Alphons J. Richert: Integrating Existential and Narrative Therapy: A Theoretical Base for Eclectic Practice
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- McDonald, M.C. Hum Stud (2012) 35: 471. doi:10.1007/s10746-012-9231-3
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“Human change implies more than an absence of problems… life is more than an absence of suffering” (p. 367). In a climate that increasingly defines psychological distress in terms of a variety of biological symptoms to be identified and then promptly alleviated primarily through pharmaceutical intervention, Alphons Richert offers a rich psychotherapeutic alternative. Drawing from the main tenets of narrative and existential theories of therapy, Richert advocates for a method that focuses on helping the client find and embrace stories that are empowering in the face of life events that seem to prove the opposite. Rather than simply seeking a reduction of symptoms, Richert’s existential/narrative approach aims to provide clients with a better way of living. Interspersing his theoretical discussion with brief case studies to illustrate the effectiveness of a theory that integrates the somewhat disparate methods of existential and narrative therapy, Richert’s book serves as both a thorough guide for therapists as well as a framework for those interested primarily in theory. Accessible to both audiences well-versed in psychotherapeutic theory and to beginners, it would be a mistake to assume that because Richert is a psychologist that this book is only relevant for practitioners and students of psychology. There is too much material to cover adequately here, so my aim will be to provide a broad outline of Richert’s argument in favor of the integration of existential and narrative therapies, and then briefly touch on one way in which the book is philosophically relevant.
First, I want to mention a few technical things. At first glance, it appears as though the book might have been split into two parts; part one provides a foundation for understanding both existential and narrative approaches and integrating them, while part two examines the implications of bringing that theory into practice. Upon closer reading though, one realizes that such a strong division is not appropriate. The first eight chapters are indeed theoretical, but they also address practical issues. The remaining six chapters focus on practical implications of the theory, but they also expand upon theoretical issues introduced earlier, sometimes articulating them even more clearly. While the interested reader will find the entire book of value, each chapter is explanatory enough to stand on its own, making it an ideal book for guided research.
The book is grounded in existential and narrative theories that Richert inherits from psychology and philosophy. Chapters one through three summarize the foundations of these theories. Broadly construed, the most basic idea of both philosophical and psychological existentialism is the idea that the self is created. This creation is a result of the choices an individual makes as he/she interacts with the world. As Sartre explains, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre 1989: 5). Meaning—and by extension the self—is something that we construct, rather than something that exists in the world. Consequently, the individual must recognize and accept the radical freedom that marks human existence and make choices accordingly. The ramifications of this freedom are wide reaching and not all positive. Faced with ultimate freedom and the certainty of death, making choices can feel isolating, and lead to guilt over the path not chosen. Existential therapy focuses on progress, freedom, choice, and self-creation while simultaneously recognizing the human situation as one that frequently feels powerless, anxiety-ridden, isolated and doomed (p. 13). The goal of therapy is to give the client an opportunity to face his/her frustration and angst and respond with courage so that he/she might live effectively (p. 22). The emphasis in psychological existentialism is action. What will you do, who will you be, how will you act given your situation?
Narrative theory in psychotherapy and philosophy is based on the idea that human behavior is contextual, and that we use narratives or stories to make sense of events in our lives. This is contrasted with realist or positivist views that attempt to understand human behavior through causation (p. 5). Narrative theory does not focus on the singular causes of behavior; instead, it attempts to understand the event in a context beyond those most simple causes. Rather than reducing the symptoms that a patient may be struggling with to a specific cause, narrative therapy attempts to see the symptom in the context of a problem-saturated story. Typically, the client comes to therapy with a story (or set of stories) that is problematic in some way; the story may be fragmented, disrupted, or too constraining (pp. 114f.). Restorying the past or changing the clients’ perspective on a problem can enable him/her to see it in a new way or assign new meaning to it. The job of the therapist is to recognize the disordered story and then provide opportunities for the client to find and develop more empowering stories in place of the disordered ones (pp. 37f.).
