Narrative Therapy, or What Angelina Jolie Tells Herself About Herself

By Matianna Baldassari 07/19/18

Ask yourself: As a sober person, who am I? What is my new story? What will I tell myself and others about who I am and what my life is like sober?

A torn picture of wax figures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
Was Brad really that unhinged and was Angelina really that vindictive?

Human beings are fascinated by stories. Indeed, we are particularly enthralled with stories about the lives of other people. Biographies and autobiographies always hover near the top of the New York Times bestseller lists. Kids love bedtime stories as do adults these days: Popular smartphone apps like “Calm” tell bedtime stories that send their adult users into a soft, peaceful slumber. As a therapeutic approach, narrative therapy dives into the human instinct for storytelling to help people in need. Stories can be a profound vehicle for healing.

Not everyone, however, uses storytelling in such a positive fashion. Taking advantage of our instinctive love for stories, entertainment magazines make millions by publishing articles about famous people like Angelina and Brad, whose seemingly fascinating lives offer distraction from our own. If you were awake when the news broke out about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce in September of 2016, you probably saw the headlines. Everybody saw the headlines.

The tabloids and media alike snarled and ripped apart both Brad and Angelina, trying to create negative hype and drama. Negative stories sell a lot more than positive ones, so this particular narrative was salacious, with accusations by a vengeful wife against her husband that included out-of-control substance use and physicality towards his children, teetering on the edge of abuse.

The stories provided classic schadenfreude — that guilty, yet pleasurable feeling you get when you hear about someone else’s pain. And we, as a collective whole, loved it. Even the rich and beautiful are not perfect, so us “average” people don’t have to feel so bad and so “less than” after all. The media capitalized on this phenomenon, and Angelina was portrayed as enraged and merciless, a bitter accuser of someone she once loved. But some people felt Angelina was going too far; an angry woman airing her husband’s dirty laundry felt like a betrayal.

Yes, such a characterization could be true, and it could be a legitimate take on the story. But, from her viewpoint, could there be another? Could the negative portrayal of both Angelina and Brad be slanted by our society, namely the newspapers and magazines, for their own benefit? Was Brad really that unhinged and was Angelina really that vindictive?

If Angelina and Brad chose to deal with their struggles through therapy, there would be a number of different approaches from which they could choose. Narrative therapy, a type of psychotherapy, is all about looking at the world from different viewpoints and perspectives. By looking at how narrative therapy could apply to this celebrity break-up, we can gain good insight into why this approach can be effective for adults in recovery.

Let’s use Angelina as an example. If Angelina went to a narrative therapist, she might present a quite different perspective about her actions and the divorce than what the tabloids were touting. According to an analysis based on the theory of codependence, Angelina could be staying with her husband out of desperation, even if he were dangerous. I am not claiming that Brad Pitt was a danger to his children in actuality, but rather examining this overall narrative for argument’s sake. In this analysis of the situation, the fear of “being alone” can have a damaging influence on people’s lives.

Rather than coming forward with this codependent explanation, Angelina most likely would present a radically different narrative. Instead, Angelina was standing up for those very people she holds most dear – her children. If the accusations were true, she could have told a story about herself as a guardian of her kids, strong and fiercely protective. Rather than being scared of being alone, her decisions were based on her natural instincts, akin to a mother bear protecting her cubs. Ultimately, their welfare was her number one priority.

A narrative therapist could help Angelina see that being committed to her children was a powerful narrative to embrace. Her fervency could be seen as having its roots in protection. She bravely stood up to protect that which she loved. And she made a number of potentially difficult sacrifices for the welfare of her kids (namely, her marriage), but she also stood for her values and intuition as a mother.

What’s more, maybe Angelina has gone against the societal definition of a so-called “happy family.” According to the People website, Angelina made a statement to Vogue in 2006 about being a single mother when she met Brad. “I think we were the last two people who were looking for a relationship. I certainly wasn’t. I was quite content to be a single mom,” she stated.

This vantage point would support what is called in narrative therapy the “sparkling moment” when Angelina Jolie stood up to the problem. She made the choice to leave a situation that was potentially harmful to her kids, perhaps taking the chance of becoming a “single mother” again.

