Narrative therapy is a style of therapy that helps people become—and embrace being—an expert in their own lives. In narrative therapy, there is an emphasis on the stories we develop and carry with us through our lives. As we experience events and interactions, we give meaning to those experiences and they, in turn, influence how we see ourselves and our world. We can carry multiple stories at once, such as those related to our self-worth, our abilities, our relationships, and our work, for example.
This approach of therapy was developed by Michael White and David Epston, two New Zealand-based therapists, who believed it was important to see people as separate from their problems. Developed in the 1980s, narrative therapy is an empowering approach to counseling that is non-blaming and non-pathological in nature. White and Epston felt it was critically important for people to not label themselves or to see themselves as “broken” or “the problem,” or for them to feel powerless in their circumstances and behavior patterns.
Narrative therapy was developed with three main components in mind. The following create the foundation for the relationship between a narrative therapist and their client:
Respect: People participating in narrative therapy are treated with respect and supported for the bravery it takes to come forward and work through personal challenges.
Non-blaming: There is no blame placed on the client as they work through their stories and they are also encouraged to not place blame on others. Focus is instead placed on recognizing and changing unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and behaviors.
Client is the expert: Narrative therapists are not viewed as an advice-giving authority but, rather, a collaborative partner in helping clients grow and heal. Clients know themselves well and exploring this information will allow for a change in their thoughts and behaviors.
The focus of narrative therapy is around stories that we develop within ourselves and carry through our lives. We give meaning to our personal experiences and these meanings that we come up with, or that have been placed on us by others, influence how we see ourselves and the world around us. Our stories influence our thoughts and, in turn, our decision-making and behaviors.
Narrative therapy is based on the following principles:
Reality is socially constructed: The way we interact with others impacts how we experience reality. These experiences with others become our known reality.
Reality is influenced by (and communicated through) language: People interpret experiences through language and people can have different interpretations of the same event or interaction.
Having a narrative can help us maintain and organize our reality: The development of a narrative or story can help us to make sense of our experiences.
There is no “objective reality”: People can have different realities of the same experience. What might be true for us may not be true for someone else.
Narrative therapy suggests that we create stories throughout our lives as a way to make sense of our experiences and we can carry many stories with us at one time. Although some stories can be positive and others negative, all stories impact our lives in the past, the present, and in the future.
As described in narrative therapy, stories involve the following four elements working together:
Linked in a sequence
According to a plot
There can be many factors that contribute to our development of stories. These factors influence how we interpret events or interactions, as well as the meanings we attach to them. Some of the factors include:
As we think about these factors, we likely hold beliefs about them and what they mean to us or how they impact us in the world. Our beliefs around these things shape how we might see ourselves and what we tell ourselves about an experience or interaction.
We carry multiple stories with us at once, such as stories about our relationships, our professional lives, our weaknesses, our strengths, our goals and more. Narrative therapy emphasizes the exploration of these stories, as they can have a significant influence on our decision making and behavior.
Our Dominant Story
Although we can carry several stories at the same time, there is typically a story that is more dominant than the others. When our dominant story gets in the way of us living our best life or seems to sabotage our efforts at growth and change, it becomes problematic. Many times, when people come into counseling they are faced with a problematic dominant story that is causing them emotional pain.
A narrative therapist works with clients to explore the stories that they carry about themselves, their lives and their relationships. When a dominant story is problematic, it will surface in our interactions with others, in our decision making and in our behavior patterns.
A problematic dominant story that we carry may have started with a judgment that was placed on us by others, particularly those who might have been in a position of authority or influence over us, like a parent or caregiver. For example if, when we were young, we behaved in a way that resulted in a parent calling us “lazy,” we may begin thinking of ourselves as lazy and weaving that label into our story as we move into other experiences. The trait of being lazy then continues to grow and become part of a dominant story for us, influencing how we see ourselves and how we behave or interact with others in the future.
