Existential Psychology

Problem With The Favorable Dominant Narrative

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Narrative therapists are concerned with deconstructing the rich tapestry of stories that make up social reality in order to help clients become aware that the way they see themselves, what we would call their dominant narrative, is not necessarily indicative of who they really are. There are usually a multitude of data points to contradict this dominant narrative. One of the tasks of therapy is to mine these data points so that clients can begin to define themselves in a more favorable light.

For example, let’s take a student who has become known as a ‘troublemaker’. This label is based on some instances at home and school where he acted up, didn’t follow directions, and got in a few fights on the playground. We tend to conform to the definition that others have of us; the relationship between self-definition and social-definition is fluid. People have begun to label him in a negative light, so he has begun to see himself as a bad kid too, which in turn will set the stage for more antisocial behavior, further reinforcing the dominant narrative that is taking shape.

A narrative therapist would want to interrupt this harmful process by helping the student find concrete instances from his life where his behaviors directly contradicted the label ‘troublemaker’, like taking care of his siblings when his parents weren’t around or sticking up for a classmate who was getting made fun of. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said “When you label me you negate me”, and the negation part is what is essential to help a client grasp. There are always countless examples from life to show how a  label can be challenged if not outright rejected. The task is to help a client create a more favorable alternate narrative for himself, to help others in his environment see it and believe it too, and then to live this new narrative until it becomes his dominant story.

The narrative paradigm is great for people who are struggling with a negative label that is holding them back from growth, but I started thinking existentially and realized that in its desire to make the dominant narrative positive and life-affirming, narrative theory tends to overlook the reverse, which is that already having a positive and life-affirming dominant narrative can hold people back from growth because it allows them to ignore areas of their lives where they need to change.

If a negative label can be challenged with concrete positive data points, it follows that a positive label can be just as easily challenged with concrete negative data points. In the end narrative theory falls into the trap of saying there is no such thing as one truth, a relativistic attitude, yet it’s non-relativistic about the fact that positive and life-affirming traits should be the ones that are recognized and reinforced until they become the new dominant narrative.

If you feel your dominant narrative is positive that’s great, but it probably doesn’t tell the whole story and it might be covering up areas of your life that need work. A positive label can be every bit as biased as a negative one, and while the positive may give you a superficial sense of comfort, self-actualization can’t occur unless you have a clear picture of the Self you are trying to actualize. A label, good or bad, only allows for one tiny part of you to be in focus.