What is Narrative Therapy and Why Does It Work?

Narratives, or stories, are central to who we are as human beings, and for centuries, storytelling has been an important way of communicating knowledge and fostering connections between people. Since the days of our early ancestors, for example, people have gathered around campfires and painted on walls to communicate their stories. Furthermore, the teachings of most religious texts are presented as stories, most cultures have their own folktales and legends, and many of us were told stories that put us to sleep as children. But what does this have to do with mental health?

Narrative Therapy: What is it?

Narrative therapy is a form of therapeutic counseling or ‘talk therapy’ that trains us to identify and change the stories that we tell about ourselves, in a way that promotes mental health. This approach also teaches us to identify underlying skills and positive attributes that can help us to improve our life circumstances. Narrative therapy is used to treat a wide range of mental health concerns, but it is also embraced by those who don’t necessarily have a diagnosable condition and simply wish to have a greater sense of control and well-being in their lives.

Narrative Definition

A narrative can be defined as an account of how a series of events are connected to one another. In other words, a narrative is a story. Our identities are based on the cumulative experiences that we have had; and we instinctively use narratives to make sense of these events, tying them together in the form of coherent stories. Our identities are complex and multi-faceted, and we use many different narratives to describe various aspects of ourselves. These stories often have a specific theme and they may thus describe, for example, our experiences, skills, attributes, deficits, dreams, interests or relationships.

Narrative Therapy Theory

Narrative therapy is based on the principles of postmodernism. This theory says, firstly, that there is no objective reality or absolute truth; and that instead, we all construct or create our own truths. Postmodernism also tells us that language influences reality – in other words, the stories that we tell about ourselves and the world influences that reality and our experience of it. Finally, postmodernism tells us that our identities are not singular but multiple – the implication here is that we are able to change our identity through the different narratives that we construct.

While the philosophical roots of narrative therapy may seem complex and abstract, it’s possible to benefit from this form of therapy without understanding the finer details of the theory that underlies it. Your therapist will guide you to understand narrative theory as it applies to your own situation in a straightforward manner, without making things unnecessarily complicated.

How Does Narrative Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?

From the perspective of narrative therapy, the mind works by creating stories which help us understand the world. This is a good thing, as narratives give us a sense of identity and meaning. However, our stories do not simply reflect our experiences: they also inform and construct who we are as people. In other words, the stories we hold about ourselves influence the way that we think, feel and behave. This idea is liberating because it implies that by changing our stories we can also change ourselves and our experiences.

However, at times, the stories that we tell about ourselves may become saturated with problems. Your story may, for example, repeatedly and consistently describe you as a failure. As you focus on this story, you start selecting and prioritizing events and experiences in your life that support and strengthen the narrative that frames you in this negative light. At the same time, you may start ignoring other experiences and attributes that could be used to construct a different story about yourself: the idea, for example, that you’re valuable and competent in specific areas of your life.

How Does Narrative Therapy Cause Change?

Narrative therapy works by empowering you to focus on and create different, more helpful stories about yourself. It creates in you an awareness of how you might be prioritizing certain narratives over others; and it gives you the knowledge and tools to re-author your own identity and future. It also helps to shed light on those positive capacities and attributes in yourself that you might have been neglecting in favor of other, more damning narratives.

Narrative therapy also works by objectifying your problem. What does this mean? Problem-saturated stories often lead people to confuse the problem with the person. For example, your story may describe you as a socially awkward person, rather than someone with a problem that relates to social situations. The difference between these two phrases is important, because it’s much easier to change a problem that we have as opposed to changing our own personality. It can also negatively affect your self-esteem and confidence when you repeatedly tell a story in which your own character is flawed. Narrative therapy allows for change, therefore, by helping us to view the difficulties that we face as being separate from our own identities.

What Happens in a Narrative Therapy Session?

A typical narrative therapy session is client-driven: you will be supported and encouraged to tell your own story about who you are and what has led you to seek therapy. This experience of telling your own story and having someone truly listen can be incredibly validating for clients, in and of itself.

Techniques Used in Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapists, just like other mental health practitioners, will seek to provide you with an experience of empathy and support. However, there are several techniques that are specific to narrative therapy.

For example, narrative therapy practitioners pay attention to power dynamics and seek to empower you, as the client, wherever possible. This means that you will be treated as the expert of your own life. During therapy, therefore, your therapist is likely to keep checking to see how you feel about the way that the sessions are progressing and whether there is anything that you would like to be doing differently.

Additionally, narrative therapists are skilled at listening attentively for positive aspects of your identity which you might not otherwise have focused on in your dominant narrative. By drawing your attention to these experiences and characteristics, you will be guided to emphasize different narratives of yourself in a way that promotes healing and empowerment.

