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|From Revolution to Evolution - Page 2|
PN: There seems to be something of a paradox at the heart of your work. You've always communicated a deep optimism about how much families can change. At the same time, when the subject turns to the possibilities that individuals can change themselves, you sound much more pessimistic.
Minuchin: Let me put it this way: I never expect people to change themselves. In a struggle with yourself, somebody has to lose, and that will be you. I really mean that. So when I work with a couple, I usually start out by saying to a wife, "Okay, so how do you want to change him?" And often the wife will say, "I cannot change him. I need to change myself." And then I will say, "You cannot change yourself, but you can change him."
The basic idea is that we are all part of social groups that tell us who we are at any point in time. Our most familiar idea of who we are comes from the sense of self that our key social systems, like the family, impose on us. At the same time, there are always alternative narratives, alternative ways of relating to people. But those only become possible when we stop doing what is familiar and discover other ways we can be. To do that, most of us need other people to help us. All of us contain a tremendous richness of possibilities, most of which we never experience in our lives.
PN: In other words, you believe in the idea that we're not just one self but many potential selves.
Minuchin: The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote Labyrinths, is wonderful at describing this world of multiplicity that most of us try to ignore. In a story called "Borges and I," he talks about how he loves to think about his life in new ways, but that every time he has a new thought, Borges the writer steals his thought and puts it on paper. This is his way of talking about the different realities we each experience every day. Most of us find it difficult to accept this multiplicity because in our fantasy and in our memories, we think that we are a unity.
Yogi Berra says the same thing. He says, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." We are continuously traveling on a road that leads off into different directions, and we can only take one of the roads. We forget that the other remains there; it doesn't disappear. Life is about making those choices and living with the knowledge of alternative routes that you don't take. We usually need other people to help us take roads that we wouldn't ordinarily take by ourselves.
PN: You've been doing therapy for over half a century. In that time, you've gone through all these different stages and incarnations. When you look over your career, what are the signal lessons that you want to pass along to us?
Minuchin: Whenever you start something, you make lots of mistakes. To have the energy to initiate something, you usually need to oppose something that already exists. Family therapy was constructed in opposition to the status quo. So when Don Jackson in 1956 wrote the first paper that I read in family therapy, he argued that the individual does not exist. He was delivering a broadside to psychodynamic thinking. He was trying to call attention to patterns of relationship beyond the individual, and he was absolutely right, but he was also absolutely wrong. So family therapy started off by going to extremes and saying, "We will only look at systems. The individual does not exist." It took us 50 years to say, "Yes, there are both social systems and individuals. They both exist."
When families come to you, they bring to you their certainty about who they are. The first thing that I do is to challenge this certainty of who they are. Whatever they think, I know that it is only a partial truth. My job is to show them that they are wrong in a way that opens up new possibilities.