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How Narrative Therapy Works

The events we experience in life make up our personal stories or narratives. While most people have life stories that are mainly positive, some people define themselves primarily by the painful events they experienced in the past. Narrative therapy helps individuals who have a negative sense of self to identify their strengths, rewrite their story, and approach life with greater confidence.

Narrative Therapy: What is it?

Narrative therapy is a collaborative counseling method that separates people from their problems. The approach views clients as the experts in their own lives and helps them to see how their skills can reduce the negative issues they face. As the narrators of their own story, people in therapy are able to rewrite problem-saturated narratives so that they focus on the positive beliefs, values, and skills they possess.

Many people who seek therapy think of themselves as inferior, damaged, or less than others. By making the client the expert, narrative therapy empowers individuals who are seeking treatment. Narrative therapy helps people to analyze their problems objectively. As these problems are separated from their personal identity, individuals in treatment are able to reconstruct their personal narrative and develop a more positive perspective on life. Narrative therapists guide the rewriting process in a manner that is respectful and non-judgemental.

Narrative Definition

A narrative is a group of events over time that revolves around a specific theme or plot. Each person has his or her own story. For some people, that personal story is mostly positive. For others, the story is overwhelmingly negative.

Individuals who define themselves by their struggles tend to place more emphasis on negative events that support their problem-saturated narrative. They may also overlook positive experiences in their lives or view them merely as random “one-off” events. As a result, these individuals may construct their identity based on the problems they are facing or the negative emotions they are feeling.

For example, someone with anxiety may describe himself as anxious. As other negative events continue to be emphasized and added to that story, he may eventually think of himself as an anxious person who is incapable of dealing with any major challenges in life.

Narrative Therapy Theory

Narrative therapy was created to be an empowering, collaborative and non-blaming approach to psychotherapy. Practitioners of narrative therapy see people in treatment as capable individuals who can bring about change in their own lives. By externalizing problematic issues, narrative therapy lowers people’s resistance and defenses and enables them to consider their issues objectively. This approach makes the process of problem-solving much more productive.

The major assumptions of narrative therapy include:

  • There is no truth, only different perceptions of reality. The meanings we attach to things or events are grounded in social, cultural, and political contexts.
  • Problems are separate from the individual. The individual is never the problem.
  • Each person is an expert in his or her own life.
  • A person can become the author or narrator of his or her stories.
  • When people create their narratives, they have already attributed meanings to the events that have unfolded in their lives. Personal narratives and the narratives others have written about us affect how we view ourselves and how we live our lives.
  • People who seek professional help have already tried to reduce the impact of the problems in their lives.
  • The issues that motivate people to seek therapy have resulted in them making thin conclusions about themselves, their lives, and their relationships. They believe they are deficient in some way and this has prevented them from fully realizing their skills and competencies.
  • A person’s skills and competencies can help him or her to reduce the impact of personal problems.
  • There will always be positive situations or events that have escaped the influence of the presenting problem. No problem has complete influence over a person’s life or relationships.
  • The therapist is responsible for making the atmosphere welcoming, respectful, non-judgemental, and professional.

How Does Narrative Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?

Proponents of narrative therapy believe the importance a person places on specific past experiences has a powerful effect on his or her sense of self. As a result, individuals who focus on negative events or personal failures tend to have lower self-esteem, lower self-confidence, and lower self-worth than their peers. Narrative therapists assume each person has inherent strengths to resolve the adverse issues they may face in life. They also posit that individuals may develop a more positive self-concept by becoming more aware of their talents and skills.

How Does Narrative Therapy Cause Change?

Rather than transform the person seeking help, narrative therapy aims to transform the impact a problem has on the client’s life. When an individual is separated from his problem, he may be helped to see how it benefits him rather than how it hurts him. Once the problem has been externalized, the individual is more likely to develop self-compassion. This will help him to be less critical of himself, recognize that imperfection is common to everyone, and develop an unbiased view of his experiences.

Narrative therapy empowers people to view themselves from a perspective that is not problem-centered. As more positive alternative stories are developed, explored and accepted, the way the client identifies himself may be adjusted.

What Happens in a Narrative Therapy Session?

Narrative therapy is usually offered in weekly sessions. As the expert, the client leads the therapeutic discussion. The therapist guides the dialogue toward meaningful narratives by asking the client what he wishes to speak about.

Common questions the therapist may ask include:

  • Are you enjoying this conversation?
  • Should we keep talking about this topic or should we switch to something else?
  • Would you like me to ask you some more questions about this issue?

As therapy progresses, the therapist will encourage the client to explore alternative explanations or unique outcomes in his story. Alternative explanations help to clarify other reasons an endeavor may have failed in the past, while unique outcomes are occasions when the client’s efforts were successful. These strategies help the client to realize he may not be at fault when things do not work out as planned. The therapist also helps the client to develop a brighter hope for the future.

Narrative therapy empowers people who are receiving professional care. By the end of treatment, the client learns how his skills may be used to reduce the negative impact of his issues and how to rewrite a more positive life story for himself.

