People seek therapy for a number of reasons, but often people find these reasons are obscured from themselves. For example, a person may visit a therapist with anger issues. It might seem natural to focus on the anger, but the anger itself is an effect – something else is the cause. If a counsellor helps you to deal with your anger specifically, it might provide some temporary relief, but the underlying cause still exists.
Behind the emotions are thoughts and beliefs that drive the emotions. If you believe that life is unfair to you and this makes you angry, using techniques to manage your anger won’t address your views about a world that seems unjust to you. Sometimes suppressing the anger can lead to another emotional outlet – like depression – as the underlying problem hasn’t been addressed and the person can no longer cope with the feelings through angry outbursts.
In Narrative Therapy, we look at the stories that drive our lives. The angry person in our example is enveloped in stories – stories s/he has told self, stories told from early childhood by family and significant others, and wider cultural stories. The person who feels that life is unjust is constantly maintaining and developing stories that feed into this belief. The founder of Narrative Therapy referred to these stories as absent but implicit.
Anger is driven by expectations. What are the expectations in this example? How have they been developed? How are they maintained? As noted, the causes of the presenting problems in therapy may be unknown to the client. A therapist who only focuses on the anger (or pain) can be further embedding these feelings and potentially re-traumatising the client.
It is normal for us to focus on our emotions and – especially when we are in distress – it can be difficult to understand what is driving our pain. Understanding the thoughts and beliefs that drive us can help us to modify these to better fit our lives and to help us grow and thrive.