Narrative Variability as an Antidote to Repetition

Narrative Variability as an Antidote to Repetition

Variability in nature is increasingly being understood from the point of view of complexity theory and nonlinear science.  Heart rate variability, for example, has gotten a lot of attention as an important indicator of physical and mental health.  Extremes at either end – excessive variability and insufficient variability – are associated with poor outcomes. How can we apply this concept to analysis of narratives of wellness and distress?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has 4 basic symptoms domains: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.  There are also 2 sub-types: delayed-onset and the now officially recognized “dissociative” sub-type.

Avoidance (and emotional numbing) are ways of dissociating from strong negative emotions associated with highly distressing and traumatic experiences.  While the tendency to dissociate depends on a variety of factors, main ones being the intensity and persistence of the distress, the resilience of the individual, and the social/relational environment setting the standard for how verboten subjects are talked about, the sense of repetition is implicit with avoidance and numbing.  There is a persistent, but tellingly not always, habitual and often completely automatic effort to suppress memory and avoid any thoughts about distressing subjects.  This of course is highly constraining on how relationships are shared, whom one can speak with, and about what –  leading to sudden, seemingly inexplicable withdrawal from various social and occupational settings. The rigidity is, nevertheless, subtle.

Occasionally avoidance is intellectually conscious, and articulated.  One person may say, “I don’t want to talk about that because if I do, it will be too painful”.  This kind of denial can be adaptive in the short-run, allowing for preservation of function, but in the long-run can lead to insufficient integration of thinking with emotions and memories, resulting in a constriction of experience and action, with notable limitations on relationships specifically (especially in the case of relational & developmental trauma) and impairing adult development by, among other things, curtailing the ability to learn from experience and take advantage of opportunities for growth.

What I’m getting to is a discussion of the more intrusive responses to supra-threshold distress and trauma, often called “re-experiencing” symptoms, and more specifically the difference in health of narrative as a function of “narrative variability”. By narrative variability, I mean the degree to which with each re-telling of a story (of adversity, in the context of this discussion) there is a change in the narrative.  In unhealthy states of narration, there is very low or even functionally zero variability. Each retelling of the story is a robotic repetition of the story, and the story which is told is a partial and inaccurate story which serves the purpose of self-preservation, and also often preservation of an account of the relational situation as being good – e.g. the family was not ignoring abuse for the sake of pretending everything was normal, but was a good family; the parent was not an neglectful alcoholic, but a good father who liked to have drink, sometimes a few too many.  There is a collusion between the individual and the group which serves to support the rigid narrative.

This is one kind of rigid narrative, which supports sequestration of the traumatic material, forming a psychological foreign body reaction much in the same way that that body forms a wall of inflammatory tissue around foreign material which cannot be absorbed or extruded. This leads to an absence of information crucial for effective and satisfactory living e.g. the ability to use emotions consciously to guide important interpersonal decisions.

The other kind of rigid narrative is not accompanied by numbing, but by acute and excruciating pain, a veritable re-living of the same unmediated emotions accompanying the original distressing experiences.  This leads both to the subjective sense of being stuck within the moment of the trauma, and exerts various distortions over perception of self and other, judgment and decision-making… leading not only to internal re-living but also to external re-enactment.

There is a third kind of narrative, excessively variable and organized around total denial, complete suppression and forgetting of distressing experiences and memory. In one sense, this is also highly rigid.  More rarely, typically with more profound traumatic experiences converging with particular individual developmental inclinations and contexts, this third kind of narrative is highly variable, chaotic and disorganized, characterized by both singular storylines which shift seemingly randomly with each retelling, and multiple storylines which co-exist with varying degrees of compartmentalization from one another, and seemingly are mutually contradictory. This is beyond the ken of ordinary experience for most people – being both extremely rigid and extremely variable.

All of these narrative types, whether excessively rigid or excessively variable, represent divergent pathways which veer away from health, and converge either on stiflingly rigid orbits, or singularly destructive points of termination.

By contrast, with (for lack of a better term) healthy trajectories beating a path out from massive adversity, narratives are observed which exist poised in a middle zone between rigidity and instability.  This is a form of balanced narrative variability which correlates with secure and integrated personality functioning, or trends in that direction with greater and lesser degrees of resilience to external perturbation. This poised state has been described in detail in different fields of complexity theory, for example under the rubric “the edge of chaos” by Stuart Kauffman (in At Home in the Universe), and earlier as fleissgleichgewicht or “flowing balance” by Von Bertalanffy (in Capra’s The Web of Life).

Freud viewed narrative rigidity as a “repetition compulsion”.  Earlier on, he saw this as an effort to master and work through trauma. In his later work, he postulated a “death instinct,” arguably as a teleological solution to a conundrum he could not quite resolve.

What is there to learn?  It’s a simple observation – when we make headway in successfully dealing with the various obstacles which carry over from earlier distressing life experiences, we can see various phases.  It can be useful to take a step back and consider the degree of narrative variability present at any given time, and potentially intervene on an intentional level to seek greater variability if we observe excessive rigidity, or to seek a more coherent and stable set of narratives converging toward a coherent narrative or interconnected set of narratives forming a more adaptive network of narratives, when variability is excessive.

The former case is typically hampered by obsession and addiction, with a superficial excessive preoccupation with control to counter underlying experiences of reeling. The latter is typically hampered by the absence of an overarching sense of awareness, intentionality or will. Regardless, possessing even a vague sketch of a future successful perspective can serve as a scaffold for re-directing one’s efforts to re-tell oneself, a vision of a future yet-to-be which in the present is seemingly impossible to achieve.

Finally, while in the best circumstances both rigid and excessive narratives converge on healthy narrative variability, this period of narrative variability (referred to characteristically by traditional therapists as “working through”) itself settles into a stable state, and by and large a sufficient narrative state is chosen, coheres into a different and as noted ostensibly unforeseeable new sense of reality (of self and other), and is generally revisited infrequently and only when appropriate and necessary, yet not forgotten – being placed into perspective and context, and associated with various improvements in internal and external function.