What Is Narrative Therapy?

The stories we tell are our own truth and have the power to shape our beliefs, actions, and relationships with others. Narrative therapy is based on post-modern theory that these stories are simply constructions given meaning by culture, media, our families and other outside influences. With an ability to understand the workings of narrative on the mind, we learn to understand and choose more preferred or alternative narratives. Narrative has the power to deeply impact our lives, and understanding is a gateway to personal growth, identity transformation, and change. Our narratives also have the power to shift our relationship to our families, our communities, and in the world at large.

 

Any story you tell about yourself, your relationships, your family, or other areas of your life might depend on your audience, your mood, or any given point in time. Have you ever questioned the stories you tell? Have you ever considered that your internal dialogues about certain events may not be the most beneficial version of the truth? If you've never thought about the weight that your story might carry, consider that our stories have the power to establish our identity, organize our thoughts, understand our history, and give meaning or purpose to our lives. Narrative therapy guides clients towards healing and personal development, narrowing in on stories to develop fuller, more complex and multi-storied versions of ourselves and our experiences.

Narrative therapy is a method of therapy that separates a person from their problem. It encourages people to rely on their own skills, ideas, and values to minimize problems that exist in their lives. Alternative to traditional psychotherapy, it places the individual externally from the “problem” and also at the center of the solution.

“The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem.” – Michael White and David Epston

 

To this end, there are a few main themes or principles of narrative therapy:

  1. Reality is socially constructed, which means that our interactions and dialogue with others impacts the way we experience reality.
     

  2. Reality is influenced by and communicated through language, which suggests that people who speak different languages may have radically different interpretations of the same experiences.
     

  3. Having a narrative that can be understood helps us organize and maintain our reality. In other words, stories and narratives help us to make sense of our experiences.
     

  4. There is no “objective reality” or absolute truth; what is true for us may not be the same for another person, or even for ourselves at another point in time (Standish, 2013).

Throughout our lives, we give meaning to our personal experiences which emerge as personal stories and beliefs, eventually manifesting into behaviors and actions. Narrative therapy uses the power of these stories to help people uncover hidden biases, contradictions, negative assumptions, and ultimately develop preferred narratives that can propel them forward. 

Regarding your personal story, I will not approach your "problem" or any potential solution with preconceived ideas or judgments. This is the work: we have to look at your own beliefs and ideas about what things mean, what are the cultural messages around labels? What is your family history with certain labels, names or stories? Are you avoiding labels or even conversely, are you holding on to an identity or label that was given to you as a child?

 

My parents always used to say that I was “careless”- over the years, I internalized this, "Okay, I’m careless, I’m reckless. That’s me." In some ways it was reinforced by choices that I continued to make. But is this label true? Is there a way that we can separate ourselves and restory our personal self-narrative? I want you to think about that- what are the labels that you’ve been given in your life? What do they mean to you? Do you benefit from holding on to them? Can we challenging those labels and create more beneficial stories about you and your life?​

Our work together will focus on shifting your storyline and we will work collaboratively to give a positive meaning and function to your experiences. This should not be misconstrued as simply "thinking positive," but rather a very specific approach to help you develop life-affirming stories. There isn't only one, there are many potential storylines that are more helpful to you than others. 

The stories in our lives are multi-layered and have multiple threads with varying perspectives and points on a timeline. Think of the many ways you can interpret a single event or the way that you might shift your perspective years later. Using the unique outcomes technique is not about avoiding problems or ignoring events, it's about reimagining. What seems like a problem or issue from one perspective might be be a small detail from another point of view.

 

Michael White and David Epston developed narrative therapy as a non-pathologizing (anti-diagnostic) empowering, and collaborative approach. It recognizes that people have skills and expertise that can help guide change in their lives. Identifying (naming) and separating the problem from the individual allows therapists to help people externalize sensitive issues. Objectifying issues may lower a person’s resistance and defenses. It allows people to address issues in a more productive way. This method then gives way for the individual to re-author their own narrative and work with the therapist to develop more positive and preferred narratives around their experiences, relationships, and behaviors.

 

In the practice, we believe that telling stories is a form of action toward change. The process of a narrative therapist might include:

 

  • Helping people objectify their problems

  • Framing the problems within a larger socio-cultural context

  • Teaching the person how to make room for other stories

  • The therapist and person in therapy identify and build upon “alternative” or “preferred” storylines. These storylines exist beyond the problem story. They provide contrast to the problem, reflect a person’s true nature, and allow someone to rewrite their story.

  • People can then move from what is known (the problem story) to what is unknown.

 

GOALS AND CLIENT BENEFITS

Narrative therapy does not seek to transform the person in therapy. Instead, it aims to transform the effects of a problem. Its goal is to make space between a person and their issue. Narrative therapy helps people externalize an issue. This process can help people develop greater self-compassion. Self-compassion may help people feel more capable of change. Narrative therapists also help people view their problems in different contexts. These contexts may be social, political, and cultural. This can influence how we view ourselves and our personal stories.

 

Narrative therapy can be applied in many different settings including individual counseling, family and couples counseling, and in group therapy. Externalizing problems for couples and families gives the participants space to identify any issues, externalize them, and evaluate the effects. Together with a therapist, the couple or the family can reconnect, improve communication, and develop preferred narratives around their conflicts and issues. This leads to a reduction of blaming, resentments, and other negative consequences of having issues reside inside or implicit in the family or relationship dynamic. Seeing a problem objectively helps couples and families reconnect with their values, intentions, and the core strength of their bond.

 

In my narrative studies, I have been trained directly by John Stillman, the founder of the Caspersen Therapy Training Center, and an early student of Michael White, the founder of narrative theory and the Dulwich Center in Australia. Through our work, I have become certified in the practice of narrative therapy, and have used our practice sessions and research to develop my skills as a narrative deconstructionist and practitioner. My training has allowed me to hone my skills as a therapist, learn unique lines of questioning, and open the possibilities for alternative and preferred narratives. I have also worked with professional psychologists, anthropologists, and community healers throughout the world in how to implement narrative practices at the individual and group level.

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© 2020 by Kate Marlena