Author and therapist Jeffrey Zimmerman has been synthesizing interpersonal neurobiology with narrative therapy for some years now. In 2015, he and Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin wrote about it in the Journal of Systemic Therapies. They also authored an article in 2011, and Zimmerman did a short video about it in 2015. Zimmerman’s new book, Neuro-Narrative Therapy is a thoughtful, well researched, and very useful overview of the work. It goes beyond just the theory and looks at the client-therapy relationship and the responsibilities of the therapist. This is a book that would benefit all therapists regardless of how they practice.
Narrative therapy is cognitively oriented. I have been drawn to it because it de-pathologizes the person. The problem is externalized, and the narrative of how the person experiences and gives meaning to it is changed as new possibilities of being are created. For change to happen, though, Zimmerman argues people can’t just stay in their heads; they have to engage emotionally. He came to this conclusion through his clinical work, research, and personal self-examination.
I really appreciated the snippets from therapy sessions with all different kinds of people. Zimmerman looked at both what was going on interpersonally in the therapy room, as well as the neuroscience of the process as well. He shares what went well, what didn’t go well, and what might have been going on. He even discloses his own feelings about the process, and how his experience affected the process.
Zimmerman addresses both the client’s window of emotional tolerance during the sessions, but also the therapist’s.
“Next time that you find that you have lost your therapist version, feeling a bit frozen or talking over the conversation with one of your stories, it might be useful to consider whether your window of tolerance has been exceeded and use that as helpful information and potential conversation with the client,” writes Zimmerman.
“Therapist version of yourself” may sound a bit odd, but narrative therapy “rejects the notion of a single, true self and instead embraces the idea of multiple identities of multiple versions of the self.” Zimmerman says that interpersonal biology agrees, and uses research from Dan Siegel and other neuroscientists to back that up.
Most of us have had times when we said or did something and then thought, “That’s not me. I’m not that way.” Our minds are constantly on alert, particularly for anything that might leave us feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Zimmerman calls this process the “nonconscious,” since it is beyond our awareness. The word “nonconscious” also doesn’t have the baggage that “unconscious” has.
The ways of attachment and safety that we learned as infants and children stay with us and guide us. We may find ourselves getting upset when we really don’t want to. Or we may find ourselves withdrawing and avoiding when we feel we want to bond. A purely cognitive approach can identify reasons for why you might do that, but would it help you change? I have seen people, including myself at times, gain insight, but if that revelation stayed in my head and didn’t make it to my heart, not much changed. Except perhaps that I would have a better rationalization.
So how do we get from the head to the heart? Zimmerman offers several ways. He discusses right brain to right brain communication as part of the therapeutic process, and encourages therapists to pay attention to what they feel as the client talks. As social beings, we do help each other regulate emotions, and this can help us when we’re getting off track. We are driven by emotion, and without addressing emotions, change most likely will not happen.
Zimmerman emphasizes that therapy is not a one way street. Therapist and client experience it together, and co-create the process and the possibilities. It is within this relationship that possibilities for change are created. Zimmerman strongly recommends mindful meditation for therapists to help us get out of that cognitively based, top-down perspective and be more in touch with our bodies; where we feel emotions and what that experiences teaches and tells us. It reminds me of the Chinese concept of xin, or heart-mind. There is no separation of the head and the heart.
Zimmerman’s dedication, commitment, and love of narrative therapy shines through. He also says that we need “to be more open to grow and evolve; openness to new possibilities is how systems change. Without change, without being responsive to the demands of the current cultural context, systems tend to die out.”
Zimmerman has done an excellent job of evolving narrative therapy to include interpersonal neurobiology and explaining how he came upon this road. He examines the science, the practical work, and the ethics. As Zimmerman wrote about therapy being “new emotional experiences in the context of relationship,” he has created a new story in the context of his experience as a narrative therapist and a self-aware, caring person. Both his heart and his mind shine together in this book.
Neuro-Narrative Therapy: New Possibilities for Emotion-Filled Conversations
W. Norton and Company
Hardcover, 240 pages