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Going back for a university reunion: reconstructing our personal stories (2nd post)

"Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives - the power to retell it, reexperience it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change - truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts"     Salman Rushdie

I wrote a first post a few days ago entitled "Going back for a university reunion: stirring up memories, avoidant attachment, "puffing up" and kindness (1st post)".  I mentioned psychiatry professor Irvin Yalom's suggestion that going back to reunions like this can stir up material that can be chewed over to yield helpful new insights.  It's happening.  And I'm encouraging it to.

Memories, emotions, thoughts.  Old & new understandings.  I've written about how ideas from trauma-focused CBT are relevant much more broadly and can be useful when we process memories from less obviously traumatic experiences.  And in another recent post on "Narrative in emotion-focused therapy" I noted this interesting "three lens" model for working with memories:

narrative types

Angus & Greenberg write "Narrative offers a space for self-reflection and self-construction, requiring us to interpret and make meaning of experience. As therapists, it is when we listen carefully to our clients' most important stories that we gain access to how people are attempting to make sense of themselves in the context of their social worlds. In this way, psychotherapy is a specialized discursive activity designed to help clients shape a desired future and reconstruct a more compassionate and sustaining narrative account of the past". They suggest "Types of narrative sequences include 'external' (describing past and current episodic memories, or 'what happened'), 'internal' (identifying emotional experiences, or 'how I felt'), and 'reflexive' (creating new meaning, or 'what it meant')" and they emphasise the importance of therapists helping clients shift more from 'external' to 'internal' and 'reflexive' descriptions ... client's depth of experiencing ... relates to outcome".  

How do I describe 'what happened' when I'm looking back, in my case, forty or so years?  Well filling in the series of "charts" on this website's "Good knowledge" section on "Life review, traumatic memories & therapeutic writing" can be very helpful, especially if it's done over a period of time to allow further memories to bubble up and maybe discussions to occur with family members or other people who were there or who can provide more information.  People living now in 2012 are likely to have rich sources of photographs, emails, and other recordings.  When I was a student I kept no records, no letters, no notes, and very few photographs.  It was deliberate, an attempt to help myself "be here now".  However my mother kept pretty much all of my regular letters home to my parents from those years & eventually gave them back to me.  Now I wish I had the ones she & my father wrote to me so that I could follow the dialogue.  However this series of letters that I wrote to them provides a rich source of personal emotional archaeology.  So many insights and surprising reconfiguring of my understanding.

So one observation is of how close I was to them, how much my relationship with them mattered to me over my late teens and into my twenties.  I'd forgotten this, airbrushed it out of my remembered history.  And another insight is how courageous I was.  How independent.  It throws additional light on my over-simple dismissal of avoidant attachment style in my last blog post.  Pretty much all of us who function healthily "self-enhance", "puff up" a bit, over-estimate our capabilities ... and this probably carries as many benefits as costs.  See, for example, the 2009 paper "Self-enhancement and self-protection: What they are and what they do" or three of this year's publications - "Standoffish perhaps, but successful as well: Evidence that avoidant attachment can be beneficial in professional tennis and computer science""Positive intelligence illusions: On the relation between intellectual self-enhancement and psychological adjustment" and "A longitudinal-experimental test of the panculturality of self-enhancement: Self-enhancement promotes psychological well-being both in the west and the east".  Of course we need to be careful.  Excessive narcissism carries many costs, probably especially in it's often toxic effects on interpersonal relationships.  But narcissism is much more than just self-enhancement - see, for example "Refining the construct of narcissistic personality disorder" and "Toward a clinically more useful model for diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder".  My twenties were very much about learning to relate better to other people, but for confident traveller's chutzpah that I would struggle to find now, here's a letter home when I was just twenty years old (I had already by then done three big trips in my teens around much of Europe, Morocco & overland to India, so I was pretty battle-hardened):

"Dear Mumma, I sit, faintly drunkenly, overlooking the beach at Termoli (in Italy).  It's very windy and there are rumours of a general strike but if I'm incredibly lucky there'll be a boat going to the Tremiti islands tomorrow (where I had arranged to work for some weeks during the university vacation as a scuba diver for an American marine archeologist who I'd never met - getting free food, tent & use of an air tank - charting the wreck of a Roman boat that had been carrying amphora).  Ostend (6.00pm Thursday) to Termoli (6.00pm Monday) took almost exactly four days.  I haven't taken off my clothes since Belgium where I stayed in an ubiquitous youth hostel.  Friday night I slept on some marble steps in Munich with a gaggle of young Pakistanis.  I don't recommend marble, it drains out the warmth.  Saturday night I slept in a field somewhere in Northern Italy near Trento.  There were lots of blinking fireflies and wooded mountains - just so!  Last night I spent in an open trailer behind a garage on the outskirts of Rimini.  A clear sky, damp and strange dreams, but I did manage to shave in a roadside restaurant this morning before I got a lift to the middle of nowhere between Rimini and Ancomo.  I stood hitching and reading Schopenhauer for about three hours (I had just completed two years of a philosophy degree) before a charming Italian couple + child picked me up and drove right to Termoli harbour ... " 

Without this chutzpah I don't believe that I would have had the guts to make the long jump that autumn from reading philosophy to beginning medical training; I don't believe I would have had the guts to decide to make my living outside the health service; I don't believe I would be anywhere near where I have got to now.  Looking backwards, the path makes a lot of sense!

Extraordinarily I can still remember the dream from the night in the "open trailer behind a garage on the outskirts of Rimini" back in 1970.  It provides the introduction to the next post in this series - "Going back for a university reunion: emotional intelligence, group work & learning to relate more deeply".

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