Stories are sometimes dismissed as childish things. In a world driven by facts and figures – and information and money – taking the time to weave a narrative can seem trivial or off-the-point. But storytelling has a value our ancestors implicitly acknowledged.
More urgently, it has a role to play in mental health, according to psychanalyst Stephen Grosz.
The author of the bestselling book The Examined Life, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, Grosz is in Dublin this week for an event hosted by the Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.
For his book, the American-born, London-based analyst weaved case histories from his professional practice into 31 individual stories. Ambiguity and wonder are shot throughout, not surprisingly as one of Grosz’s literary inspirations is Samuel Beckett. “What I like about short stories is often the endings are a bit open, like real life. That’s how a [therapy] session is: often people finish and you don’t know what’s going to happen later on.”
Part of his motivation for writing the book “was to help people who might not have had that experience” of conversation with a therapist, “to get a sense of what happens”. He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
How important is storytelling in therapy?
“To me storytelling is the way we convey our experience from one person to another. We tell each other stories to convey what we have felt and experienced.
“This was a bit of a surprise originally to Freud… There is a wonderful phrase when he looks at his [first] book and says these case histories are basically a series of stories and, he says, ‘I fear these lack the serious stamp of science’. But he was smart enough to know that it was the best way to tell what was going on.”
Does it matter if the story being told is true?
“Often people are trying to tell the truth. I say in my book that sometimes we don’t tell our story, our story tells us − in our symptoms, in our behaviours, it gives away who we are. My job is to kind of read that story, through sometimes not the verbal story a patient tells but, through their difficulties whether it’s alcoholism, or compulsive behaviour… or the problems they want help with.
“Sometimes stories function in another way. There is a thing that can happen where a patient tells you something that seems quite ordinary but the atmosphere in the room is quite powerful. It’s quite different to the story they told; it’s more than the story they told.
“It may seem like a small thing but it leaves you with a feeling, and I sometimes think it’s the feeling you would have if you’d heard the story the patient can’t tell. We have to try to listen to that story as well.
“The crucial thing is that often we, analysts, are wanting to make our discipline more scientific and we are kind of embarrassed by the fact that stories are at the heart of things. But for me, stories are the shortest distance between two people. They are the way we interact at our closest and most intimate so, in fact, it would be at the heart of analysis… We shouldn’t be embarrassed by it.”
You’ve a deep interest in philosophy, and there is a view that much of our anxiety today stems from a lack of meaning. From your experience of over 50,000 hours of conversations with clients, are people agonising over the meaning of life?
“I think they are but not consciously. It helps sometimes to start realising that there is a kind of arc of life, that there are certain things going on. So, for example, I believe part of what makes change in psychotherapy difficult is loss. To change anything you’re going to have to endure a loss.
“I quote a patient of mine who says ‘I want to change but not if it means changing’, meaning ‘I don’t do loss. Can we do this but without any loss involved?’ And that’s not possible.
“In a way, I think from the minute we are born there is loss. We lose the womb, then we have to give up the breast to have solid food, then we go to nursery and have to give up the comfort of the home, then at 18 or whatever we have to go to university, or leave the home, or go off to work.
“If you get married or get into a relationship with someone you are going to have to let go of your birth family, and people are often surprised – they will come to me at a moment like that in their life because they are depressed. It should be the happiest day of their life because ‘I’m getting married, I’m looking forward to it, I love this person, what is going on?’ They are unexpectedly caught out.
“In a way, you would say their philosophy of life is not right because it’s about happiness; they [think they] should always be happy... They don’t realise certain things like loss are built into life.”
Is anxiety on the rise and, if so, what’s driving it?
“It’s hard to know but I do think that’s true. It seems me things are more irrational at times; you know Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons… If I died in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down you would have thought the world was going in a completely different direction than it seems to be going for the past 10 years.
“Also I do think, with things like Twitter and the internet, there is a kind of shift where things are more like a game, where numbers matter – the number of likes or retweets…
“We are playing a game against each other where we are trying to get better numbers and when you do that something is dropping out about human contact… Getting on with our neighbours, getting to know them, talking to them – the less we do that and the more we are on our phones I think is part of a general increase in anxiety.”
A point you make in the book is that we are too quick to praise our children. With your own kids, how firm a line do you take on that?
“Oh, I do praise them. The thing I was really opposed to was empty praise. I grew up in a generation where we were criticised all the time… What surprised me in the current generation was almost the mirror of that. You couldn’t move without hearing a child being told that was ‘the most beautiful’ or ‘the most wonderful’ [thing they did], and in a funny way they are both the same as neither is properly engaging with the child.
“I tell the story: my parents were good friends with the Stiglitz family – their son Joey, Joseph, won the Nobel Prize for Economics. His mum – she was a nursery teacher – was my mum’s best friend and I remember watching her with two young boys not praising but totally engaged in what they were painting, the colours, why they were choosing this; she just talked to them about what they were doing.
“What you see with a lot of parents is they are struggling to talk to their children in an ordinary way. I think it’s really good to just say: ‘Oh, tell me about that. How did you feel about that, and what did you think?’ That’s important.”
Staying in the present seems to be part of the challenge. It is hard to be present.
“It is. There is a lot now about being in the present. I think it’s important [but] the crucial thing is more knowing ourselves, accepting ourselves, seeing who we are… We can be depressed if we’re always having ‘shoulds’ – like, ‘We should be present. We should be this or that’… The tyranny of shoulds can drive depression.
“I’m inclined to think we should be more accepting of ourselves and ask if we are not in the present then why not? ‘It is upsetting being in the present’ is what I’m hearing.”
The Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy hosts Stephen Grosz at a ticketed event (€20-€50) available both online and in-person at the Carmelite Community Centre, Dublin, on Saturday, October 29th
Ask a sage
What is your greatest regret?
Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame replies: “I was never there… Absent, always.”