What is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy was first developed by Michael White and David Epston during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Narrative therapy catapulted to fame in the 1990’s with the publication of their novel, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.
The purpose of narrative therapy is to allow you to share your story (narrative) with your therapist. The main goal of narrative therapy is to help you focus on your own personal story and understand the depth of your life experiences. During narrative therapy you learn how to make sense of your life and recognize how your assumptions influence how you see yourself and the world around you.
For example, you may tell your therapist about a time when you felt insecure or inadequate. Sharing this story with your therapist may help you realize that you have always felt insecure and/or inadequate. In other words, you have secretly always felt this way, but did not recognize it. Once you can admit that you have always harbored feelings of insecurity and inadequacy then you and your therapist can work together to change your perception of yourself and the world around you. Once you can accurately tell your story then you can begin to see your problems in a realistic way and therefore work together to effectively resolve those issues.
What Happens During Narrative Therapy Sessions?
During narrative therapy your beliefs, competences, values and experiences play a significant role in helping you solve your problems and regain your life. Your narrative therapist plays the role of “investigator” who is not the focal point of the investigation, but still regarded as an essential part of the therapeutic process. The goal of your therapist is to help you explore, assess and alter your perspective when it comes to your problems.
The premise of narrative therapy is the belief that although your problems appear to be complicated and/or challenging, you are still alive and you still have an opportunity to solve your problems and turn the situation around. Your problems have not destroyed you.
Your therapist assists in the therapeutic process by asking questions that help you accurately tell your story and investigate the causes of your problems. He/she may ask you to discuss how your problems have influenced your quality of life. Once you have a good understanding of why you are having problems than your therapist can help you think of ways to effectively resolve your issues. He/she helps you “remember” certain experiences by asking you about the influential people in your life. Who influences you most in life? How has that person contributed to your problems or lack of problems?
It is not unusual for “outside witnesses” to be invited into one or more sessions. These “witnesses” are friends, family members, acquaintances and/or co-workers who are invited to listen to your story. They typically have inside knowledge of your problems and/or previous experience with similar problems.
During a “witness” session, the “witness” listens to your story without interrupting. Then your therapist interviews the “witness” with strict instructions not to judge, analyze or critique what he/she has heard. The role of the “witness” is simply to articulate what phrase or part of the story stood out for him/her and to share any experiences that resemble the experience you shared with him/her. Lastly, your therapist asks the “witness” if, after hearing your story, he/she feels differently about his/her own life struggles and experiences.
The benefit of having an “outside witness” is that it teaches you that you are not the only person who has ever had that problem and it helps you see yourself and others in a new light. Narrative therapy helps you realize that you are not alone. It improves your self-esteem and helps your reclaim your life. This approach helps you find alternative solutions to your problems by empowering you and helping you take control of your life.
How Does a Narrative Therapist Approach Psychological Issues?
Narrative therapists concentrate on your story. They work with you to help you develop a more in-depth narrative (story). Your therapist may prompt you to share detailed descriptions of experiences and life events that may be creating problems in your life. He/she helps you see that you are not the sum of your problems; instead you are separate entity. A common narrative saying: “You are not the problem, the problem is the problem.”
Most narrative therapists utilize the family therapy approach when treating psychological problems. It is not uncommon for authors, social workers, educators, psychologists, counselors, psychotherapists, physicians and other mental health professionals to use narrative therapy when working with the various individuals, children, families and groups.
Narrative therapists believe that by focusing on the effects of your problems instead of linking your problems to you as a person, distance is created. Distance helps put the problem into perspective so that you can more easily deal with it and find alternative ways to resolve it. In addition, telling your story helps you reframe how you see the experience or event that is causing distress. It helps you pull out the positive aspects of that previous experience so that you can “retell your story” in a more positive light. This type of therapy helps you recognize your hopes, dreams, true intentions and commitments so that you can successful solve your problems.
Dulwich Centre Publications. (2004). Narrative therapy and research. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 2, 29-36.
Madigan, S. (2010). Narrative therapy (Theories of psychotherapy). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.