overlooked as a result of a problem-saturated narrative when they can see themselves through the eyes of another. For some reason, it makes a differenceーit presents evidence of different identity conclusions that persons oftentimes are able to quickly connect with. And this is why I love this process, but at the same, I wonder if that is what makes it it anxiety-provoking.

I started seeing someone who lost a child to suicide. We have been working together for almost a year now. The “Saying Hullo Again” metaphor has been invaluable in our work together. Engaging in a re-membering conversation about their loved one was not easy at first, but with time, I learned that these conversations were allowing my client to experience their loss in a way that fit with how they wanted to grief. Through these conversations, I got to know my client’s loved one–my client’s words and the stories he shared about their relationship were influential in this. The “Saying Hullo Again” metaphor taught me that my client’s loved one was a talented and kind young person, and I wished I had gotten to know him. These conversations made it possible for us to acknowledge all the contributions that my client’s loved one continues to make in the lives of those who knew him. By allowing these new knowledges to be present in our therapeutic conversations, I helped my client to freely appreciate the life of their loved one and to honor the contributions they made to their life, the life of others, and their community. The truth of the matter is that these conversations often invite the dead to be present in the room, and this experience is life changing for the therapist and those consulting the therapist. My client has found comfort in not having to let go; and instead, now they are looking at ways to integrate their loved one, the new knowledges about them, and the pain of never again being able to see or touch them into new and exciting (yet unknown) journeys in their future.

I truly believe none of this would have been possible without the experience of a re-membering conversation through the “Saying Hullo Again” metaphor. I believe that re-membering conversations of this kind can be a window into persons’ most valued hopes and dreams for themselves and their future. I find these conversations to be life changing. Because of that, I think that these conversations deserve to be engaged in carefully and respectfully. I also believe that one must feel ready to experience a life change and oftentimes we are not there just yet. When I think about this, I wonder how my own journey will change and develop in the future as I continue moving towards a re-membering conversation of my own.

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Narrative Questions

Narrative Conversations Denver

Narrative Questions

Mauricio P. Yabar, LCSW, M.Ed., CST

Most of us therapists have been trained to praise and affirm persons who consult with us in therapy. We have also been told that we must be empathic and practice compassion. Unfortunately, our training left out one really important skill, crafting and asking good questions. In therapy, I have often sat across from persons not knowing what to do next; and most of these times, I felt guilty. But the truth is that like many other therapists, I didn’t get taught good interviewing skills. Once graduated from school, we can recognize a great deal of knowledge on theory and pathology. This is inevitable the lens through which we assess persons seeking our help. Next time you feel stuck and don’t know what to ask next, remember that it’s not your fault, and that you can get there with practice.

There is no doubt that a therapist’s primary tool is his or her questions, and many of us don’t have enough experience with this. Think of someone attending music school and not being taught how to play an instrument. Or a chef whose training relies on learning recipes and not actually cooking food. it just wouldn’t work. Questions and good interviewing skills are essential for effective therapeutic work.

THE ART OF QUESTIONS

Crafting a good question requires creativity. Every human being has the ability to be creative. So therefore, learning to craft beautiful questions is quite possible. I have learned to view therapy interviewing skills as an artistic expression. An artistic expression requires active commitment. In a therapeutic conversation, the artistic expression that lives in our questions can stem from our commitment to our work. In addition, I believe that art has the potential to create more art expressions through inspiration. If therapeutic questions were crafted artistically and creatively, there would be a great potential for persons to expand their story in artistic and creative ways. When this takes place, possibilities are endless.

Therapeutic Conversation Transcript:

Th: Can you tell me how you were able to maintain good grades in school despite this problem’s repeated attempts to keep you from your hopes of graduating high school?

P: I guess I’m a really good liar. I have found really good ways to lie to people and get away with it. Never been caught… I guess, that’s my bad side.

Th: What makes it possible to lie to people and get away with it?

P: I don’t know, my personality. I’m pretty smart.

Th: Peter, would you be willing to describe how you’ve come to see yourself as pretty smart?

P: I pay close attention to everything, you know. People think I don’t care and I’m not listening, but I always am. My parents think that I don’t listen and that I don’t care because I’m arrogant, but that’s just a mask I put on.

Th: Can you help me understand what do you notice happens when you put on this mask?