Techniques Used in Narrative Therapy

A number of techniques are used in narrative therapy. These include:

  • Externalizing the issue – this involves objectifying, personifying or labeling the problem. People with OCD or PTSD, for example, may think of intrusive thoughts as an annoying bully. By making the problem a separate or external entity, clients prevent it from defining them or restricting them to an unwanted reality.
  • Mapping the issue – when using this technique the therapist asks questions to identify the negative effects a problem has on the client’s life. By considering the full impact of a problem, the therapist helps the client to think about what can be done to reduce it.
  • Identifying unique outcomes – as clients tend to speak about negative events that emphasize their personal problems, therapists may ask them to discuss events that contradict this narrative. When these unique outcomes are identified, they can be used to create rich descriptions that highlight the client’s positive qualities and abilities.
  • Deconstructing the story/identifying alternative narratives – unique outcomes and alternative explanations can be used to deconstruct or weaken a problem-saturated narrative. As the client becomes more aware of his successes as well as other reasons his efforts may have failed in the past, he is helped to reconstruct the narrative from a more positive perspective.

Narrative Therapy

Does Narrative Therapy Work?

Narrative therapy has been used to help young children, teenagers, adults, and elderly individuals. One of its greatest benefits is the empowering effect it has on people who may initially view themselves as broken or deficient. By externalizing problems, the approach makes individuals less guarded and more open to positive changes in perspective. Due to its optimistic and sometimes playful nature, it may appeal to people who were previously put off by other forms of treatment.

Narrative therapy may be used as a primary treatment modality or in combination with other therapeutic approaches. To date, it has been used to enhance other evidence-based modalities such as art therapy, family therapy, and play therapy.

What Kinds of Concerns is Narrative Therapy Best For?

Narrative therapy may be used to treat a wide range of adverse issues. Concerns that may be addressed in therapy include:

  • Family conflict
  • Marital challenges
  • Relationship challenges
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anger problems
  • Phobias
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance addiction
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Low confidence
  • School issues
  • Chronic illness
  • Behavioral issues
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual identity issues
  • Grief
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

How Are Narrative Therapy Specialists Trained?

Marriage and family therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other licensed mental health professionals use narrative therapy in their clinical practice. In addition to earning licensure as mental health practitioners, these individuals also receive specific training in narrative therapy via certified academic programs, intensive workshops, or online courses.

The Dulwich Centre—located in Adelaide, Australia—offers in-person and online training in narrative therapy. Training programs are also available in the United States and other countries.

Concerns/Limitations of Narrative Therapy

As is the case with all therapeutic modalities, narrative therapy has a number of limitations. As it is a relatively novel approach to therapy and counseling, there is relatively little scientific research to support its effectiveness. Some critics of narrative therapy have also expressed concern at the assumption there are no absolute truths in life.

Narrative therapy is not for everyone. For example, the approach may not be appropriate for clients who are uncomfortable with taking the lead in therapeutic discussions. Individuals with serious mental health issues as well as those who are limited in their cognitive, intellectual, or language skills may not benefit from this form of therapy.

Important Practitioners in Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy was developed by Michael White—an Australian family therapist and social worker—and David Epston—a family therapist from New Zealand. Both men worked together to spearhead the family therapy movement in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s. They published the book Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends in 1990. This publication was the first major text of the approach that is now called narrative therapy.

How to Find a Therapist

If you would like to find a therapist who uses narrative therapy, speak with your physician or another health professional. You may also call the psychological association in your locale, consult the psychological department at a local university/college, or contact your community’s mental health center. Ask family members or friends if they know any therapists they would recommend. You may also use the American Psychological Association’s (APA) psychologist locator to find a therapist online.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

Your therapist should have a valid license to provide mental health services. You should also feel safe and comfortable with the LMHP you choose to work with. Look for someone who is interested in what you say and able to communicate and empathize effectively. He or she should be able to explain your symptoms, willing to commit to an adequate treatment plan, and express confidence in the method of therapy.

Your therapist should be enthusiastic about working with you. He or she should show interest in your progress and be flexible/willing to adapt treatment to suit your needs. A good LMHP is sensitive to your cultural background and optimistic about your improvement.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Before choosing a therapist, ask these questions:

  1. Are you a licensed therapist?
  2. How long have you been practicing?
  3. What is your area of expertise?
  4. What experience do you have treating my issues?
  5. What kind of treatments do you use? How effective have they been?
  6. Are appointment times flexible or scheduled?
  7. What are your fees?
  8. Do you accept my insurance?
  9. Do you think you can help me?

Find a Therapist Now

People who struggle with mental health issues, notice worrisome changes in their thoughts, behavior or relationships, or simply need someone to talk to, can consult a licensed mental health professional online at ThriveTalk right now. ThriveTalk has a team of compassionate therapists who can help you to cope successfully with your issues.

Final Thoughts on Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is a collaborative, non-judgemental method of psychotherapy that helps clients to rewrite the dominant story in their life. Many people who receive care are empowered to improve their self-identity. Individuals who are affected by mental, emotional, or behavioral health issues may benefit from working with a qualified narrative therapist. Narrative therapy may provide the new perspective they need to approach the future with optimism.


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