The therapist taking a narrative approach would ask questions of Angelina to guide her as she developed hope in the aftermath of her divorce. The therapist would remind Angelina Jolie of her confidence in being a single mother as shown by the quote. The potential goal would be to help her deal with the inevitable effects of her divorce.

Single motherhood often has a negative connotation in our society. We are told how hard it is to be a single mother, but could this be different for Angelina? Could it be a way of life that Angelina enjoys? She chose to adopt multiple children before getting together with Brad, actively taking the role of “single mother.” She broke society’s mold of the “ideal” mother: someone who is in a partnership while raising kids. Perhaps the narrative therapist would examine this with Angelina, helping to posit it as one of her strengths.

A narrative therapist helps you uncover the other side of the story that often doesn’t get told, for one reason or another. The pressures of traditional roles and mainstream ideas in society often keep these other narratives buried. A significant part of narrative therapy is about telling your story about who you are and why your life counts.

The therapist helps clients to understand the situations and events of their lives in a manner that helps to reveal how the clients want to be in the world. A goal is to create a tangible image of what they want their life to look like and finding the evidence to support this image, which may already be in place.

Narrative therapy works particularly well within recovery scenarios. People who have struggled with addiction often have negative stories about who they are, often because of the shame associated with being an "alcoholic" or "addict." Finding a different story is a way of seeing yourself apart from the "alcoholic" or "addict" label and developing a way to view yourself and your life that has nothing to do with the drug or alcohol problem. A narrative therapist believes that you, as a person, are separate from the drugs and alcohol, and he or she will always remain curious and respectful.

Many people call themselves different things and have “stories” that depend on the labels they put on themselves. For example, a "hipster" is someone who may dress in a chic, alternative way that most people outside of big cities don't encounter in daily life.

What story do you tell yourself about yourself in recovery? Ask yourself: As a sober person, who am I? What is my new story? What will I tell myself and others about who I am and what my life is like sober?

There are a myriad of questions that can offer access into new stories. For example, have you ever thought about what you want to be written on your gravestone? If you were at a party, what would your elevator pitch be about who you are and what you have done in your life? What would your theme song be and why? 

The therapy work is about developing a storyline that runs counter (or opposite to), but also at the same time as, the story of addiction. It is separate from the storyline involving the problem of drugs, alcohol, and other addictions. Just as Angelina could feel shameful for being called a “bad” wife who did not stick by her husband, there is an alternative story in which she is a “good” mother protecting her children. The therapist helps clients view themselves and their lives apart from the shame of the addiction and the resulting resentment at being viewed negatively by society.

The narrative therapy approach can be empowering: The client is always the expert, and the therapist is the guide who asks questions. The goal of this process is to help the client build the confidence and self-esteem to be the person that knows his or her life the best.

To the narrative therapist, you are so much more than just an “addict” and the negative experiences that happen to you in the throes of addiction. Doing this work can help you uncover and discover the other parts of who you are; your hopes, dreams, and preferences for living in sobriety as the protagonist and main character in your own, entirely new storyline. Is there something that only you know about who you are and what your life is like that would help you evolve into sustainable sobriety with the right attention and care? Maybe developing this side of yourself could help you stay sober and live a healthy, satisfying life in long-term recovery.

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Matianna Baldassari is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT #93379) in private practice with Pacific MFT Network. Matti also has worked at teen treatment centers in the past, and she continues to work today at an adult treatment center as a primary therapist. She graduated from Pepperdine University with a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. Since starting her practice, Matti has developed a passion for working with people struggling with co-occurring disorders, substance abuse challenges, and mental health issues. She has written for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) Los Angeles chapter’s newsletter, Voices, and the CAMFT state magazine, The Therapist. Matti also is certified as a Kundalini yoga instructor, and she has a black belt in Kung Jung Mu Sul (Korean Royal Court Martial Arts). The latter tends to surprise most people, but the former does not. In her spare time, Matti enjoys spending time with her husband, sitting at coffee shops, and exploring the intriguing mystery that makes up most of life as it unfolds around her. Find Matianna on LinkedIn.