P: People get off my back. I think that because they think I don’t care, they stop nagging me about things.

Th: Can you tell me a story about a time when you felt you were being nagged about something, but then you chose to put on the mask?

P: My mom thought I had stolen something from her, I don’t remember what it was really… But anyway, she was attacking me non-stop. She just kept coming to my room and just nagging me about it, you know? I wanted her to stop. I really hadn’t taken anything from her! [takes a deep breath] So I put my shoes on and just walked out the house. I had a smirk on my face the whole time, but I really wanted to cry, you know? I put that arrogant mask on and that’s why I was smirking, and it pissed her off even more, but eventually she stopped (gets teary-eyed.)

Th: Peter, can you imagine what could have happened if you hadn’t put on the mask?

P: I would have just cried like a baby. I mean, I cried but after I left the house. I got in my car and drove for a while> Eventually I pulled over and just cried…

Th: Peter, if those tears had a voice, what do you think they would be saying to you about your experience of being accused of something you didn’t do, and having to put on the mask?

P: They would tell me -why are you keeping me trapped inside? why don’t you just let me out? I need to come out, please let me out- you know? [starts to let the tears out]

Here, I am trusting my questions. I really don’t know where they’re taking us, but I am not overly concerned about this. Of course, my questions could have been much better, but I was more invested in crafting them artistically and creatively. I gave Peter’s tears a voice and invited them into the room. Peter followed by engaging his imagination and allowing himself to story his experience. This therapeutic conversation led Peter to understand that the arrogant mask was not only a way to stop the nagging, but also a protective shield.

The questions could have led us in many different directions. I noticed several entry-points to richer story development: getting away with lies (resourcefulness), his hope of graduating school, walking away instead of fighting, viewing himself as smart, etc. I avoided getting too excited about the appearance of these entry-points and instead kept my focus on creative crafting.

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THE RELATIONSHIP WITH QUESTIONS

I recently attended a training in Vancouver that focused on crafting questions. The trainer asked us to think about the relationship we would like to have with our questions. In Narrative Therapy, we believe in the notion of people having relationships with everything and anything they come in contact with. Although I could understand what the trainer meant, it still caused me some confusion and even a bit of anxiety. I remember returning to my apartment after the training and reflecting on this idea without coming to any resolution.

We did a lot of role-playing the second day of training. As I was practicing my questions, I finally realized what the trainer had meant the day before when he asked us about the relationship with our questions. To establish a relationship with my questions meant to connect with my intentions. I concluded that at least in my situation, not having a clear understanding of the intentionality behind my therapeutic interview questions is a factor that contributes to questions that limit and even obstruct the process of storying.

So I have begun to reconnect with my intentions. In this process, I am recognizing that I what I want out of the relationship with my questions is trust. I want to trust that my questions will be authentic and help people move toward their values and their hopes. I also want my questions to challenge false information that many people have been told about who they are and what their place in this world is. I want to trust that my questions can be powerful enough to challenge the harmful social and cultural discourses that contribute to people’s problems.  I was reminded of the many adolescents who see me for substance abuse issues, who continue to relapse, and get clean again; and how most of these relapses are caused or influenced by factors out of their control such as their health insurance not covering certain services. This is just one example of the many roadblocks that influence people to misinterpret their own experiences. I want my questions to uncover these oftentimes hidden processes.

Why I Love Storying

Why I Love Storying

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What most people may not know about me is that I have loved stories all of my life; not just my own, but so many other people’s as well. I recall being infatuated with fairy-tales and soap-operas as a child. I spent hours in front of the television, watching characters developing themes across the life of the show. I remember being able to capture these plots; but at the same time, the curiosity about what else was there to the stories I was witnessing unfold. I was recently advised to read literature to help me develop more artistic ways of constructing inquiry for the purpose of rich story development in therapy.

Most if not all children are extremely curious, that’s how they make meaning of the world around them. In my case, my curiosity never went away. As I got older people always told me to “mind my own business,” and I couldn’t. I was genuinely interested in the why, where, how, when about everyone’s life. I was constantly expected to change this “personality trait” of mine; and I just never understood why it was so wrong to want to have a rich description of people’s stories.

