“Narratives that are stereotypes and generalizations are often degrading and hurtful to people”, Paul Browde

Paul Browde is an Encounter Centred Couples’ Guide and a storyteller. He attended medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and trained as an actor at the Drama Studio London. He completed residency training in psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and has run his own narratively informed psychiatric practice in Manhattan for the past twenty years. He leads workshops for couples, teaching them how to communicate from a place of connection*.

FSJ: How do you define narrative therapy?

PB: Narrative therapy is grounded in the understanding that the story you tell about your life doesn’t only describe your life; it shapes it. If you tell the story of how difficult life is, of how hard it is that may mean that you can’t see the places where life is fulfilling and good. A Narrative therapist helps people to find the story they tell about their lives and to re-author stories with preferred narratives.

Some narratives are inherited from the dominant culture, and a narrative therapist will help a person recognize these inherited stories, to stand up to them and challenges them and find new preferred narratives to shape their lives. Narratives that are stereotypes and generalizations are often degrading and hurtful to people. As a gay person one doesn’t have to look far, both to the outside world and within oneself to find narratives that shape life in a demeaning way. Examples include: Gay people can’t sustain relationships. Gay people are abnormal.

Narratives of sickness or sin are disempowering stories to shape a life. Gay people are important members of society with specific knowledge and gifts would be a preferred alternate narrative.

FSJ: When and why did you decide to use narrative therapy in your work?

PB: I was trained in psychiatry, which taught me the idea, that there is a normal person and there are sick people who deviate from the norm. During my training I heard a lecture by Michael White, one of the co-creators of the field of narrative therapy. Hearing a description of psychotherapy that saw people as able and experts in their own lives was very liberating for me. I trained further in the fields and have continued to bring a narrative ethic to all my work.

FSJ: How can practice narrative therapy?

PB: Any doctor can practice honoring peoples’ stories, and listening for hidden preferred narratives.

FSJ: What is at the center of narrative therapy?

PB: At the center are a few concepts that shape my thinking.  1) People are shaped by their stories. 2) The person is never the problem. The problem is the problem. 3) People are multi-motived and multi storied. For me, narrative therapy ties in well with Internal Family Systems, which says that people are made up of many parts. There is not one essential self.

4) Listening shapes telling. How you listen, shapes how others tell their story. Listening has a shape.

FSJ: Is narrative therapy a tool for diverse communities? Could any practitioner at any given culture tailor it according to its needs?

PB: Yes. It’s is an approach, a sensibility an ethical framework. Really it is a way of seeing the world in which all people are valued, all stories are welcome and being able to tell many stories about ones life is what makes a life truly rich.

FSJ: How important are narratives and story telling in your family?

PB: I am only second generation South African. My grandparents were Eastern European Jews. I think there was a rich heritage of oral history and story telling that was passed down to me. South Africa is a very culturally diverse country with a rich storytelling tradition. I am so lucky to have been born there.

FSJ: What were individuals and couples reactions once you started practicing narrative therapy?
PB: People find freedom in being treated with respect and having their life story valued and appreciated no matter the content. I think people are so tired of feeling that they are a problem. Narrative therapy honors people and helps them to identify the problems in their lives and to approach these problems with their own wisdom. This had been very empowering.

FSJ: Which is the response from your students at Columbia University?
PB: Many students have loved the course we teach in the narrative medicine program. Narrative medicine is a new field that uses the study of literature and appreciation of reading and writing to teach health care providers to relate better to their patients. Students are excited and feel a sense of freedom in learning these methods.