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What is Narrative Therapy?




As you'll see if you read the bio on my website, I use Narrative Therapy in my work with clients. Naturally, this may lead you to ask, what is Narrative Therapy? What makes it useful?


To Tell Your Own Story


Narrative Therapy is an approach pioneered by Michael White and David Epston of New Zealand during the 1970's and 1980's. Their idea was to develop a way of engaging with people that put focus on the ways people understood their own problems, rather than putting focus on the therapist's way of understanding those problems. This approach would explore how people viewed and talked about their experiences, and find ways that people could change their experiences by changing the stories they told about themselves.


The fundamental idea behind Narrative Therapy is, the stories we tell ourselves (and others) are important because they shape how we view and feel about ourselves and the world. Consider a situation where a person makes a mistake--maybe they drop a glass and it breaks. They might say to themselves "well, accidents happen", or they might say "I'm so clumsy, I'm always doing things like this". The event itself hasn't changed--the glass has still broken--but if they tell themselves a story about how this broken glass represents a persistent negative quality about themselves, they're likely to feel much worse about it than if they just saw it as an isolated incident.





Becoming Your Own Author


Narrative Therapy uses a few specific techniques to help people make this change to how they see things. One is "re-authoring", where the therapist seeks to understand the stories the client is telling about the events of their lives, and encourages the client to consider other stories that could be told about these events. For instance, consider a client who was abused as a child, and who tells the therapist "I never fought back, because I'm weak--I deserved to be hurt". The therapist might help the client re-author this story by suggesting that the client wasn't actually responsible for what happened to them, because they were a child and didn't have the power to change that situation; a new version of that story might be "I was a child who needed to be cared for, but the person responsible for my care chose to hurt me instead". This new version of the story puts the responsibility for what happened on the person who was actually in control of it--the abuser, not the abused--and gives the client an opportunity to view that situation differently. It also offers the client a chance to continue that re-authoring work into the present, by saying "In the past I was a child who didn't have power, but now I'm an adult with the power to make a different choice than the adults in my past did--I can choose to take care of myself instead of hurting myself".


Another technique is "externalizing", where clients are encouraged to view their difficulties as external to themselves, instead of seeing the problems as something inherent to them. To use the above example again, the client with an abuse history might say "Because of what happened to me, I'm broken, I can never be normal". The therapist might help them externalize this by suggesting that, rather than making them "broken", their abuse has caused them to experience challenges that not everyone experiences. This shifts the source of the problem from something internal--being "broken"--to something external--the challenges that come from abuse. This also contributes to the re-authoring process, because instead of telling the story that they can "never be normal", the client can acknowledge that facing challenges is normal, even if not everyone faces the same challenges.


"Deconstructing" is also an important part of Narrative Therapy, because it allows both the therapist and the client to break down the meaning of the events in the client's life, and find the reasons why these events have this meaning. For instance, imagine a client who feels upset that they weren't chosen to lead a project at work. When the therapist explores why this bothers them so much, the client explains that they believe that "the best person" is chosen to lead, and not being chosen means they aren't "the best"; exploring further, the client says that they feel if they aren't "the best", then they aren't good enough, because in their mind there's only "the best, and then everyone else". Through deconstruction, the therapist can help the client understand why this experience means so much to them, and then explore other ways of thinking about it: perhaps the client is dismissing all their own good qualities if these qualities aren't enough to make them "the best", and if they recognized the positive qualities they have which don't depend on being "the best", this experience wouldn't feel as distressing to them.


Narrative Therapy also helps clients identify "unique outcomes", by looking at the "themes" that emerge in a client's stories and what evidence the client is basing these on. For instance, going back to the example of person who dropped the glass, perhaps that person sees that incident as evidence of them being "clumsy" because they have had multiple experiences of breaking things. This has become a "theme" in their narrative: that they always break things, and other people don't, so this means they are clumsy and others aren't. The therapist could help the client identify unique outcomes by asking about times when the client didn't break things, or when others did, and questioning why these experiences don't fit into the theme of the client being clumsy. The client could then explore how they have used the evidence of themselves breaking things to support the theme of clumsiness, but have ignored the evidence which would contradict this theme. Once the client has looked beyond their usual narrative and identified these unique outcomes, they can use that as evidence to support a new narrative, in which everyone breaks things sometimes and this doesn't mean they're "clumsy".





Who Gets To Tell Us Our Stories?


So, these are a few of the techniques that help define Narrative Therapy as an approach. Why, then, have I chosen it as my preferred approach? One major reason is that, because Narrative Therapy centres the client and their perspective, it's highly compatible with social justice values, which are an important part of my practice. Narrative Therapy acknowledges that the stories we tell about things are social constructs; that is, they exist because we believe in them, rather than the other way around. This is an important concept when it comes to topics such as gender, where the stories people tell themselves are often influenced by the wider social stories being told. If we accept those wider social stories at face value--for instance, the story that sex and gender are the same thing, and they exist in a mutually exclusive binary of only "male" and "female"--then whenever someone doesn't feel they fit into that story, they may feel "abnormal" or that there is no place in society for them.


Narrative Therapy is built around the principle of questioning these kinds of narratives, and deconstructing them to understand why they have the meanings they do. If someone is struggling with feeling "abnormal" because they don't fit into the wider social story, a Narrative therapist can help them deconstruct that story and explore why it has such an impact on them. Perhaps the person grew up being told that it's important to fit in, to be similar to others, and that being different from others would lead to punishment and unhappiness. They might have accepted that narrative at face value, and now they believe that not being similar to others is an inherently bad thing. The therapist could help them externalize this problem, and recognize that the issue isn't that the person doesn't "fit in", but rather that some people are struggling with their own feelings of insecurity whenever others are different from them, and these people act out in ways that make others feel unsafe. The therapist can then help the client re-author their story around this, and instead of seeing themselves as abnormal and inherently flawed, they can see themselves as equally worthy as everyone else, even if there are some people in the world who don't agree with that.


In conclusion, I choose a Narrative-informed approach because I value social justice and want to provide services that put the focus on the client and their perspective. I believe all people deserve to get the support that works best for them, and Narrative Therapy is built around helping people identify their own needs and how to get those needs met.


If you feel like this is an approach you'd like to explore, or you have questions about how this approach would be used in practice, please contact me at jasonshepherdlmft@gmail.com. I'm happy to hear from you any time. Thanks for reading, and be well!

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