While many states are starting to see flattening curves for COVID-19 cases and governors share plans to transition from stay-at-home to safer-at-home, uncertainty for the future remains stronger than ever. Across social media platforms, news outlets, and online search engines (e.g., Everyone is Googling ‘will life ever go back to normal?’), on-going conversation and speculation continues around how a post-pandemic world will look and when life will start to feel “normal."
The theme of normalcy remains a frequent focus in my therapy sessions, as clients wonder, predict, question, and hypothesize when/if social distancing will ever become a distant memory. The “not knowing” of how our workplaces, communities, and world as a whole may operate post-Coronavirus takes a psychological toll... Our thoughts ruminate in search of answers. Worry, fear, frustration, impatience make their presence known as unresolved questions linger.
In the following paragraphs, I offer insight and encouragement for therapists on how to use narrative therapeutic techniques in helping clients explore post-pandemic “normal.”
Compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and even Freud’s psychoanalysis, Narrative Therapy is less well-known among consumers of counseling. Considered a post-modern approach, it came about in the 1980’s through collaboration of Michael White and David Epston. For greater detail regarding the history and practice of Narrative Therapy, please check out the Dulwich Centre and Narrative Therapy Centre of Toronto.
As a trauma-informed narrative therapist, I root into a belief that “we live our lives through the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us.” Problems come into our lives when a partner, family member, friend, workplace, society, culture or any other system tries to write our story for us. We constantly receive messages about who we should be, rather than have space and power to figure out who we are. My intention in the therapy room is to help clients discover how, when, and where their stories were developed (deconstruct); create space between the self and problems to instill a sense of empowerment (externalize); and offer support for them to identify and make desired life changes (reconstruct).
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines normal as “ordinary or usual; the same as would be expected.” Oxford’s Lexico asserts normal is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected”. Merriam-Webster offers three separate entries. Without leading you down a philosophical or semantic rabbit hole, my aim is to highlight how the concept of “normal” is incredibly subjective.
In therapeutic practice, I pay very close attention to the language my clients use to describe their experience. Of all the words they could use, the particular word and/or phrase they do use holds power, purpose, and often deeper meaning. What is normal/ordinary/usual/as expected/typical for you is very different compared to what is normal/ordinary/usual/as expected/typical for your clients. When your client says “I’m ready for things to return to normal,” or when they question “Will life ever return to normal?” view this as an opportunity to not just learn about your client with greater depth, but to better inform your therapeutic care.
COVID-19 has changed us as individuals, our communities, and our world. From pre-pandemic to post-pandemic, and for the time in between, the look, feel, and meaning of “normal” for our clients has been constantly changing. The following narrative therapy techniques may be particularly helpful in facilitating a process of empowerment and exploration:
1. Ask Questions to Externalize
“Who is (client’s name) when 'normal' is here?”
“How might you know normal is with you?”
“What happens when normal leaves... How do you feel, think, act differently?”
“How does living with normal serve you effectively? How might it serve ineffectively?”
“How could normal change in a way that improves or benefits your life?”
As Jessica Anderson explains, “Externalization helps you view issues from an objective, non-judgmental point of view.” Through asking externalizing questions, such as the ones listed above, you can help your clients create distance between themselves and the intimidating concept of “normal.”
By shifting exploration from the subjective (i.e., personal and complex) to the objective (i.e., observable and concrete), a therapist can offer their client necessary structure to help reduce feelings of overwhelm, and even elicit some humor. Additionally, asking questions where clients are encouraged to think of themselves in relationship with normal challenges them to create deeper meaning. “Normal living” isn’t just about eating at restaurants, working in office buildings, or standing less than six feet apart from another human. Finding normalcy can represent building personal safety, trusting others, holding onto hope, having a sense of control — all things that you, as a therapist, can help your client find within the self, whether socially distanced or not.
2. Explore Multiple Storylines and/or Outcomes
“Tell me a story about yourself living in a normal, post-Coronavirus world... Now share another... And another”
Despite its simplicity, this technique can offer many therapeutic benefits. Having your clients envision themselves in a post-pandemic world can instill hope and serve as an important reminder that living in lockdown is temporary. This too shall pass... And until it does, invite your client to get creative with story-telling. This will transform their uncertainty and worry for the future into a proactive task for the present. Anderson summarizes, “A narrative therapist can show a client that there are alternative endings or ways that you can change your story; it's like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but in therapy.” Remind your client that, although they did not choose to live through a global pandemic, the adventure of re-writing their new normal awaits.