The first step in integrating these two theories is to point out where they diverge. In chapter four Richert points out that there are three significant differences between these theories that require a wholly separate, integrated existential/narrative theory. The three areas where the theories differ are the sources of meaning, the nature of the therapeutic relationship, and the view of self (pp. 41–60).
The most important dissimilarity lies in the source of meaning for each theory. Narrative and existential theories do not agree on where meaning comes from. Existential theory revolves around action and the meaning to be found in lived experience. What we choose to do is meaningful. The psychotherapeutic goal of the existential approach is to empower the client to act differently, or “choose with courage” (p. 22). Narrative theory, on the other hand, focuses on generating meaning through reflection and language. What we say about what we do is meaningful. The goal of narrative therapy is to help the client tell and embrace stories that are empowering over those that are fragmented and disempowering (p. 53).
This foundational difference is echoed in the way that the theories understand and define both the therapeutic relationship and the self. According to existential thinking, the therapist-client relationship is mutative, meaning that the relationship itself is a locus for change and progress. In narrative theory, the relationship is facilitative, meaning that the relationship is a catalyst for change, change that the client makes (p. 45). Though this may seem like a relatively insignificant difference, the way that the client-therapist relationship is viewed determines the course and focus of therapy.
Finally, there is the way that each theory defines the self. In existentialism, people are understood to be singular and unified centers of awareness and choice who progress through changing their actions. In narrative theory on the other hand, the focus is on restorying and changing the meaning that events have rely on an understanding of the self as multiple and flexible (pp. 44f.). These substantial differences in the foundational tenets of these two theories make it necessary for a new integrated theory, which Richert introduces in chapter five.
Richert puts forth his proposal to integrate the constructivist narrative theory and existential theory of psychotherapy by offering ideas that can act as bridges between the theories on these divergent aspects. As we saw above, where existentialists emphasize the idea that meaning is lived, something that is established through action; narrativists hold that meaning is created by the client through connecting signs and symbols (language) with events. The integrative theory would bridge this difference by making use to Eugene Gendlin’s conception of the “felt implicit,” which is an “ongoing, embodied (that is, lived and felt but preconceptual) stream of experience to which one can always refer” (p. 62). This idea draws together the lived experience with the spoken story, by establishing a stream of lived and embodied experience that the client can narrate (or renarrate, or not narrate at all) at any time. Rather than meaning being lived through or articulated in story form, for Gendlin—and by extension, the integrative existential/narrative theory—meaning comes from both. The use of this idea is powerful. After reading Richert’s explanation of the felt-implicit, it seems almost impossible to claim that meaning only comes from lived experience or from the stories that we tell about it. As Richert explains, all cognitive activity (including symbolization through language) is rooted in the lived experience and the processing of this experience narratively is essential for ascertaining what meaning that experience has. In other words, we simply don’t tell stories that have no relation to the embodied experiences we have, and we also don’t just live without reflecting on those experiences.
As far as the therapeutic relationship (for existentialists, it is mutative—for narrativists, it is facilitative), Richert points out that more contemporary constructivists see the relationship as a source of change as well as something that enables the client to make change (p. 70). Recent research from constructivist thinkers focuses on the importance of empathy in the therapeutic relationship, suggesting that there is something about that relationship in itself that has some bearing on the progress of the client. In other words, the existential/narrative approach holds that the therapeutic relationship is both mutative and facilitative (pp. 69f.).
When it comes to the differences on the conception of the self (existentialists focus on the unified self that is the center of awareness and choice, while narrativists view the self as multiple and flexible), Richert reminds us that these theories have more in common than it may seem. Both view the self as a result of a creative process; whether or not that self is primarily unified or multiple just isn’t as important as far as Richert is concerned (pp. 67f.).