Finally, as mentioned above, a technique commonly used by narrative therapists involves objectifying your problem by framing it as something separate from yourself. This is likely to improve your feelings of self-worth and give you a greater sense of being able to control your circumstances.

Narrative Therapy

Does Narrative Therapy Work?

Although narrative therapy is a relatively new modality, research suggests that this is an effective approach for treating a variety of mental health concerns.

What Kinds of Concerns is Narrative Therapy Best For?

This approach is used to treat a broad range of psychiatric conditions, and evidence suggests that it is particularly effective in treating anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, PTSD and concerns related to autism, amongst others. Finally, narrative therapy can be used to treat children and adults; individuals, couples, families or groups.

Ultimately, however, narrative therapy is useful for anyone who feels like they have become defined by their negative emotions, thoughts or experiences. People who consistently view themselves in a negative light – as being incompetent or deficient, for example – are good candidates for this approach, which will help them to alter these harmful narratives. Furthermore, because narrative therapy encourages us to consider how the broader contexts in which we live shape our own realities, this approach is well suited to people who have experienced discrimination or marginalization as a result of their race, gender, culture or sexual orientation.

How Are Narrative Therapy Specialists Trained?

A narrative therapist is a mental health professional who has undergone additional and specialized training in this modality. Narrative therapy training courses can be completed in the form of workshops or online courses. Other professionals who offer counseling as a part of their practice – including social workers and nurses – may also become narrative therapists.

Concerns/Limitations of Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy deserves recognition for tackling the power imbalance that often exists between the therapist and their client, where the therapist is seen as the expert. As we have discussed, narrative therapy puts the client in a position of power, as the author of their own story. For this reason, however, the narrative approach has also been criticized. Why? Some clients require a therapist who can be idealized as a powerful and dependable person. For these clients, suddenly finding themselves in a position of power relative to their therapist can be anxiety-provoking.

Another limitation of narrative therapy is that it’s too complicated! The fact that it’s based on postmodernism’s complex philosophical ideas means that clients may struggle to understand the rationale for this approach and what makes it effective. Despite this, most clients resonate with the basic idea that we all have our own stories and that changing these can change our lives. A skilled narrative therapist will assist the client to grasp this basic premise without making things unnecessarily complicated.

Important Practitioners in Narrative Therapy

The two practitioners who are renowned for having co-created the narrative therapy approach are David Epston and the late Michael White. Michael White was a social worker and family therapist from Adelaide, Australia. Famed for having founded the Dulwich Centre, which offers information, therapy, training and research related to narrative therapy, Michael White passed away in 2008. David Epston, on the other hand, was born in Canada but later relocated to New Zealand. David Epston, also a social worker and family therapist, collaborated with Michael White in the early 1980s to create the modality which today is known as narrative therapy.

How to Find a Therapist

You may want to speak to your usual GP to recommend a Narrative Therapist. Alternatively, a Google search will likely bring up several options to choose from.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

You’ll want to find someone who has the relevant credentials and experience to administer narrative therapy, in addition to being registered as a mental health practitioner. Your chosen therapist should also have experience treating your specific concerns or condition and should be a person that you feel comfortable speaking to.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

  • Have you treated my condition before?
  • Are you trained as a narrative therapy practitioner?
  • How can Narrative Therapy help me?
  • Will my insurance cover my sessions?
  • How many sessions will I need?
  • When will we meet for therapy?
  • What is your cancellation policy?

Find a Therapist Now

When you start seeing a therapist, you’re committing your time, energy and money. While most clients will agree that the benefits of therapy outweigh the costs by far, digital technology has made therapy more affordable and accessible than it has ever been before. People who are seeking a narrative therapist can find the right practitioner for their needs through Thrive Talk – an online platform with a simple sign-up process and a wide range of highly qualified therapists to choose from. By seeing an online therapist, you can save on costs and avoid waiting lists whilst also being empowered to change your story from the comfort and privacy of your own home.

Final Thoughts on Narrative Therapy

If the stories that you use to make sense of yourself and the world are having a negative effect on your wellbeing and health, narrative therapy might be the right approach for you. This is a new and exciting therapeutic modality, where you will be guided to recreate your own life’s story in a way that works for you. This approach is also well-suited to those who have suffered ongoing exclusion and disempowerment due to their race, class, gender, sexual orientation or even due to the presence of a psychiatric disorder. Narrative therapy seeks to address such power imbalances by allowing you to take ownership of your own life’s narrative. Reach out to a licensed professional today so that you can start reauthoring your story.


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author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings

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