The Power of Personal Narrative
This is the second of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, considers the ‘self in context.’ That context is explored through what is referred to as ‘relational frames,’ the ability of the self to explore experience through the building of perspective. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.
Narrative is a broad term that holds the notions of perspective, structure and intentionality. It is the process through which we decide what is important to us among the vast information in our experiences, organize our responses and direct the attention of others to the self-image we’ve constructed.
There is simply too much information in even the most simple of experiences for us to ever be consciously aware of it all. While the analogy can only be taken so far, consider life experience like a computer, with programs running in the background, but you’re only using one at a time. Perhaps, like me, you’re switching between multiple programs all the time, but the reality is there’s only one at a time you’re consciously using. Also, depending on what is being worked on, not all the programs running in the background will be accessed equally.
That background processing is similar to the experience of our everyday lives. We are inundated by information in the form of social, familial, personal, emotional and ideological programs (or memes). We must be selective in the building of our conscious experience, otherwise known as perspective.
A major consequence of this narrowed vision that we experience as conscious life is a false sense of our comprehension. Simply because we are not currently aware of those programs running, and all the information they contain, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped or that they aren’t making connections with one another. Our mind/brain’s are associational devices, connecting disparate pieces of information with other pieces. It’s why we can remember new things when recalling older experiences. It’s why multiple people can experience the same trauma and have different memories of what happened and different reactions. It’s why our emotions can connect us within so many experiences.
Behavior is any action taken in response to an event or to encourage a particular response in return. Behavior is both learned and evolving in the sense that we can associate or connect multiple items to build new responses. How we select our behavior begins with the window of our perception. That window is limited by what we have learned and the extent of the information we have available. We don’t do anything without a purpose and that is contingent upon our narrative associating information onto the stage of our present.
This way of looking at behavior means there’s no action that ‘isn’t the real me’ and allows for exploration when it’s stated ‘I don’t know why I did that.’ We’re now back to the consequence of a narrowed vision. Because we can’t keep consciously aware of every connection being made between all the information churned around in our minds, there are times when our actions don’t seem to fit the verbalized story of ourselves we’re telling. This is where calls of hypocrisy come up. Also, because we can only keep track of a small amount of the information we’re processing, the story we tell of ourselves may not always offer enough of an explanation to us. This is particularly true when, upon reflection, we realize that had we acted differently, the consequences would have been far more beneficial. Unfortunately such thinking forgets that the ability to reflect necessitates having more information.
The idea that ‘hindsight is always perfect’ is true not because we’re foolish, broken or corrupt, but because we can only decide our actions based on what we currently know. Action/behavior by its very nature will add information to our lives, in no small part because it is a way of looking back through the window of our perspective to see what we missed the first time.
Narrative provides the structure for determining what it is we will pay attention to, in order to direct our actions for a purpose, to result in the establishment of an identity within relationships. We have an innate desire to belong, but equally so we want to maintain a sense of self. Thus our identities serve the two-fold purpose of identifying for others that we are a part of something larger than ourselves even as we do so from a centralized notion of “This is me.”
One way of looking at this is seeing our relationship with identity as that of an old-style drawing compass. The circle we draw is the social group our identity connects us to, even as the center point determines the size of that circle. Anything within the circle we will feel connected to, whereas everything outside it becomes “other.” This simplification makes it easy to believe we only have the one, but no single identity can ever encompass the whole of any one of us.
Our personal stories grow out of what is important to us, guiding our responses to life and providing a grounding for our interactions. We never cease being in relationship, even as the details of those connections ebb and flow in importance based on the context our self-images are constantly shaping.
Relational-ACT recognizes the power of narrative as it leaps forward from our Values to provide the structure for our identities and guides us in developing behavior to interact with ourselves and others. By exploring our stories we can peer back through the windows of our perspective, see what we missed and find the space to grow.
© David Teachout
Part 1: The Importance of Values