Posts Tagged 'Narrative'

Reclaiming the Authorship Rights of Our Career Narratives

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, I was frequently pegged for being a New Yorker, and it wasn’t because of my barely detectable accent. Within seconds of meeting a new acquaintance, I would inevitably ask “What do you do?”

More often than not, I received responses I didn’t expect: “I paint,” “I windsurf,” “I’m training for a biathlon,” or “I help at-risk kids.”

I wanted to know what they did for a living – they told me how they lived.

Granted I was young and most of the people I met were 20-somethings who didn’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. But this broader paradigm has given me the flexibility to navigate career transitions that would have been difficult had I remained too firmly attached to the letters after my name (MSW, LCSW) or the size of my writing portfolio.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s hard-earned status and credentials. But glomming on to titles that complete sentences like “I am a ________________” (stockbroker, lawyer, etc.) can trigger an identity crisis when confronted with precarious life circumstances like, say, a recession.

One of the key factors in determining emotional resiliency is what social psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” A locus of control, which can be either external or internal, is a belief about our power to effect change in our lives. Those with a dominant external locus of control believe their destiny lies beyond their sphere of influence. Consequently, they often feel victimized. People with a strong internal locus of control, on the other hand, believe their decisions hold sway over their future. While they may be unable to avoid natural disasters, the death of loves ones, economic downturns, and similar such crises, they feel empowered because they can choose their response.

Personally speaking, an internal locus of control has helped me remain true to my calling during periods of professional upheaval. Several years ago, I took a detour from my social work career, accepting a position as a development writer at a large philanthropy because I needed a job that paid decently and gave me flexibility to care and eventually grieve for a terminally ill loved one. I had been an unfulfilled journalist before obtaining my MSW and earning my clinical license at an outpatient addiction and mental health counseling center in Maryland. But as a newcomer to New York City, I was in no position to start a private practice and all the social work jobs either paid a pittance or had client quotas that would have impeded my care-giving responsibilities.

Some wise person once said “if you don’t love what you do, love why you’re doing it.” The job worked for me because I was able to support myself and care for my family member. Yet, whenever I gave out my business card with my job title “Senior Development Writer,” I felt a sense of betrayal. I had to constantly remind myself of who I was, why I was there, and where I wanted to go.

Because I remained true to my inner compass, I gradually found my way back. When the cues presented themselves, I spoke with colleagues about my professional background and interests. Eventually, I was invited to serve on committees where my experience as a clinical social worker was recognized by peers and experienced clinicians, leading to connections and opportunities that helped me complete the transition. Today, not only do I have a growing private practice, but I have also taught therapeutic writing workshops (combining my love of writing and psychology) at such high-profile venues as the 92nd Street Y and the JCC in Manhattan. This September, I will try my hand at academia, teaching master’s level Psychopathology at Long Island University’s School of Social Work.

I offer this neither as an invitation for praise nor as encouragement for taking the road less traveled, but rather as an alternative paradigm for job-seekers who may need to temporarily suspend their attachment to their professional credentials so they can reinvent themselves in an “any job is better than no job” economy.

In my workshop, The You Behind Your Resume:  Writing from a Novel Perspective When You’re in Career Transition, my primary goal is to help recently unemployed individuals tap into their internal locus of control and remember that they are much more than their last salaried position.

Most participants are Baby-Boomers. The very same generations that challenged the Vietnam War, broke with social convention and achieved unprecedented levels of affluence now find themselves depicted as hapless victims of an economy that favors youth over experience. These world-weary job seekers tell me they are tired of having their stories told to them – “I’m sorry but you’re over-qualified” – or about them – “Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older”  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/us/13age.htm.

The first question I pose to the group is “Who would you be if you weren’t________________?”  I instruct them to fill in the blank and answer the question, writing continuously for four minutes. By inviting participants to see themselves as multi-dimensional characters whose sum total of life experiences – as mothers, husbands, sons, rebels, artists, epicureans, caregivers, environmentalists, athletes, survivors, lovers, etc. – subsumes their resumes, participants can reclaim the authorship rights of their lives as they become reacquainted with their larger storylines.

In another exercise, I ask participants to imagine their lives as novels. I instruct them to assign a title to the current chapter of their life story and write a brief summary in the third person narrative.

A 60-something woman from Park Slope shared the following:

Sprung Like Athena
After 35 years with the same company, the only transition she had to make was from one side of the door to the      other. Without ever acknowledging the albatross that was around her neck, suddenly, with two steps, it wasn’t.

Empowering participants to tell their stories from a perspective that is personally meaningful instills them with a sense of well-being that may not only impress a prospective interviewer, but remain with them regardless of whether they are offered a job.

Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.

Feeling Stuck? It’s Just a Chapter, Not Your Life Story

Every life is an unfolding story with plot twists and bright spots. When people become depressed, it is usually because they mistake one or more difficult chapters in their lives for the entire plotline, and fail to embrace lessons that can help them move their story forward.

Take the 2006 Blockbuster, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like “Locked Out,” “Being Stupid,” and “Riding the Bus,” are about the “Pursuit” part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled “Happiness.”

If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his temporary difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called “Giving Up,” and its message – that the seeds of happiness are often sown with toil – would have been lost.

Of course, it’s so much easier to accept the meaning of difficult chapters and heart-wrenching scenes when it’s happening to someone else, and we’re virtually assured of a positive outcome.

In my workshop series, Writing from a Novel Perspective http://www.novel-perspective.com/Workshops.html, I invite participants to imagine themselves as protagonists of their own life stories with the power to interpret, transform, and reclaim their personal narratives.

One of the first exercises I give the class is to assign a title to the current chapter of their lives and write a brief description. The exercise is helpful in several respects: 1)  it allows participants to reflect on and begin to identify current trends and themes in the lives; 2) it helps them consider these trends within a framework with a defined beginning and ending; and 3) it empowers them to interpret the meaning of their own experiences.

This exercise also speaks to the power of naming and interpretation. There are many ways to tell a story. But how we interpret our stories affects how we feel about our stories, and how we feel about our stories often determines how they unfold.

Perhaps that’s why one of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to help clients name their problems; the idea being that once something is named, it can be examined, claimed, and interpreted. The power of naming is further emphasized in the first acts of the biblical account of Creation, when God divides light and darkness, and names them “day” and “night.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the Hebrew noun for “word,” dvar, shares a root with the verb “to cut.” Thus words sculpt and shape our reality.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we have identified the chapters and deciphered their meaning, we can begin to weave the fragments of our lives into a meaningful narrative that values the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character – facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. Thus, difficult chapters like unemployment and divorce become opportunities for personal transformation. This new awareness can help us write new scripts for old stories while embracing life’s inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won’t last forever.


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