Psychotherapy Theory as a structure for classic story telling: An idea.

I have recently begun to read ‘Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story Telling’ by John Yorke. I am reading it on Kindle, on the train to and from work. I find it fascination and stimulating.

He methodically explores and explains through multiple examples, the development and structure of story telling in art, literature, cinema, television and so on. I like his suggestion that storytelling is a fundamental expression of human narrative. Each story that follows his suggested structure takes us through a journey with a protagonist and an antagonist. There is something that we desire, the holy grail, love, gold, and the antagonist is there to prevent our achieving this goal. In the story there is usually a crisis where we do battle to attain the desired goal and some sort of climax following the battle. The end is a resolution and redemption. Story structure is based upon physics, there is a beginning, middle and an end.

It seems to follow a ‘classic good versus evil’ journey, where through a series of trials we come out the other side having triumphed over the demon whether it is internal or external. In successful story telling the audience must identify with the main character (protagonist) whose journey somehow belongs to us all.

Without hope there is hopelessness and with hopelessness we would tend to give up and the species would die out. It seems that the constant retelling of stories that transform hopelessness into hope is something that we need to keep doing in order to remind ourselves that we can usually triumph over hopelessness. On each occasion we are then able to put the book down, leave the theatre or cinema, turn the TV off and feel good about mankind, about ourselves and about our future. Whatever happens, however devastating the situation or disaster, someone will survive to carry on and we can go home to the safety and certainty of our personal worlds.

I got to think about counselling and psychotherapy theories and wondered if they have elements of those grand redemptive narratives. Are the theories stories in themselves and so follow the suggested structure that Yorke proposes? I feel that there is some resonance although I have not researched the ides. I am not able to say it with any certainty and this is my ‘wondering’ about the idea and of course all good stories start with a wondering.

Many traditional schools of psychotherapy identify protagonists and antagonists along with a variety of ways of working with and resolving them. When someone enters therapy they are embarking on a journey into the unknown that will evoke crisis through the act of confronting hidden and/or frightening parts of our inner world. Jung would talk about our shadow side, Pearls the top dog and under dog, Berne the critical parent and the free child, Rogers positive and negative conditions of worth and Freud the Id and Superego. All of these internal psychic mechanisms may be experienced as protagonist and antagonist, constantly at war. We enter therapy in the hope of some resolution through the telling of our story, (thesis), the confrontation of our dark side, (antitheses), resulting in resolution, (synthesis).

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is one of our older theories about the human psyche and I have chosen it purely as a means of illustrating this hypothesis. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, the protagonist is the conscious mind of the person who has the desire to get better, be happy, give up addiction, deal with anger, manage relationships differently, stop repeating negative patterns in life, not be angry or neurotic, stop feeling depressed and so on. The antagonist is the part of ourselves that will resist change, that will resist an exploration of our deeper and unconscious world. Our defense mechanisms will work hard to prevent access to our primary desires and wishes because that is their job. If our primitive urges got out of hand in an unbridled expression of the Id (,_ego_and_super-ego) then we would be lost. The fear and hence the challenge is that if we go to that dark and fearful place that we will be lost, the hope is that we will overcome the fear and darkness and in doing so be transformed. The unconscious (fearful and dark place) becomes conscious.(out in the open and so transformed).

The therapist may be experienced as the protagonist and the antagonist at different times. They may even take on the role of the client’s negative sense of self (antagonist) until they can tolerate owning it themselves. As a result of this the relationship with the therapist will be in crisis from time to time and further crisis can come from a resistance to change.

The ‘Grail’ of this type of therapy is to bring our unconscious impulses, wishes, desires, fears and terrors into consciousness. In classic story telling terms this is the hero going into the cellar when the whole audience is screaming ‘don’t go into the cellar,’ when at the same time hoping that our hero will enter the cellar and return triumphant. This is the type of  resolution that York’s suggests in his narrative model. Am I saying that going to the cinema can be as therapeutically healing as engaging as psychotherapy? Yes I do, at one level cinema, theatre and literature are therapeutically transformative, psychotherapy takes to another level but it does so using the same mechanisms.

We want to know that Theseus can overcome the Minotaur, that evil Macbeth will be overcome by the forces of good, that Luke Skywalker will eventually defeat Darth Veda and so on. York talks about inner challenges as well as those external challenges but that at some level they are all an expression of our inner conflicts. As therapists we want to know that we can help clients overcome their dark sides, therapy is the stage and theory is the narrative structure that enables us, when we can to help clients reach a resolution.

Yorke refers to David Memet who suggested that, ‘dramatic structure is not an arbitrary or even conscious invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. There is an event, the event is elaborated upon and this is followed by the denouement of the plot. He strips the three act structure to the establishment of a flawed character; their confrontation by their opposite; a synthesising of the two to achieve balance.’ This is in essence a useful way of describing psychotherapy processes. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis, it is how we perceive the world.

Psychotherapy is good story telling, we have a protagonist (us), an antagonist (us and our demons), desire (to be well, happier and so on), trials and tribulations and crisis (transference and counter-transference, resistance and so on in psychodynamic therapy), resolution where the unconscious and conscious are more in balance. We can leave therapy much as we would leave a gripping novel or film, with the hope that we will come through.

christopher murray

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