I think I was about 10 when I bought a notebook and started writing stories. I wrote stories about fictional characters. I remember running out of space because of how detailed these stories were. I remember feeling like there was always more… Now I understand that I didn’t want to tell incomplete stories about these characters; although fictional, they deserved a complete description of their experience. I became fascinated with my characters’ plots and themes. So here’s the thing, I never knew how this storytelling appreciation would come in handy as a therapist until I learned about Narrative Therapy.

My current work has helped me reconnect with one of the most significant experiences in my journey. Therapy has also allowed me to embrace this curiosity about stories that everyone often complained about. And I keep embracing stories, now with a very important purpose and a strong commitment to help.

 

HOW CAN STORIES HELP YOU?

If you could tell all the stories about you; those from the past, those happening simultaneously as you read this, and the possible stories for your future–what do you think could happen? The answer is really easy, you wouldn’t miss a thing, your story would be complete. Sadly, this is close to impossible. At the same time, it is worth the try. The more we try to tell all our stories or perhaps reposition ourselves to tell one story from a different angle helps in strengthening who we are. In this process, we attempt to acknowledge all of what we are, opening ourselves to new discoveries, reconnecting with forsaken values, and becoming more self-aware. The most important gift that comes from storying is the infinite possibilities for what you want your future to be.

 

A WORD ON NARRATIVE THERAPISTS

I take this very seriously. Becoming a Narrative practitioner is not easy; it is one of the most difficult things I have worked on, which I am still working on and developing. It takes many years of discovery and a lot of practice. Not only does it take a long time to truly understand Narrative ideas, but it takes a lot of effort to apply these ideas to clinical practice. The art of Narrative inquiry doesn’t come any easy. A skilled Narrative therapist is an artist, and I really mean that, as storying is extremely skilled and quite difficult to do. Other Narrative therapists know exactly what I mean. Not only that, but we also march to the beat of our own drums in a field that only celebrates one-size fits all, and only tolerates us.

This is an approach that not just everyone can do. It takes so much practice and dedication. I am not saying that I am better than others or smarter by any means, and I understand that it may come across this way. I am still learning, I will always be learning. Becoming a Narrative therapist has taken me a lot of time, effort, money, and commitment. I have a strong desire to pass on the legacy of storying to others and I am committed to do it well, and I can only achieve that by training, and training hard.

If you are interested in consulting a Narrative therapist, make sure the therapist is not just calling themselves that. Make sure they are trained and know how to practice the art of Narrative therapy and storying. It takes more than choosing a niche.
I will end this story by acknowledging that I think any other mental health professional who is passionate about whatever approach they use and who has made the commitment to strengthen their skills through training, is worth checking out. Not only do I admire them, but I would trust their work wholeheartedly.

Therapeutic Conversations ’13

THERAPEUTIC CONVERSATIONS ‘13 / VANCOUVER, BRISITH COLUMBIA, CANADA

Reflections by Mauricio P. Yabar, LCSW, M.Ed. / April 28, 29, 30, 2016

The Therapeutic Conversations conference met all my expectations and more. On this blog, I will discuss my impressions about some of the workshops I attended, reflect on the Narrative ideas discussed, and share about my personal takeaways from the experience. My comments in this blog will be a reflection of my personal and emotional response to the workshops, the presenters, and the discussions had. I will also discuss my stance in relation to the ideas introduced and further developed at the conference.

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I will start by saying that I met so many brilliant people from the international Narrative Therapy community. Some, I’d heard or known about prior to the conference; and others, I had the pleasure to be introduced to their work at the conference for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised by the community. I was quite satisfied about most of the workshops and presenters. I was challenged by some of the new ideas explored, and perhaps at times, underwhelmed by a few aspects of the conference. It was actually ideal to have this sort of balance when taking part in something like this.

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First Nations Ceremony

Perhaps some of you are familiar with what a First Nation ceremony is, but I wasn’t before the conference. The conference took place in Vancouver where the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy is. The First Nations ceremony was a gesture of respect for the natives of this land. The ceremony was about honoring the ancestors and asking permission to have the conference on their land. They invited a Native American elder and his granddaughter to perform the ceremony. They danced, sang, and gave permission for this year’s Therapeutic Conversations conference to begin in Vancouver. They blessed all attendees and our journeys at the conference. They ended the ceremony by wishing us well upon our return back to our homes. It was quite emotional. I felt part of something significant. This was a necessary gesture that symbolized respect while embodying the spirit of Narrative Therapy.

