What is Narrative Therapy?
On my homepage, you may have noticed how I said I dabble in Narrative Therapy. What the heck is that?! How do you know if it would be helpful for you as a client in therapy? If you’re studying to become a therapist, how do you know if it’s the right theoretical orientation for you?
Fortunately for both types of readers, I believe it’s important to be as transparent as possible about what I do. What assumptions do I hold about the world? Are they aligned with yours? What goals would we create for therapy together using this model? Are there any downsides or blind spots? These are all questions I’m willing to answer down below.
Background of Narrative Therapy
Narrative therapy was created by Michael White and David Epston in the 80’s. It’s a cool theory because the founders believe people already have the skills necessary for change. This allows them to see their clients as the experts on their own lives, and themselves as simply a collaborator.
The goal of Narrative is to change how people look at their problems. Often, clients have written themselves a narrative, or story of their lives in which they are the problem. In reality, the problem is outside of them, and this story they’ve written is really limiting! There are infinite versions of the story of anyone’s life. Once the client sees this, together they can write a happier, healthier story. And all the therapist has done is offer a new perspective!
While Narrative can be used with couples and families, it’s actually relational in a different and interesting way. It gives clients an opportunity to interact with the problem as if it were a part of the external system. It’s like there’s a whole other person involved in the story.
Assumptions of Narrative Therapy
1. Reality is socially constructed
To believe in narrative, one must generally believe that reality is subjective. This assumption allows for what I love so much about this theory– that the client can be an expert on their own life. If there were one objective truth, the therapist would simply be a teacher, and the client would likely feel stifled.
2. People are always attempting to make meaning out of life
After all, isn’t that why stories exist? To make meaning out of this crazy world we live in?
Narrative therapy simply shows us how to do that within the self. We use the events of our lives and weave them together into a story about who we are that makes sense to us. Everyone does this differently, because demographic factors like race, ethnicity, SES, sex, and gender all play a role. And yet, one thing we have in common is that we’re all attempting to write stories.
Imagine a client who says they are “depressed.” That word, “depressed” carries the weight of all the life events that led to that conclusion. It may be much heavier for someone from a family where emotionality is discouraged than for someone whose entire family understands mental illness. The first person’s story may include many obstacles to attending that first session. However the second person’s story may also include fear of becoming depressed one’s whole life. Very different meanings for the same word.
3. We do not give meaning to all the events in our lives.
In the future, both of these clients with depression are likely to give significance to events that support their story. They wouldn’t include times they felt happy. This is what we call a dominant narrative. If you see yourself as a depressed person, the other happy events fall away because they’re not important to you.
Human brains naturally take shortcuts to make life easier– it’s called a heuristic. And that’s essentially what the brain is doing here. It’s trying to make life easier for you. But as can be expected with shortcuts, they make you prone to mistakes. In this case, the shortcut is making your dominant narrative quite a thin story, and one saturated with problems. While we will never be able to include every life event in your story, we can enrich it with a bunch more.
4. People are multistoried.
We’ve been talking about these two depressed people as if that’s the only thing they use to describe themselves. In reality, both of these clients may also be good drivers, bad singers, loving partners, frugal spenders, etc. These are all dominant narratives. If they see themselves as a good driver, the one time they got pulled over will fall away. Seeing oneself as frugal means they’ll find less significance in any times they made bad money choices.
5. The client is the expert on his or her own life.
Narrative therapy would be really easy if the therapist could just say “well what about this event? You were happy then! Put this in the new story!”
We don’t have access to all that, so the client really has to lead the way. This may seem like a downfall of the theory, but it’s not! If the therapist did the work, the client would never feel comfortable taking their agency back. How can taking control of the client’s life help them learn to take control of their own lives?
6. The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem.
Ahh, the famous last words of every narrative therapist. The problem is something the client is going through, not something they are! This assumption allows the client to let go of some blame and guilt.
Think of what this means for diagnosis! When the problem is not within the person, diagnosis becomes almost irrelevant, doesn’t it? It’s radical, but intriguing. Often, people end up feeling defined by their diagnoses, which is the opposite of what we try to do in the therapy room.
Pros & Cons of Narrative Therapy
One weakness of this theory is that it is not yet evidence-based. Researchers are working on it, but it’s too new of a theory to be so established.
A second weakness is that it’s not conducive to working with clients who have very serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. There is very little in place to control for crises.
I love narrative therapy because it’s really effective at reducing blame in clients. When the problem is outside themselves, they tend to feel less guilt about what they’ve done because of it. Then, they are more able to accept responsibility. The same goes for clients who simply feel they do not have control over their lives. When narrative shows them they do have control, they’re often happy to take it.
A second strength is the power it offers clients. In narrative, the therapist is not the expert! They have tools of course, but only the client knows enough about their own life to make the change work.
Since narrative is relational, it’s very versatile! Individuals, couples, and families can all benefit from it.