The Pretend Tea Party
The first few images I have shared have been geared toward explaining the process of entering therapy and some of what happens that leads people into the change process. Today, I want to share an image that I use to first help people begin to understand their relationships -- especially within the family system.
People have their individual stories of their life based on lived experience and personal memory but there are also other larger stories that are important to bring to light and understand when learning about a new person. People have family stories and cultural stories that play a significant role on the individual writing and framing of personal stories. For example, a 40-something man's personal story of "being weak" is both informed by personal times of struggle where emotions ran out of control but is also influenced by being the youngest of 3 brothers who always struggled just a little to keep up AND his cultural story of growing up in a small town where you weren't really accepted unless you were on the football team AND the common belief that men are not supposed to show emotion. People are often unaware of how potent and pervasive these other stories are in their own personal telling of their life.
So what does any of this have to do with tea? I'm getting there. Promise. Each of these contexts that we grow up and live in (families, schools, professions, faith communities, etc) have their specific beliefs and rules about how to behave. Some of these are expressly stated and others are just communicated through action and inaction. For example, the base requirements for getting into college are GPA and SAT scores but the unwritten and commonly accepted knowledge states that you must also be a well-rounded student who participates in at least 4 diverse extra-curricular activities and has completed multiple AP tests and who volunteers on the side. Most contexts we exist in have the same distinction between written rules and the unwritten and commonly accepted rules for living.
Let's start with the family. Most families have very few written rules for behavior -- much like a pretend tea party. The rules of a tea party are taught and followed over time but are mostly unwritten. Pretend there is tea in your cup and that you are enjoying it, do that fancy thing with your pinky, and act like it's all the best thing ever. As a kid, this is easier to follow because you are a child and the imagination part is easier to buy in to. Similarly, the rules of our families and society are easier to follow as children because, well, we don't know anything else and think that's the way ALL families are or the way EVERYTHING is and has to be. This is ok when the rules are safe and healthy but damaging when the rules are destructive or abusive. Within the context of the family, the rules are known and followed by all parties. This is the only way the system can function.
In the process of growing up, however, we start to learn that the rules in our family are not those of ALL families and that some of the rules in our school, community, and faith are not always fair or in line with our personal beliefs. Growing up believing that "what happens in our family stays in our family" or "girls aren't supposed to share their opinions" or "good Christians don't question their faith" over time can cause increased distress and difficulty as people start to have a harder time following the rules. When you're a teenager playing tea party with a younger sibling, you really have to force yourself to play along. You know it's ridiculous and obviously there is no tea in your cup but you're not allowed to call that into awareness. This leads to spending time in our adolescence and teen years trying to figure out how to follow several different sets of rules and play different roles in order to participate in multiple different tea parties in multiple different contexts. It is pretty confusing and exhausting but feels necessary because, well, that's just what you do.
People entering therapy -- especially as adults -- often have a hard time identifying what the rules of their family and social contexts were. People don't tend to think of their family as having had rules. Exploring family history and early childhood experiences is one step toward identifying what the stories of their family, community, and other important contexts were. Taking time to understand what belief systems and thought patterns developed over time as a result of the intersection of personal experience and the narratives of their family and culture helps to place even the most negative personal narrative within a context that makes sense. We develop as a part of the stories we live in. Having a sense of poor self esteem may make sense when you look just at your personal story but it doesn't take into consideration the family story of "your best is never good enough" and the societal belief that "people who are having a hard time just aren't trying hard enough." Combining those three stories at least begins to call into question the accuracy and validity of any one of those stories as being "the truth."
It's one thing to question these stories on your own and an entirely different experience to think about calling them into question within the context that upholds them. Again, imagine playing tea party with your family as an adult where everyone is following the rules and you sit there saying "so we're all just going to pretend that there's tea in here? Really? Y'all, there is no tea. All of this is made up." It would shatter the experience of the tea party. Perhaps even more challenging is the more typical outcome where the system does not actually allow for the experience to be dismantled. The system fights to uphold the stories.
Part of the therapy process is helping people to understand that sometimes the systems we live in are not interested in changing their narratives but that doesn't mean we still have to follow the same rules. Part of the change process is preparing for what will happen if people don't want to allow for updates to the rules or for calling into awareness that the rules even exist.
This leaves people with several choices: 1. Not change and continue to play pretend for as long as possible 2. Continue to play pretend but hold personal knowledge that it's all make believe or 3. Choose not to participate in the tea party at all.
None of these choices are easy and they all have their specific challenges. Working with people to begin the process of identifying the various stories of their life and how they overlap is often an illuminating experience in and of itself. It can reduce the intensity of some of the personal criticism, shame, and attack that results from problem-saturated personal stories. It also adds extra information for integration that tells a more complete story. All of this happens before anyone begins to think about what they want to do when they are invited to tea. There is no right or wrong answer. There is only what feels right once an individual is able to call into awareness the rules they've been living by throughout their life and if those will lead to a healthier life in the future.