These specific judgments are referred to as thin descriptions in narrative therapy. As this continues to be carried through our lives, it can become what is called a thin conclusion. In essence, using the term “thin” to describe these specific descriptions and conclusions means that there is little consideration for outside circumstances that might influence our decision making and behavior. Once something like this takes hold, it can be easy to imagine how it can grow over time and become a problem for us.
Confusing Ourselves With Our Problems
If we have been judged a certain way by our family growing up, referring back to the example of being lazy, it can be very difficult for us to shake that off or get that label out of our story. Not only do we end up often carrying this with us over time, but events that leave us to feel or be seen as lazy continue to support the dominant story that we are a lazy person. This story becomes problematic, getting in the way of us being able to make healthy decisions that more accurately represent who we are and what we value. We find it more and more difficult to separate ourselves from our problem. In fact, we come to think that we are the problem.
Unfortunately, thin descriptions tend to be focused on our weaknesses or areas that we might believe we don’t measure up. When we try to make decisions that challenge our dominant story, it may be overlooked by others, and even ourselves, because it is seen as the exception rather than the rule. Our “not lazy” behaviors might be minimized or overlooked because it doesn’t match up with our dominant story. In other words, we might even not give ourselves credit for making good decisions or behaving in a positive way because it doesn’t match up with the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of.
How Narrative Therapy Helps
Narrative therapy focuses on these stories, particularly the dominant stories that are problematic and seem to get in the way of us living our best lives. A trained narrative therapist works with people to explore these stories and to seek out information that helps us to challenge these problematic stories.
Through narrative therapy, we can begin to identify alternative stories that offer us an opportunity to challenge judgment and explore what other information we are carrying within us. Exploring in this way helps us to widen our view of self, challenge old and unhealthy beliefs and to open our minds to new ways of living that reflect a more accurate and healthy story.
Within narrative therapy, there is a strong emphasis on separating the person from their problem. By doing this, the person begins to understand that they are capable of something new. Old, unhelpful meanings that have been woven into our stories over time can be challenged.
As people widen their view of self and explore additional information, there can be room made for healthy changes in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When there is space created between us and our problem, we can better examine and choose what is serving us well and what is not. Narrative therapy does not aim to change a person but to allow them to become an expert in their own life.
Narrative Therapy Exercises
There are a variety of techniques and exercises used in narrative therapy to help people heal and move past a problematic story. Some of the most commonly used techniques include:
Putting Together Our Narrative
One of the primary things that a narrative therapist would help their client do is to begin putting together their narrative. In doing this, we are able to find our voice and explore events in our lives and the meanings we have placed on these experiences—and therefore on ourselves—over time.
Some people may not be aware of a particular story that has followed them through their life, but know that something keeps them from living a good life or making good decisions for themselves. As their story is put together, the person becomes an observer to their story and looks at it with the therapist, working to identify the dominant and problematic story.
While we are using our voice to put together our story, we are becoming observers to ourselves. We use this exercise to create distance between us and our problems, which is called externalization.
When we have this distance between ourselves and our problem, we can better focus on changing unwanted behaviors rather than feeling we, ourselves, are the problem. As we practice externalization, we get a chance to see that we are capable of change and begin feeling empowered to work toward healing.
Deconstruction is used to help people gain clarity in their story. There are times when our dominant story can feel big and overwhelming, as if we can never get out from under it. When a problematic story in our life feels like it has been around for a long time, we might use generalized statements and become confused in our own stories. A narrative therapist would work with us to break down our story into smaller parts, to help us clarify our problem and help it become more approachable.
When our story feels concrete, as if it could never change, any idea of alternative stories goes out the window. We can become very stuck in our story and allow it to influence several areas of our lives, impacting our decision making, our behaviors, our experiences, and our relationships.
A narrative therapist works to help us to not only challenge our problems but to widen our view by considering alternative stories. They might help us to explore information we have been carrying with us for a long time but have never allowed to have any value. This information can help us develop a new, healthy story of who we are, what we want, and who we want to become.
By Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP