What is Narrative Therapy?

Welcome to our “What is?” Blog series! In this series, we are introducing some of the main therapy approaches that our therapists use. This series will help you better understand the ways C.H.E.R.I.I.S.H. Counseling can support your growth! And you can always ask more questions about these approaches during your free, no-obligation phone consultation with our therapists!

This entry, we’re focusing on Narrative Therapy.

What is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy was developed in the 1980s by Michael White and David Epston, of Australia and New Zealand, respectively. This approach honors the power of stories in your life and highlights how these stories help you make meaning of yourself, your relationships, and your world.

Often people seek therapy when a single story in their life becomes the central focus and takes over.

You may experience a story like this in your own life:

  • Your see yourself as an anxious person who will never experience life without anxiety.
  • You believe you are a failure.
  • You think of your identity as the problem. If only you were different, things wouldn’t be so hard.

You probably have plenty of “evidence” you used in creating this story for yourself. You’ve probably checked the facts and use them to remind yourself about the truth of this story.

The thing is, your life is more than just this story. More than just these pieces of evidence — though they maintain your attention well.

White and Epston focused on understanding the single stories that people bring to therapy, but they didn’t stop there! They saw the value in helping people expand these stories, adding additional “data points,” if you will, and allowing people to understand themselves as more holistic beings.

Watch this video to get a better idea of how Narrative Therapy can help expand your stories:

 

There are several main ideas that make Narrative Therapy unique, but we’re going to focus on just three of them today: 1) Stories help you make meaning of your life, 2) You are the expert of your own life, and 3) You are not the problem!

1) Stories Help You Make Meaning of Your Life

From a very young age, we begin to understand our world through story. Fables and folklore teach lessons and lend insight, whether through books, movies, or oral story-telling. And, in turn, we begin to create stories about the world around us. These stories help us understand ourselves, others, and society. Humans have relied on stories to create meaning throughout the history of time — even when all we had was pictures on cave walls.

Some of these stories are helpful. Maybe you remember the time you helped someone carry their grocery bags to their car in a rainstorm. Because of this story, you think of yourself as a generally helpful person, which boosts your self-esteem, and helps you feel good about who you are and how you contribute to the world.

Some of these stories are harmful. You might remember when you received a failing grade on a test. You had felt prepared, but struggled to demonstrate your knowledge on the exam. Because of this experience, you think of yourself as a poor test taker. Which mean you are flooded with anxiety before tests, struggle to feel confident, and doubt your academic skills.

And most of these stories are a mix. For example, your relationship with your sibling. Sometimes you love them – they are hilarious and playful. They offer you warmth and support. But also… they witnessed and perhaps contributed to some challenging moments in your childhood. When you reflect on your relationship with them, you consider both the strengths and the challenges. You understand yourself as someone who has experienced triumphs but also great embarrassment in their presence.

As you learned in the video above, when you focus on a single story, you can lose sight of the whole picture.

You may be looking for therapy because one of those harmful stories has taken the lead in your life.

As this story has gained in strength, it has consumed your view of the world and your life.

Now, not only do you think about anxiety all the time, but it seems that the anxiety is in you. It’s impossible to distinguish between the voice of anxiety and your own. You focus on times that anxiety became so big that it made your decisions for you, maybe even embarrassed you in groups, or caused you to miss out on activities because it told you not to go.

But, of course, this isn’t the whole story.

You can add some additional chapters, write an epilogue, tie in some footnotes, and create a story that is more expansive.

A story that helps you understand your life in a new way. A way that allows you to influence anxiety (rather than the other way around). That helps you gain some authority and autonomy. That helps you tap into your strengths. That acknowledges both the light and the dark that exist in your very human experience. And ultimately, a way that frees you to live the life you’re longing for.