The remaining chapters of the book draw out this integrative theory and describe how it should be brought into practice. It is important to note that Richert’s argument is not strictly normative. His argument is that these theories can be integrated, not that they always should. Richert’s focus is client-centered, and the particular situation will dictate the appropriate approach. One goal of this book is to give the therapist a wide variety of theories and practices to use with clients in different situations with varying belief systems (p. 10). “The client is central” (p. 368), so different approaches are more suited to some situations and some belief systems.
holds that people create their own reality and structure it in narrative form at all levels of awareness. These stories are lived, and in the process of reflection, may also become focal mental content (p. 105).
The ease with which Richert integrates these theories raises a potential criticism. If these significant theoretical differences between theories can be dealt with so easily, are they really significant differences? Following that, if the two theories are not markedly different, is Richert’s integrative theory necessary? Though the differences may appear slight in theory, they carry considerable force in practice. Narrative therapy takes as a foundational assumption that “meaning is carried in language” (p. 41). If a client enters therapy with the assumption that “meaning comes from action” (p. 43), narrative methods are not likely to work. What Richert’s integrative theory does is provide connections between these two theories so that the therapist can make use of both. In this case, where the source of meaning is the issue, the felt-implicit might provide a way for the therapist to help the client to come to understand meaning as coming from both language and action, thereby increasing his/her possibilities. Imagining a specific therapeutic situation, we can see how significant these differences can be and how the integrative theory is necessary. Further, the integrative theory is not just based on the differences between the theories; it is also based on the assumption that there are significant similarities between the theories that enable them to be drawn together (pp. 47–60).
As stated above, Richert’s work is philosophically relevant. The psychological relevance of this book is obvious: it provides a detailed and thorough argument for an integrated existential/narrative approach to psychotherapy with a dual emphasis on theory and practice. Philosophically, the book has a couple of important applications. First, though purists might lament the lack of direct reference to existential philosophers—Richert prefers quoting Macquarrie over quoting traditional existentialists—chapter two is an excellent introduction to the main ideas of existentialism. Second, chapters eleven and twelve on internal and interpersonal meaning-making processes provide a fresh perspective grounded in Gendlin’s philosophy that are deeply philosophical and would be helpful for those interested in debates about narrative and philosophy, or semiotics.
Both philosophers who argue that the self is constructed narratively and those who argue the opposite agree that this moment is a didactic one in which Sartre is making a pointed philosophical point through Roquentin’s voice. Sartre (and Roquentin) see this as an endorsement that “to present human life in the form of a narrative is always to falsify it” (MacIntyre 1984: 214), or that “the narrative, story-telling impulse [is] a defect, regrettable” (Strawson 2004: 435). In other words, existentialism is a body of thought that is strictly opposed to narrative. It privileges and draws meaning from lived experience, full stop. Richert’s work—grounded in the same body of thought, but divorced from the specifics of the philosophical debate—allows us to reframe the discussion by focusing on Gendlin’s felt-implicit as a bridge between narrative and existential theories. The idea that there is “an ongoing, embodied (that is, lived and felt but preconceptual) stream of experience to which one can always refer” (p. 62), suggests that there is not such a strong bifurcation between living and telling. Rather, we live and we tell, and we retell and live some more. These two spheres are not necessarily in opposition, but instead inform each other. Philosophers who want to make claims about narrative being self-constituting do not have to give up embodiment, and vice versa. Richert’s integrated theory emphasizes the importance of both lived experience and the meanings that we assign to experience through the stories that we tell about that experience, proving that this idea can act as a bridge between narrative and existential theories in both psychology and philosophy.
This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell (Sartre 1963: 39).
Though interdisciplinary work in philosophy has been on the rise, surprisingly few philosophers turn to psychology for collaboration. Philosophical purists who avoid this book because of the lack of direct reference to primary texts will miss out (as they often do). Richert’s book, richly psychological and philosophical, serves as a reminder that more of us should turn to psychology for collaboration (or inspiration).