David Epston

Days before the conference, I received an e-mail informing us that all attendees would be divided into small groups so we could discuss our feelings and thoughts about the presentations of the day. I learned that David Epston himself would be in my small group. For those of you who don’t know who David Epston is, he is one of the founders of Narrative Therapy, along with Michael White. Unfortunately, David was only in my group the first day; I don’t know what happened the other days—that was sort of disappointing. Nonetheless, it was an honor and one in a lifetime opportunity to discuss my thoughts and ideas in Epston’s presence. At the end of our small group discussion, David approached me and asked if he had met me before. He insisted that he knew me and asked “are you sure?” You can imagine my reaction. Here is one of the most respected and influential Narrative Therapy person, talking to me and saying he has met me before. I of course, respectfully and anxiously explained that I didn’t think this was the case. I thought I would have more opportunities to talk to him, but sadly, I didn’t. I dream that there will be other opportunities in the future.

The Narrative and the Stories (Presentation by David Epston and Arthur Frank)

I had the honor of attending one of David Epston’s presentations at the conference. It was an honor to hear this man talking about the ideas he developed alongside Michael White. He was accompanied by Arthur Frank. Arthur Frank followed David’s ideas and work for many years and wrote about this. David shared the story of how they met each other and became acquaintances. If I remember correctly, David kept referring to their relationship as “professional stalking” –quite similar to what I have been doing to those Narrative scholars I idolize such as Jill Freedman or Bill Madsen. Arthur Frank talked about the differences between a narrative and the stories. This idea resonated with me because it served to organize my thoughts about Narrative Therapy and how Narrative ideas can be most helpful when applying in practice. Arthur talked about a narrative being the platform for the stories. This can be easily illustrated with the following metaphor. A narrative is a blank canvas and the stories are all the images, colors, and writings on that canvas. Therefore, people have the ability to tell their narrative by coloring their stories in whatever ways they prefer. The metaphor makes this idea much richer.

I also had the opportunity to watch some videos of David Epston doing therapy with clients while Arthur Frank deconstructed his work. It was quite interesting to watch. They collaborated about the therapy process, the questions that David asked, and deconstructed the clients’ stories to demonstrate the thickening of the person’s narrative. It was actually quite lovely to witness. Overall, this workshop was one of my favorites. I didn’t know about Arthur Frank’s work before the conference, but after hearing him talk and deconstruct David’s work with clients, it was evident to me that this is someone whose work I must begin to familiarize myself more with.

Marcela Polanco on Translating Narrative Ideas into Other Languages

I already wrote a whole blog on this, but I wanted to share about the professional impact that Marcela’s talk had on me. I focused more on my personal and emotional responses in my previous blog about Marcela’s talk. Marcela’s presentation covered so many crucial aspects of this work; however, I will only talk about one here. She discussed the difficulties of translating Narrative ideas into other languages. Marcela opened up about her struggles communicating with clients in therapeutic conversations. Example of questions that came up included: How to ask about this? or How to expand the story? I also had several questions going through my mind. In addition, I had questions about my own challenges around culture (which you can read more about in my previous blog—My Story Starts with “Soy de Perú.” I was transported to sessions with Spanish-speaking clients when I knew exactly what to ask, but didn’t know how to do it. During these therapeutic conversations, I didn’t know how to translate Narrative ideas into Spanish; and I’m sure, I still don’t. It was refreshing to hear that others also have this struggle and are willing to talk about it. I think this is a work in progress. Perhaps, the idea of translating Narrative ideas into Spanish is something I can work on myself. I will have to say that everyone at the conference simply fell in love with Marcela and what she brought to her presentation. It was evident that everyone felt engaged and was mesmerized by this presentation.

Poetic Counter-Storying (Presentation by Kay Ingamells)

I first learned about Kay at the conference. Kay is from New Zealand and has a thriving private practice there. I was signed up to attend a different workshop; but this had been canceled last minute. I had the option to attend any of the other workshops available. I chose to attend this one without knowing what to expect. Kay was engaging in the way she presented counter-storying and also clearly passionate about her work. I was pleasantly surprised by her ease with Narrative ideas. I heard that Kay enlisted the help and supervision of David Epston to polish her skills as a Narrative therapist. I think this is pretty cool and speaks to Kay’s professionalism and commitment to this work.

