Narrative therapy is a method of therapy that separates a person from their problem. It encourages people to rely on their own skills to minimize problems that exist in their lives.
Throughout life, personal experiences become personal stories. People give these stories meaning, and the stories help shape a person’s identity. Narrative therapy uses the power of these stories to help people discover their life purpose. This is often done by assigning that person the role of “narrator” in their own story.
Michael White and David Epston developed narrative therapy. They created it as a nonpathologizing, empowering, and collaborative approach. It recognizes that people have skills and expertise that can help guide change in their lives. Narrative therapy separates people from their problems. This allows therapists to help people externalize sensitive issues. Objectifying an issues may lower a person’s resistance and defenses. It allows people to address issues in a more productive way.
Practitioners of narrative therapy believe telling one’s story is a form of action toward change. The process of a narrative therapist might include:
- Helping people objectify their problems
- Framing the problems within a larger sociocultural context
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- Teaching the person how to make room for other stories
The therapist and person in therapy identify and build upon “alternative” or “preferred” storylines. These storylines exist beyond the problem story. They provide contrast to the problem, reflect a person’s true nature, and allow someone to rewrite their story. People can then move from what is known (the problem story) to what is unknown.
The therapist also helps people see what is “absent but implicit” in the presentation of a problem. They help people explore a problem's impact. This allows them to identify what is valuable to someone in a broader context, beyond the problem. People may then find a connection between their actions and choices. All “other” life experiences and values are “absent but implicit” as people navigate new terrain. This process can help people better understand how they experience life. It may allow them to gain agency for addressing problem scenarios in the future.
Narrative therapy does not seek to transform the person in therapy. Instead, it aims to transform the effects of a problem. Its goal is to make space between a person and their issue. This makes it possible to see how a certain concern is serving a person, rather than harming them.
For example, posttraumatic stress can be a defense mechanism. It might help protect someone from the difficult emotions associated with an event. But it also brings new symptoms, such as anxiety. Narrative therapy helps people externalize an issue. This process can help people develop greater self-compassion. Self-compassion may help people feel more capable of change. Some psychologists have identified a process termed posttraumatic growth. This term accounts for the positive change that can occur after going through a traumatic event.
Narrative therapists also help people view their problems in different contexts. These contexts may be social, political, and cultural. This can influence how we view ourselves and our personal stories.
Individuals, couples, or families may use narrative therapy. In a couple or family setting, the technique of externalizing problems facilitates positive interaction. It can also make negative communication more accepting and meaningful. Seeing a problem objectively helps couples and families reconnect with the heart of their relationship. They may be able to address how the problem has challenged the core strength of their bond.
- The Dulwich Centre: Established by Michael White and David Epston, The Dulwich Centre provides information, workshops, and trainings
- Beels, C. C. (2009). Some historical conditions of narrative work. Family Process, 48(3), 363-78. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218869106?accountid=1229
- Carey, M., B.A., Walther, S., M.A., & Russell, S. (2009). The absent but implicit: A map to support therapeutic enquiry. Family Process, 48(3), 319-31. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218874274?accountid=1229
- Morgan, Alice. (n.d.). What is narrative therapy? Retrieved from http://www.dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy.html