Forums 2020-2021 India Narrative Therapy and Community Work Training Program Forum A reflection on Thinking Behind Practice

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    AvatarSanjana Mishra

    The reading on “Broadening the Horizon”, which speaks of the language of individualism and the language of tradition or collective commitment existing parallely within a person, has led to a lot of reflection for me on identity and its evolving nature for me this month. Many of my conversations with young women and non-binary folks recently have been around the idea of the collective, and taking on responsibility. While acknowledging the richness of people’s identities and noting the fact that they do not revolve around only gender or sexuality, there is no doubt that people whose identities exist on the margins have experienced a lot of violence and normative oppression on the grounds of these identities. It is expected, then, for these identities and their relationships with them to be a central theme in therapy. For young queer people, the idea of collectivising can be an especially important one. I am reminded of two young people in particular—a 15-year-old non-binary individual (S), and a 22-year-old trans woman (V)—whom I have been working with.

    For S, the realisation that they identified as a lesbian and the ramifications of their coming out to their family and friends was a big part of why they sought therapy. Realisations about their gender identity have come more recently for them and have been a part of our conversations in therapy for the past couple of months. For S, finding friends in the community (especially those who identify as non-binary) was an integral part of their own understandings of gender. There is a lot of Shame (in their terms) they associate with “making it up” and “not really being non-binary”. While the effects of Shame are pervasive, letter exchanges with another young NB person and the realisation that they are not alone has been a massive step in the vein of “taking steps” vs. “being driven by dysfunction” (Wever, 2015)—in itself a challenge to dominant psychological and cisheteronormative structures. Being a part of a collective, in a sense, continues to be an important part of S’s individual understandings of their identity—“a form of individuality fulfilled by community rather than against it” (Bellah et al, 1985).

    On the other hand, V is a trans woman who has been out for four years and is in the process of transitioning. For her, the community has been a space where she has not always been welcomed, and one that has not understood her experiences with transness. Examples of trans women who are uplifted by the community continue to be those who “pass” or outwardly seem to subscribe to cis-sexist notions of femininity. This in turn leads to further dysphoria, the idea of “not being womanly enough” and of not feeling welcome in the community. Here, being part of a collective is important for V but is something she is beginning to distance herself from. While her distance and her anger continue to be expressed, she has recently also been expressing a longing to find people who understand what she is experiencing and are a part of her identity deconstructions.

    Community and collectivisation are complex ideas that can shape people’s experiences and identities in starkly different ways—a realisation that seems self-explanatory but is something that has stood out for me recently through my conversations with these young people as well as in the readings. Negative identity conclusions are influenced heavily by societal discourse—however, the concept of identity as something that is always evolving has been helpful in reshaping some of these dominant constructs. For V, this continues to be a work in progress. Our most recent conversation involved the idea that the anger she feels towards members of the community and her desire to be a part of it can coexist. There is a “pressure to be whole, emotionally healthy, congruent” in therapy (Wever, 2015) that needs to be challenged. Challenging dominant discourses is an important part of it, but I am beginning to feel that accepting and acknowledging these dualities when they show up is an equally important part of centering the lived experience and expert knowledge of the person in therapy.

    There is a lot more that comes to my mind on what goes behind practice, but the greatest change for me has been the realisation that I, too, “refuse to be positioned as the unwitting accomplice of modern power” (White, 2011; Wever, 2015), and that “narrative conversations can be political actions in which the intent is to decolonise identity stories” (Drahm-Butler, 2015). This leads me to further question my stance, identity, influence and role as a therapist and carry out what I feel are my own small acts of resistance in therapeutic spaces as I continue to grow my understanding of narrative practices and apply them in my therapeutic work.

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