Kay used a metaphor to illustrate counter-storying in therapeutic conversations which really resonated with me. She described the process as “opening a door leading to a room full of more doors, and having the option to open any other the doors.” Those who know my clinical work know very well that I love the use of metaphors and that I use them in practice quite a bit. This is usually how I learn too. Kay’s metaphor was a precise representation of how counter-storying can develop in therapeutic conversations with clients. Kay showed us several videos of clients she worked with. Kay showed a video of a session with a teenage girl, who I will name Cait in this blog. Kay’s ability to build a relationship with this girl in one or two sessions was unbelievable. As perhaps many of you know, there is a great deal of therapeutic letter writing that is involved in Narrative Therapy. Kay told us that we could write Cait a letter if we wished to do so. That day, I went back to the apartment and thought about what to write to Cait. The next morning, I wrote a short note which I will keep personal and not share here. I handed this note to Kay and she said “Oh she will love it.” I hope she does. I love writing notes and letters to clients. It’s one of my favorite ways to build strong therapeutic relationships.

Kay has such interesting charisma about her. I have to say, I was a little intimidated at first. She approached me in the hallway and I didn’t know what to say. I probably didn’t make a great impression, but that doesn’t matter!

Based on her presentation and the videos shown, I gathered that Kay is an extremely talented and effective therapist. I hope one day I have the opportunity to work with her in some capacity. She is a Narrative therapist and author who I hadn’t heard about before the conference; but I was quite impressed with her. I will definitely look more into her work.

Narrative Questions and Therapeutic Letter Writing (Stephen Madigan, David Nylund, Erling Fidjestol)

In this workshop, Madigan interviewed Erling Fidjestoy (a Narrative scholar from Oslo). Attendees were put in pairs to work on developing questions to assist enhance the therapeutic conversation between the presenters. They paused a few times during their conversation, and had us contribute with our questions—this process was mostly facilitated by David Nylund (Therapist and author in Sacramento). The interviewee would then choose a questions that most resonated to him. He answered the questions and the therapeutic conversation continued this way. What I loved the most about this process is that it felt as if everyone was an essential part of the therapeutic conversation.

I am returning to Vancouver later in the year to participate in a Narrative advanced training. I understand that we will be participating in a similar process at the advanced training. I’m sure it is going to be great. It’s really an exceptional learning experience.

Weaving Narrative in Organizational Culture (Nina Tejs Jerring and Bill Madsen)

This workshop focused on the use of Narrative Therapy in agencies and organizations. They talked about the complexities of using Narrative in agencies, where there is often an emphasis on “evidenced-based models” such as CBT. I loved this presentation because it gave me great ideas as to how to continue implementing Narrative ideas in my work. Many of you know that I also work at an outpatient clinic in a hospital.

Nina and Bill started this workshop by describing the idea of welcoming and inviting people. Nina had candles and cookies to create this inviting space. She called this process INSERT DANISH WORD, which is a word that means “welcoming” or “making someone feel special.” I was pleasantly surprised with this. I was inspired to do this in my practice with clients. I will find out what that word was and share in the future!

There was so much useful and helpful information at this workshop. Nina is a Child Psychiatrist who manages a small team at a hospital. She talked about protecting her team from upper management and administrative requests, which often stresses therapists out and distracts them from their actual work with clients. She used the metaphor of “holding the umbrella” to create an environment where the therapists on her team feel comfortable and committed to their practice with clients because Nina is protecting them. This metaphor resonated with me as I have a similar experience at my job. Our team leader, who is also a Child Psychiatrist, holds the umbrella for us; and it is really awesome. He creates space for us to grow and focus on the therapy and not what gets in the way of it.

Nina and Bill Madsen also described the process of “inspiring” other professionals, as opposed of forcing our ideas on them. I talk to people about Narrative Therapy a lot; but I know they will have their own worldview and gravitate toward a philosophy that makes sense to them. The best way to make others respect what I do is to inspire them by sharing aspects of my work, accomplishments, and failures (for a lack of a better word). I am known for sharing my forms and handouts, doing presentations or workshops for free, and sharing whatever resources I have. I also celebrate other professionals’ accomplishments and validate their work and the approaches or models they are passionate about.

