By Mike McMahan, LPC
Often, when clients come to therapy, their life stories are convoluted, with strands bouncing all over the place. Is there any value in sorting all of this out?
A recent re-post from Dorkly mused about the question we’ve all wondered about at one time or another. Do all of the storylines from the Super Mario Bros. games really line up and make a cohesive narrative? Though amusing, it turns out that the video is quite serious and meticulous in its approach and methods, even though the presentation is clearly light-hearted. It involves straightening out time-travel plots and revealing that characters thought to be children of other characters are in fact, younger versions of these characters. You’ve always kind of suspected that, right?
However, in all seriousness, this video reminds me of a technique I have successfully used with clients, which is to have them draw a graphic representation of their life history. This exercise is fairly simple to complete, and requires only a pen and a piece of paper. If you want to get really fancy and make your graph especially spiffy, you might want to grab a ruler as well.
Think back to math and the concept of a graph. The Y-axis (or horizontal lower portion of paper) will represent the years of your life. So the lower left corner would be the year of your birth. The lower right corner would represent today, or at least the endpoint of your graph. The X-axis (or vertical portion of graph) would represent a value that you assign to each event, based on (a completely relative) value of how “good” the event is. Place a dot in the corresponding year and place a “value” on the event as well, perhaps starting with your birth. And there is the first question. Where do you value your own birth in your hierarchy of life events? It’s clearly important, but it may have different meaning for someone who grew up in a happy home versus someone who was born addicted to drugs and alcohol to a mother who later lost custody. Take it from there! (See this example, from The New Yorker in the sidebar.)
Events to consider that many would consider positive might include major milestones such as graduations, awards, marriages, births of children. But as we want to get a full picture, don’t forget to include more challenging events such as significant deaths in your life, times you didn’t achieve your goals, mistakes and other similar experiences. Then, once you have completed the events, simply connect the dots. You will have a graphical representation of the ups and downs of your life.
Now that you have this on paper, what do you see? Have you had more ups or downs? Is this because of circumstances in your life, or did you choose all negative (or positive) events? What are the important lessons or skills that you learned from these events? How can you apply these skills going forward?
Remember, this is quite likely to be a work-in-progress. After all, life deals each of us changes, disruptions and triumphs each day. It’s learning to deal with and grow from those changes that’s the real trick.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture