What Is Narrative Therapy? Definition and Techniques

What's your story? hands holding an open book background message

BrianAJackson / Getty Images 

Narrative therapy is a psychological approach that seeks to adjust the stories one tells about one’s life in order to bring about positive change and better mental health. It considers people the experts on their own lives and views them as separate from their problems. Narrative therapy was developed by social worker Michael White and family therapist David Epston in the 1980s.

Key Takeaways: Narrative Therapy

  • The goal of narrative therapy is to help clients adjust and tell alternative stories about their lives so they better match who and what they want to be, leading to positive change.
  • Narrative therapy is non-pathologizing, non-blaming, and sees clients as experts on their own lives.
  • Narrative therapists view people as separate from their problems and strive to have clients view their problems that way too. That way a client no longer sees a problem as an unchangeable part of them, but as an external issue that can be changed.

Origins

Narrative therapy is a relatively new, and therefore lesser known, form of therapy. It was developed in the 1980s by Michael White, an Australian social worker, and David Epston, a family therapist from New Zealand. It gained traction in the United States in the 1990s.

White and Epston developed narrative therapy to be a non-pathologizing form of therapy based on the following three ideas:

  • Narrative therapy respects each client. Clients are treated as brave and agentic individuals who should be commended for recognizing and working to address their issues. They are never viewed as deficient or inherently problematic.
  • Narrative therapy does not blame clients for their problems. The client is not at fault for their problems and blame is not assigned to them or anyone else. Narrative therapy looks at people and their problems as separate. 
  • Narrative therapy sees clients as experts on their own lives. In narrative therapy, the therapist and the client are on equal footing, but it is the client who has intimate knowledge of his or her own life. As a result, therapy is meant to be a collaboration between the client and the therapist in which the therapist views the client as having all the capabilities, skills, and knowledge necessary to address their problems.

Narrative therapists believe people’s identities are shaped by the stories they tell about their lives. When those stories become focused on specific problems, the person often begins to view the problem as an inherent part of themselves. However, narrative therapy views people's problems as external to the individual and seeks to adjust the stories people tell about themselves in ways that let them see their problems this way too.

Narrative therapy’s stance is quite different from many other forms of therapy in which the therapist takes the lead. It can be uncomfortable and take a lot of practice for clients to successfully separate themselves from their problems.

The Stories of Our Lives

Narrative therapy positions stories as central to the way people understand and evaluate their lives. Humans use stories to interpret events and experiences. Each day many stories occur at the same time as we go about living our lives. These stories may be about our career, our relationships, our weaknesses, our triumphs, our failures, our strengths, or our possible futures.

In this context stories consist of events that are linked in sequence across time. Together these linked events create a plot. The meaning we assign to different stories is based on the context of our lives, both as an individual and as a product of our culture. For example, an elderly African American male will likely tell the story of an encounter with a police officer very differently from a young, white female. 

Some stories become dominant in our lives and some of these dominant stories can be problematic because of the way we interpret the events we've experienced. For example, perhaps a woman has a story of herself as unlikeable. Over her lifetime she can think of numerous times when someone didn’t want to spend time with her or didn’t seem to enjoy her company. As a result, she can string together numerous events into a sequence that she interprets as meaning she is unlikeable.

As the story becomes dominant in her mind, new events that fit the narrative will become privileged over other events that don't fit the narrative, such as when someone seeks her out to spend time with her. These events might be passed off as a fluke or an anomaly.

This story about being unlikeable will impact the woman’s life now and in the future. So, for instance, if she’s invited to a party, she may decline because she believes no one at the party will want her there. Yet the woman's conclusion that she's unlikeable is limiting and has negative consequences on her life.

Narrative Therapy Techniques

The goal of the narrative therapist is to work with the individual to come up with an alternative story that better matches what they actually want from their lives. There are several techniques that are often used by narrative therapists to do this. They are:

Constructing a Narrative

The therapist and the client work together to tell the client’s story in the client’s own words. In the process, the therapist and the client look for new meanings in the story that may help them alter the client's existing stories or create new ones. This process is sometimes referred to as “re-authoring” or “re-storying.” This is based on the idea that one event can have many different meanings and interpretations. In narrative therapy the client will come to recognize that they can make new meanings from their life stories.

Externalization

The goal of this technique is to change a client’s perspective so they no longer see themselves as problematic. Instead, they see themselves as a person with problems. This externalizes their problems, reducing the influence they have on the individual’s life.

The idea behind this technique is that if we see our problems as an integral part of our personality, they can seem impossible to change. But if those problems are simply something the individual does, they feel far less insurmountable. It’s often challenging for clients to embrace this perspective. However, doing so can be empowering and make people feel like they have more control over their issues.

Deconstruction

Deconstructing a problem means making it more specific in order to zero in on the core of the issue. When a story has been dominant in our lives for an extended period of time, we may begin to overgeneralize it, and therefore, have difficulty seeing what the underlying problem really is. A narrative therapist helps clients reduce the story to its parts in order to discover what the problem they're struggling with really is.

For example, a client may say he feels frustrated because his colleagues at work don’t value his work. This is a very general statement and it’s hard to develop a solution to this problem. So the therapist would work with the client to deconstruct the problem to get an idea of why he’s constructing a narrative in which he's being devalued by his colleagues. This can help the client see himself as someone who has a fear of being overlooked and needs to learn to better communicate his competencies to his colleagues.

Unique Outcomes

This technique involves looking at one’s story from a new perspective and developing more positive, life-affirming stories as a result. Since there are many stories we could potentially tell about our experiences, the idea of this technique is to reimagine our story. That way, the new story can minimize the problem that became overwhelming in the old story.

Critiques

Narrative therapy has been shown to help individuals, couples, and families with problems including anxiety, depression, aggression and anger, grief and loss, and family and relationship conflict. However, there are several criticisms that have been leveled at narrative therapy. First, because it's been around for such a brief period of time in comparison to other forms of therapy, there isn’t a great deal of scientific evidence for the efficacy of narrative therapy.

In addition, some clients may not be reliable or truthful in their narration of their stories. If the client is only comfortable putting his stories in a positive light with the therapist, he won’t get much out of this form of therapy.

Moreover, some clients may not want to be positioned as the expert on their lives or to help drive the therapeutic process. People who are less comfortable expressing themselves in words may not do well with this approach. Moreover, the approach will be inappropriate for individuals who have limited cognitive or language skills, or who are psychotic.

Sources