Lastly, they talked about treatment planning using a Narrative approach. They described treatment planning as “visions” for the future. They talked about opening space to identify resources and barriers that could help or get in the way of the process. In agencies, we often think of goals and objectives and step by step methods to “meeting goals.” These treatment plans also focus on measurement and evidence—as if therapists in agencies had time to do any of this… I’m just being realistic.

This workshop was my favorite. There were not many attendees, which perhaps made it more intimate and engaging. Nina and Bill were really great together. They made us feel very comfortable. I was particularly impressed with Nina. She was not afraid to be vulnerable. This is rare in accomplished speakers / presenters. She was really fantastic. I will make sure to connect with her and hope to attend another event with her in the future.

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This whole experience was life changing. The conference was moving, inspiring, and motivating. This is all I expect when I go to this sort of professional events. I can’t wait for next year’s conference. It was a pleasure to be part of this, and it felt very exciting to be part of this community. I met other Narrative Therapy lovers, from David Epston, the co-founder to students just finishing their masters program—every single one of these people, very passionate and infatuated by Narrative ideas.

 

 

 

My Story Starts with “Soy de Perú”

 

I recently attended the Therapeutic Conversations conference in Vancouver, BC, which left me with so many emotions about my work and the future of my professional development. Most importantly, there was one speaker that truly touched me. She left me experiencing rather peculiar emotions, but these were not just about my work, most of these emotions were personal as well, and perhaps too difficult to communicate through words, but I will try. Her name is Marcela Polanco, a professor and psychotherapist residing in San Antonio, TX. Marcela’s talk was not only beautiful, but life changing. There was someone in the conference who shared that her life changed in positive ways as a result of Marcela’s presentation the previous year, quite powerful.

The things that struck me the most about Marcela was 1. her genuineness and authenticity at the podium and 2. her understanding about the complexities of translating Narrative ideas into other languages. As a bilingual therapist, this has been one of the most testing experiences in my work. Although English is my second language and Spanish my first, using Narrative ideas in practice in Spanish doesn’t come naturally or easily by any means–Marcela knows about this struggle first hand and was brave to share her thoughts about it. There is one more thing that stuck with me; one which I could not stop thinking about throughout the whole conference. I will speak to this in this blog. (For reference, Marcela’s talk was at the very beginning of the conference.)

As those who know me personally or perhaps professionally know, I was born in South America and was raised in Perú. My mother is Peruvian and the man who fathered me, Cuban. I always struggled explaining my heritage to people who asked. Here was this lighter skin guy with curly hair and a thick accent; “he can’t be from here,” those American friends would say. My Spanish-speaking and Hispanic friends were also confused about me; why I looked the way I did, and how come I sounded the way I sounded. I never cared about any of this; however, it slowly created a distance between my cultural identity and myself.

Why is this important and how was Marcela’s talk relevant to this? I am going to try to answer this, but please, bear with me a bit. During her talk, Marcela seemed so proud of where she is from, her heritage, and the stories that connect her to her land–Colombia. Her deliberate use of some Spanish words and confidence while speaking to a room full of brilliant mental health professionals and academics was mind-blowing. All of this made me realize something. I rarely say “Soy de Perú” when asked. And why is this the case? Have I completely disconnected from my roots and the stories that remind me of who I truly am and how I became to be me?

I thought about the stories of my country, the people of my country, and the history of the country. I thought about all the narratives that have been told with the purpose of maligning and degrading my country, Perú. Some of these stories included, but are not limited to Peruvians being dirty people who wear dirty clothes and never take showers, Peruvians being disrespectful to one another and others, Peruvians being loud individuals who often result to fighting to get anything accomplished, Peruvians being ugly people with poor manners, Peruvians living off the government and not having jobs, Peruvians being uneducated and only working in factories, among others which are really not worth even mentioning. I want to apologize about this list because I know many of these stereotypes are not only untrue, but they are incomplete. However, I believe it is important to include in this paper for the purpose of making my point.

These stories convinced me that perhaps, it was not a good thing to be from Perú, and so I would say to myself, “Well, I am not really just from Perú, I am also Cuban and was born in Venezuela.” It was in that precise moment, during Marcela’s talk, that I also decided to call bullshit on myself–“bullshit” I said; and I heard my own voice in my head loud and clear. Yes, I was born in Venezuela and yes, my father is Cuban; nevertheless, I grew up in Lima and my family is from Lima. This land nurtured me and shaped me to be who I am today.

