In Our Own Movie

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

Neuroscientists have discovered that how humans make sense of  “what happened” actually alters brain function. The story we believe and tell about an experience has more weight than the actual trauma. That is one reason why similar experiences will affect people differently. 

We react and remember according to how we interpret a situation. Our experiences with abandonment and attachment, security and fear, pleasure and trauma, love and anger contribute to how we decide—moment-by-moment—our course of action. Each individual has his or her own unique pre-history. Beliefs and behaviors useful to parents and ancestors in their particular times and circumstances are handed down through the generations. Yet their progeny may find those interpretations and reactions no longer useful. 

When we work with couples or individuals, one of the first things we establish is an acknowledgment that we are all, at all times, in different “movies.” Even at moments of extreme closeness – making love, kayaking down a beautiful river, or sharing a spiritual experience – we are each having our own unique set of thoughts, feelings, interpretations of the moment, and we are creating differing memories of “what happened.” The bittersweet truth is that no matter how hard humans try to communicate their inner reality--through words or art or touch or any other means--we can’t “walk a mile in their shoes.” It is hard enough to be aware of what makes us tick, let alone truly know what it is like to be someone else. We will never really know what it is like to be in someone else’s movie.

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD


However, we can learn to understand our own inner movies as well as change the script. Curiosity about the filmmaking going on in our heads is an essential part of mindfulness-based therapy. The movie we replay of “what happened” at our third-grade backyard carnival birthday party is different from the movies made by our mother, father, little sister and each of the guests. But we tend to assume we were all in the same movie. 

Meditation is a practice we use to strengthen our muscles of awareness. When we communicate what we know about our movie without demanding that ours is the only possible script, we invite dialogue and connection. We tell clients (and remind ourselves) that it is useful to communicate the details of our current movie way more than we think should be necessary. To ourselves, our movies seem so vivid and real, and we are amazed to find that other people’s movies of the same event can be so confoundedly different!

Bill and I act as detectives or anthropologists — not assuming knowledge, but gathering clues and data. We encourage our clients to do the same. We follow the threads of present beliefs and behaviors back to influential family legends and personalities as well as unprocessed traumas. We look for connections between present difficulties and old, out-of-date, distorted, unhelpful maps and methods for navigating life. In session, we sometimes draw diagrams of family histories to identify internalized patterns of perception. A family that values conflict avoidance would likely create scripts where only the safely mundane is discussed. Uncomfortable feelings and certain events remain secret and unspoken because a new script would be required for any expanded conversations. 

Humans evolved not only through mutation and natural selection, but also through mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart connections with other humans. Body language and actions convey much that is vital for human-to-human bonds, but words are our main medium. We have to work hard to communicate, and others have to work hard to understand the communication. When we learn to consider other possible meanings for certain events or patterns in relationships, we are able to change the entrenched beliefs about our life, other people and ourselves. This change impacts how we perceive and react to future events. New insights into the past give us greater insights into the present and offer alternative, more useful responses to common activating situations. When we change the movie of the past, we change the movie of the future.


Why Therapy

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

People come to therapy because they are unhappy, because they are dissatisfied, because they are confused.  They find that their life is not what they thought it would be, or should be, or could be. They are disappointed and uncomfortable--maybe to the point of pain. It’s a brave thing to do, to try to find the reason for our unhappiness, because people are afraid to change.  In trying to change we might discover that there are no easy answers, there is no magic pill. What affects us, what males us happy or sad, hopeful or frustrated — is not external, but within ourselves. And changing ourselves is hard. 

We humans tend to ignore problems and make do by sticking to what we know and to what we think others want. We muscle through without admitting that our methods for navigating our voyage through life are not effective. We kick the boat or do something to distract us from the problem, rather than look for the true cause of our troubles. What we don’t realize is that there is a hole in our boat that needs to be found and fixed, and sometimes the boat is leaking so badly we are in danger of drowning. We all need a little help sometimes.

All humans have their own unique, inner landscapes that no one else can ever completely know. As we communicate in relationships, we turn a camera on our interior world and send snapshots to those we love, hoping they will understand our inner landscape. This effort results in a greater understanding of our own complex and ever-changing network of thoughts, emotions, and filters of perception. Actions become more conscious, not just habitual reactions. The impact of our past on our present is changed by that endeavor. 

My husband Bill is my best friend, fellow ardent kayaker, and partner in our psychotherapy practice. On our journey together we try to discover better ways to navigate life’s challenges and savor the joy. As therapists, we provide tools and a safe place to explore what our clients have experienced in past and present, their outer and inner adventures. The effort to understand is key.  

Together and separately, Bill and I have explored many ways of exploring human existence. Personality, gender, genetics and experience formed our basic strategies. Wise teachers and their methods have influenced our paths. Hard work on our own lives and relationships has shaped our ideas and honed our techniques. Each client adds to our knowledge and expands our compassion. 

The process of healing and changing is unique for each person. In our practice we act as guides, encouraging our clients to go towards what is unknown, painful or frightening – because that is also where joy and satisfaction are found. As we accompany them on their emotional expeditions, we add our observations and share useful life skills. The first step in any journey takes courage. To join courage with compassion creates the confidence for us to be curious, and this new awareness increases our ability to successfully paddle through life’s challenges. When we more effectively communicate our thoughts and feelings, and as we work to understand what others communicate, we strengthen our human connections. Through the process of psychotherapy new ways of being are practiced and internalized. People change.