The vulnerability of helping professionals in the face of a single story

In her lecture on the danger of a single story, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie reminisces Fide. When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

basket dyed raffia
She was startled. It had never occurred to her that anyone in that family could actually create something.
The poverty-story had made it impossible for to see them as anything else but poor.

Years later.
Adichie is in the US now. She will go to university now and she meets her roommate.
This roommate is shocked when she discovers that this African woman:

  • Speaks English,
  • is a fan of Mariah Carey, and
  • knows how to use a stove.

How come?
Throughout her life, she had been exposed – as an American – to versions of the same story about Africa: pictures, tales, facts about beautiful landscapes and animals, but also about poverty, cruelty, and backwardness.

The Africa-as-catastrophe story.

africa mooiafrica violence
Again and again.
Effects?
The American student had not been able to imagine that African people could be a lot like her.
Feelings? Pity.

More years later.
Adichie travels through Mexico.
She realizes – to her shame – what the years in the US have done to her perspective on “the Mexicans.”

trump mexicans
Mexicans in US media:

endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border
Versions of one story: “the despicable Mexican immigrant.”

 

Adichie gives example after example of the impact – for everyone – when the same story keeps circulating. A single story about people. A single story about a place.
How a single story infiltrates our perspective.

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become.

Exposed to a single story about people, we become limited in what we can feel.
It impacts the dignity of the people the story is about.
It impacts our experience of fellow humanity.
Our ability to connect with each other.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Power…

And another thing. The link between stories and power:

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

‘The’ story. How things are. The truth.

 

The story vulnerability of professionals

Adichie quotes

How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.

I ask myself that.
Not that we are impressionable and vulnerable when we are exposed to a story.
But ‘particularly as children’?
Am I, a 53 years old psychologist, any less impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story?
Are we, helping professionals, not affected and vulnerable when we are exposed to stories about people who take a client or patient position?

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

What % of Paul seems ‘psychotic’ in that phrase?

A human being.

Glass full of water with ink color drop

Like a glass of water.
A drop of psychosis.
The entire glass turns psychotic.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

How impressionable and vulnerable are we in the face of such a story?

hersenen en neurotransmitters

I‘d say, pretty vulnerable.
We, professionals, have been exposed to stories of psychosis.
Not the comics where someone shows up with a hat of Napoleon. Then we smile.
But what with stories from the professional culture with a pretense of scientific and authority?

Stories with words in it like ‘brains’, ‘neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘disability’, ‘cognitive’, ‘psycho-education’, ‘research’ …
Stories claiming to be the story that is no story anymore.
Claiming to speak the truth. What’s going on? What’s wrong?
They want to be the only story.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

My guess is: in the face of these stories we are vulnerable.
They infiltrate us without us even noticing.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

In my experience, such a story can have a big impact on

  • our experience of Paul,
  • how different we experience Paul from ourselves,
  • the conversations we are (not) going to have with Paul,
  • the things we can (not) be curious about,
  • what we can (not) feel for Paul,
  • what we can (not) imagine about future possibilities for Paul.

And this has an impact on Paul’s life.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

We are vulnerable and at the same time we are in a position of (relative) power in relation to Paul.

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

So our single-story-vulnerability increases Paul’s vulnerability.

If we take an expert position, we not only have the ability to tell the story of another person but to make this the definitive story about that person.

And:

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Disorders, diagnosis, treatment

As helping professionals, we want some recognition of the value that we bring.
One way to do that is drawing parallels between our work and that of medical doctors.

diagnosis
That’s why we call some of our stories “diagnoses.”
What we do and try, we sometimes call “treatment.”
Or “therapy.”

Medical doctors owe their existence and recognition to the existence of diseases and symptoms and syndromes and physical damage.
We do psychosocial diseases, disorders, symptoms, syndromes, injuries, disabilities.

Because judgments of doctors enjoy a higher regard than that of laymen, inequality is at play.
Their story has an authority that the story of the layman does not have.
One way this authority works is through the use of a language that is different from the spoken language.
Reports often show a high density of jargon.
Letters are written * about * the person concerned, and sent * to * the fellow doctor.
Helping professionals do this too.dossier mental-screenshot-2
It is one of the ways to achieve our professional identity.
But this writing tradition does in stories-that-claim-to-be-the-only-story.
And then these stories and writings end up in a collection of high authority, called ‘dossier’.
Dossier: for and by people who are vulnerable to this kind of stories (however much we know the power of the ’confirmation bias).
For people that occupy a position of relative power in relation to the people the writings are about.

Confirmation bias: we’d better not underestimate its force.
How often do I hear: “Is this not typical of people with X?”

( “This” is an experience or initiative, and X is one of those words that we helping professionals are vulnerable to single-story-and-claims-of-truth-and-professionality-words )

That confirmation bias is a catalyst for the production of versions-of-the-same-story: “Yes, indeed …”

Thus, we contribute to the creation and confirmation of stereotypes:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The stories circulating in the professional culture.

Stories with a pretense of scholarship and authority.
We are vulnerable in the face of such stories.

Not to stories like:

Paul has worked for 25 years in a garage.
Or:
Paul adores his son Jon and his daughter Trish.

When someone is introduced to us with these stories, it remains easy for us to be curious about a variety of things.
Easy also to engage in the most diverse conversations.
Easy to experience Paul as a human being much as we are.
Easy to keep realizing that there is so much we do not know about Paul.

Ella is chronically depressed …

Oops. Our vulnerability is hit.
A glass of Ella. Full of chronic depression.
Stories from the professional culture with ingredients as “mood disorder, ‘’ neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘therapy-resistant’, …

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of bedsheets.

Protection

Can we protect ourselves from the danger of the single story?

The risk that we contribute to dignity degradation?
Can we protect ourselves in our vulnerability to stories that have “diagnosis” as a theme?
Can we protect ourselves against the impact of jargon-pretense?

This is what Adichie says:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me.

So how can we talk to people (in client and colleague positions) so that a diversity of stories can arise and circulate?
How can we respect the distinction between problem and person?
How can we talk to each other so that we limit the influence of pretentious words and language for all those involved?
What we’re going to ask Paul? And Paul’s partner?
How can introduce Paul to each other?
What are we going to write? How? To whom?

How can we write so that our readers do not get caught up in a single story?

I find these important questions.
I think these questions as such can and must play a role.
And I’m curious about your ideas.

If you want, you can download the crowbar exercise. This practice liberates professionals who find themselves stuck in a negative story about a client (when you notice that you’re always saying the same (negative) things about the person).

The crowbar exercise

Kind regards,
Johan Van de Putte

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PPS Want to watch the entire talk of Chimamanda Adichie: click The Danger of a Single Story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TED Talks.

 

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Johan Van de Putte

Johan Van de Putte is a psychologist with 25 years of experience in holding helping conversations. His focus goes out to molding conversations that are identity-friendly, that explore what sparkles in the life and the person of your conversation partner, and that maintain an awareness of the unequal distribution of power in the therapeutic relationship.

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