As a result of my  internal experience during Marcela’s talk, I am eager to reconnect with my roots and to allow those stories I know about Perú to be spoken of by me, on my own terms. Next time you see me, ask me to tell you stories about what it means to be Peruvian. Stories that highlight evidence of infinite strength, like when the entire people of Perú fought to expose corruption in the government and accomplished the resignation of one of the most corrupt presidents that led the nation; or stories of perseverance, such as my friend’s parents who despite having a physical disability, moved away and left those they loved behind in order to provide my friend with a better education and future, or stories of celebration and happiness, like the people of Chincha, Ica, an Afro-Peruvian town that welcomes all visitors with open arms and a glass of refreshing Chicha. I can always tell you about our food. For instance, have you tried Papa a la Huancaina? it’s a creamy, spicy, and cheesy sauce that’s smeared on boiled potato slices, or how about Causa Rellena, a mashed potato casserole with chicken salad, one of my favorites. Most people don’t know that we have a special type of food that mixes Chinese and Peruvian ingredients called Chifa–you can find an endless number of Chifa restaurants in Lima’s China town. A visit to any part of the country will guarantee you a delicious Pisco Sour; and a visit to any of the historic restaurants and pubs in Lima will guarantee you a spectacle of Festejo dancing, an Afro-Peruvian music style that everyone in Perú loves. These are stories that have been obscured by the false and incomplete stories that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I went into this conference with professional ambitions and left with perhaps one of the biggest gifts I have received in a very long time. Sometimes the stories of us and where we come from become invisible; invisibility that is caused by shame; a type of shame that never comes from within and rarely speaks of our truth. I commit to speaking my truth and re-telling my story, which begins with the words “Soy de Perú.” I don’t want to end without thanking Marcela Polanco for this opportunity to liberate myself from the social and cultural chains that kept me from embracing my true self for too long. If any of my readers find themselves ashamed of who they are or where they come from; think about how these feelings came to be. Is it truly fair to feel that your stories are incomplete and told by others? I hope that you find this blog helpful for you in your own journey. Thank you for reading.

Outsider Witnessing / Definitional Ceremonies

Doggie snow

Outsider witnessing/Definitional ceremonies is a process where the client re-tells significant aspects of their story while having an audience that listens carefully without judging, having an opinion, or making interpretations. The therapist mediates this process in order for it to go smoothly and be beneficial for all participants; particularly, the identified client. This process includes a series of telling and re-telling exercises. The audience or outsider witnesses always have the opportunity to contribute to the identified client’s re-telling of their story in a structured and organized system within the progression of the session. Outsider witnesses can be family members, former clients who have experienced similar challenges and been able to overcome these through therapy, and other mental health professionals.

The process of outsider witnessing is a unique one because it offers the opportunity for clients to feel validated, understood, and connected to others. This process is also helpful to therapists, as we can reflect on outsider witnesses’ contributions and analyze our work more effectively. Using outsider witnessing is also a process that reduces the isolation that can often take place in individual psychotherapy. Outsider witnesses donate their time to participate in the client’s therapy session. By doing this, they contribute to the process of rich story development. Outsider witnesses carefully listen to the story being told and answer to specific questions such as words or phrases that resonated to them, what they think about the person based on what they heard, other parts of the story that resonated to them, and ways they can use what they learned to implement in their own work or life. The latter one is quite powerful because it often provides the client with a sense of accomplishment and positive influence in the lives of others.

The use of outsider witnesses is not only helpful to rich story development, but it also offers the opportunity for all participants to develop a sense of community and support. This process is quite powerful as it providers the client with refined expertise of their lives and experience, and prevent them from feeling alone through the process of self-discovery and re-authoring of their lives.  In addition, outsider witnessing can be an effective tool for persons to reposition themselves in relation to the problem/s that bring them to therapy. Using outsider witnessing can be quite anxiety-provoking for everyone, including the therapist. It has been helpful to begin the process by emphasizing that everyone is willing and accepting of this process by just being there, and that nobody in the room fails, no matter what.