2) You are the Expert of Your Own Life

And of course you are! You are living it! Every. single. day.
You wake up in your life
You eat breakfast in your life
You gulp down a couple cups of coffee in your life (or maybe more haha)
You deal with your teachers or coworkers in your life
You go home to your family in your life
etc. etc. etc.

No one else knows exactly what your life is like.

Narrative therapy honors the wisdom and insight that you bring to therapy. Yes, your therapist has training, experience, and education to help you create change, but your expert status in your own life is also fundamental and IRREPLACEABLE in the process! Your therapist is there to help you expand awareness of different parts of your life and story (especially your strengths, skills, and wisdom so that you can access them to create change and foster hope). However, your therapist doesn’t know exactly how things will unfold, and they can’t understand or figure it out without your active participation, your shared insight, and your courage to create a new story. You are the expert, too!

(Therapist’s note: Narrative therapy pairs well with Strengths-based interventions, which focus on building your awareness of and ability to access your inner strengths and resources. We’ll be featuring Strengths-based Interventions in the blog series in just a few weeks! Stay tuned!)

3) The Problem is the Problem

“I’m anxious.”
“I’m a failure; I can never do anything right.”
“I’m a disappointment to my family.”

You’ve probably heard people say things like this before. You’ve maybe even thought them about yourself! The challenge here is, these statements all make YOU the problem.

Narrative therapy asks us to press pause on this way of thinking.

A common Narrative therapy statement is “You are not the problem. The problem is the problem.”

You aren’t anxious – anxiety causes you to lose sleep and feel overwhelmed.
You aren’t a failure – failure causes you to doubt yourself and wonder whether you can ever succeed.
You aren’t a disappointment to your family – your family says unkind things, and that invites shame into your life.

It may seem like a subtle shift – but it carries IMMENSE power. Understanding the problem as the problem allows it to be separate from yourself. In Narrative Therapy, this is called “Externalizing the Problem.”

When the problem is outside you, you’re able to consider it, act on it, and create change while honoring yourself as whole and worthy.

Watch this video from the World Health Organization for an example of how externalizing depression can help you interact with and manage depression in a new way:

Families often experience externalizing the problem in powerful ways: Rather than focusing on their teen as the problem, this shift in thinking helps teens and caregivers view the problem as something they can both tackle together, rather than the teen feeling like their caregivers think they are bad, worthless, or terrible. When everyone is facing the problem together, we can create change faster, invest in supportive relationships, and build a sense of “WE.”

(Therapist’s note: The book “What do you do with a problem?” Written by Kobi Yamada Illustrated by Mae Besom is also a great example of externalizing problems for younger kids!)

Summary

I love Narrative Therapy because it honors some core beliefs that I hold about people (you!) and the world:

You are not broken

You are doing the best that you can with what you have

You have inherent wisdom, skills, and strengths

You can create a new story for yourself. One where hope, connection, and growth are key players.

As hinted above, I also love Narrative Therapy because it helps youth and caregivers feel they are “on the same team” when tackling challenges. Often times, youth and caregivers come to me with some level of conflict between them. Caregivers may want their youth to change something. Youth want to do life their own way, which is often different than what their caregivers have in mind (this is a normal and healthy part of development and growth!). In this dynamic, youth often feel like the finger is pointed at them, that they’re being judged, or that the important people in their lives don’t respect or value them.

Narrative therapy helps us all understand that the youth isn’t the problem. THE PROBLEM IS THE PROBLEM! And when we can all focus on how “Shame” “Anxiety” and “Depression” hold strength in their story, we can also focus on how to make Shame, Anxiety, and Depression smaller so that youth and caregivers can feel strong, united, and capable.

Want to learn more about how Narrative Therapy can help you find a new story and invite more hope, health, and healing into your life? Contact us today for your free, no-obligation phone consultation!

Still curious and hoping to learn more? Here are some other great resources that explain and/or provide examples of Narrative Therapy:

Very Well Mind: What is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative Approaches Archives

Dulwich Centre Narrative Projects

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Featured image by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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