I have used outsider witnessing in my practice and it has been an amazing experience for me and from what I’ve been told, clients. Unfortunately, it was challenging to begin using definitional ceremonies in my clinical practice at the agency where I previously worked at due to confidentiality reasons. Nonetheless, I got creative and made this happen as I truly believed in the efficacy of this therapeutic process. I typically begin by asking clients to list supportive people in their lives and describe the levels and types of support they get from these people. This initial step allows the client and I to determine the importance of current (or past) relationships in their lives. I use these identified supportive people in clients’ lives in re-membering conversations. This process is helpful in solidifying re-authoring conversations and creating new possibilities. After this, I offer clients the opportunity to invite these supportive people in their lives to therapy, if the client feels comfortable with this. More often than not, clients are excited about this and willing to participate in definitional ceremonies, in which the supportive people in their lives will witness a re-authoring conversation and help with rich story development.

I recently received a gift from the universe, which is being able to open a private practice and focus my work on Narrative ideas and therapeutic processes such as outsider witnessing. This is exciting for me because I have seen the power of definitional ceremonies first hand. While I was training in Narrative therapy in Toronto; I got the opportunity to participate in a therapeutic conversation as an outsider witness. This experience was invaluable and it allowed me to experience the power of this process first hand. I enjoyed being on the other side of this process and being able to contribute to the person’s life. Definitional ceremonies and outsider witnessing is an amazing process and I believe that it is a redefining moment in clients’ therapeutic experience.
References

Freedman J. H. and Combs G. (1996). Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Madigan S. (2010). Narrative Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

White M. (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.

 

Taking Actions Consistent with Our Values

creek and mountain

People take actions and make decisions in their lives on a daily basis. These actions may be a simple part of a daily routine and may even feel unimportant; others carry more weight and can have a significant impact on different aspects of life and the future. More often than not, people don’t realize exactly what may drive their actions. Because of this, people may feel directionless and hopeless. Intentionality encompasses the values and personal resources that people possess. Uncovering and understanding these can shed some light into why people make certain choices or take certain actions. Everyone has values, dreams, commitments, and purposes; however, some people have disconnected from these. Disconnection may occur as a result of social constructs or the person’s meanings and interpretations of different events they have experienced throughout their lives. In my experience as a therapist; it has been evident to me that trauma, mental health challenges, and everyday pressures can obscure people’s values and commitments. This can prevent people from living the life they want to live.

 
Intentionality is a crucial aspect of Narrative therapy; in fact, I believe it should be discussed in all therapies. People have the right to have a clear understanding of what their values are and what is truly important to them in life. This principle resonates with me because it’s empowering. Intentionality can also restore hope about the future. People tend to feel a sense of commitment to themselves once they know what their values are. I appreciate intentionality because it is an ongoing process in people’s lives. I often assist my clients in making connections between their values and the actions they have taken, are taking, and are willing to take in the future. This is a powerful and moving process. I use the “Compass” metaphor in Stillman’s (2010) Narrative Therapy Trauma Manual. I find that Metaphors are very effective when conveying a message, especially in a therapeutic context. People can see their values and commitments as a guiding force that will orient them to where they want to go. This process isn’t effortless by any means, but it’s worth it.

 
I have brought intentionality into my practice and my personal life in a variety of ways. In my clinical practice, I like to start the therapy process by discussing values and what’s important to my clients. I find that this initial conversation allows client to focus more on their personal resources as opposed to continue feeling fussed with the problem. As a result, the problem takes a back seat during these initial steps of therapy; and this tends to be a refreshing, positive, and unique experience for clients (and for myself too). I have used to “Compass” metaphor to create a handout that I use with my younger clients. The handout helps adolescents stay motivated in the conversation and the selfdiscovery process. The handout has the picture of a compass and asks questions about values and actions consistent with those values. My clients often like to hold on to this handout and refer back to their findings in later sessions. I am happy that I can give my clients something tangible that can remind them of the new discoveries.

 
Intentionality has helped me expand the awareness about myself as a therapist, partner, and friend. I can present myself in ways that are consistent with what I value the most in life. For example, I have realized how much I value honesty, authenticity, and transparent relationships. This understanding has helped me identify actions that fit with who I truly am. I am more willing to be patient with myself, my friends, and my family. I am also committed to being an honest and authentic person regardless of what others think or what the “judgy voice” in my head may try to make me believe about myself. I feel more in control of my actions and the decisions that I make. I want to share this gift with others, especially my clients. Intentionality has done so much for me and I truly believe it does a lot for the people who consult me. I am very appreciative of this Narrative principle and grateful that I get to implement it in my personal life and my work.