“What is your story?”
The answer to this question can take a million different forms, and the story you provide will likely be different depending on who is asking, your mood at the time, and whether you feel like you are still at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of your most salient story.
We use stories constantly – to inform, to connect with others, to share our feelings and experiences, and even to sort out our own thoughts and feelings. Stories are used to organize our thoughts, find meaning and purpose, and establish our sense of identity in this confusing and sometimes lonely world.
Narrative therapy capitalizes on our storytelling tendencies to provide us with opportunities for growth and development, ways to find meaning, and a pathway to a better understanding of ourselves.
If you’ve never heard of narrative therapy before – don’t worry, you’re not alone!
This therapy is a more specific and less common method of guiding clients towards healing and personal development, and it’s all about the stories we tell.
This article contains:
- What is Narrative Therapy? A Definition
- 5 Commonly Used Narrative Therapy Techniques
- 3 More Narrative Therapy Exercises and Interventions
- Examples of Questions to Ask Your Clients
- Narrative Therapy Treatment Plan
- Best Books on Narrative Therapy
- YouTube Videos for Further Exploration
- A Handy PowerPoint to Use
- A Take Home Message
What is Narrative Therapy? A Definition
Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that aims to separate the individual from the problem, allowing the individual to externalize their issues rather than internalize them. It relies on the individual’s own skills and sense of purpose to guide them through difficult times (“Narrative Therapy”, 2017).
This form of therapy was developed in the 1980s by Michael White and David Epston, two therapists from New Zealand (“About Narrative Therapy”). They believed that separating a person from their problematic or destructive behavior was a vital part of treatment (“Michael White”, 2015). For example, when treating someone who had run afoul of the law, they would encourage the individual to see him- or herself as a person who has made mistakes rather than a felon. White and Epston grounded this new therapeutic model in three main ideas.
1. Narrative therapy is respectful.
This therapy respects the agency and dignity of every client. It requires each client to be treated as an individual who is not deficient, not defective, or not “enough” in any way. Individuals who engage in narrative therapy are brave people who recognize that there are issues they would like to address in their lives, which leads to the second main idea.
2. Narrative therapy is non-blaming.
In this form of therapy, clients are never blamed for their problems, and they are encouraged not to blame anyone else as well. Problems emerge in everyone’s lives due to a variety of factors, and in narrative therapy, there is no point in assigning blame to anyone or anything. Narrative therapy separates people from their problems, viewing them as whole and functional individuals who engage in thought patterns or behavior that they would like to change.
3. Narrative therapy views the client as the expert.
Finally, in narrative therapy, the therapist does not occupy a higher social or academic space than the client. In these therapeutic relationships, it is understood that the client is the expert in his or her own life, and both parties are expected to go forth with this understanding. Only the client knows their own life intimately, and only the client has the skills and knowledge necessary to change their behavior and address their issues (Morgan, 2000).
These three ideas lay the foundation for the therapeutic relationship and the function of narrative therapy. The therapeutic process is built off of this understanding and involves taking a perspective that may feel foreign: placing a firm separation between people and the problems they are having.
Key Concepts and Approach
“The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem.” – Michael White and David Epston
Making this distinction between an individual with problems and a problematic individual is important in narrative therapy. White and Epston theorized that subscribing to a harmful or adverse self-identity could have profound negative impacts on a person’s functionality and quality of life.
To this end, there are a few main themes or principles of narrative therapy:
- Reality is socially constructed, which means that our interactions and dialogue with others impacts the way we experience reality.
- Reality is influenced by and communicated through language, which suggests that people who speak different languages may have radically different interpretations of the same experiences.
- Having a narrative that can be understood helps us to organize and maintain our reality. In other words, stories and narratives help us to make sense of our experiences.
- There is no “objective reality” or absolute truth, meaning that what is true for us may not be the same for another person, or even for ourselves at another point in time (Standish, 2013).
These principles tie into the postmodernist school of thought, which views reality as a shifting, changing, and deeply personal concept. In postmodernism, there is no objective truth – the truth is what each one of us makes it, influenced by social norms and ideas.
This idea that we make our own truth and tell our own stories to make sense of the world is an excellent fit for narrative therapy. The main premise behind this therapy is that an individual is separate from their problems, and this distance is believed to allow individuals to apply the skills learned in narrative therapy to solve them.
It’s amazing how much easier it can seem to solve or negate a problem when you don’t see the problem as an integral part of who you are.
5 Commonly Used Narrative Therapy Techniques
Some of the skills applicable to solving problems through narrative therapy are skills that we all already possess, while others take more effort to learn and apply. The five techniques below are among the most common techniques used in narrative therapy.
Telling One’s Story (Putting Together a Narrative)
As a therapist or other mental health professional, your job in narrative therapy is to help your client find their voice and tell their story in their own words. According to the philosophy behind narrative therapy, storytelling is how we make meaning and find purpose in our own experience (Standish, 2013).
Helping your client develop their story gives them an opportunity to discover meaning, find healing, and establish or re-establish an identity, all integral factors for success in therapy.
This technique is also known as “re-authoring” or “re-storying,” as clients explore their own experiences to find alterations to their story or make a whole new one. The same events can tell a hundred different stories since we all interpret experiences differently and find different senses of meaning (Dulwich Centre).
The externalization technique involves leading your client toward viewing their problems or behaviors as external, instead of a part of him or her. This is a technique that is much easier to describe than to fully embrace, but it can have huge positive impacts on self-identity and confidence.
The general idea of this technique is that it is much easier to change a behavior that you engage in than it is to change a characteristic that is a part of you. For example, if you are quick to anger and you consider yourself an angry person, you must fundamentally change something about yourself to address the problem; however, if you are a person who acts aggressively and becomes angry easily, you simply need to alter the behaviors to address the problem.
It might seem like an insignificant distinction, but there is a profound difference between the mindset of someone who labels themselves as a “problem” person and someone who acknowledges they sometimes engage in problematic behavior.
As a therapist, this technique is easy to describe, but it may be challenging for the client to fully buy into this strange idea. Encourage your client not to place too much importance on their diagnosis or self-assigned labels. Let them know how empowering it can be to separate him- or herself from their problems, allowing them a greater degree of control (Bishop, 2011).
This “deconstruction” refers to breaking down the problem or problems the client is having, making it more easy to understand and address. Our problems can often feel overwhelming, confusing, or unsolvable, but they are never truly unsolvable (Bishop, 2011).
Deconstructing the issue makes it more specific and avoids overgeneralizing, as well as clarifying what the core issue or issues actually are.
As an example of the deconstruction technique, imagine two people in a long-term relationship who are having trouble. One partner is feeling frustrated with a partner who never shares her feelings, thoughts, or ideas with him.
Based on this short description, there is no clear idea of what the problem is, let alone what the solution might be. If you, as a therapist, were to deconstruct the problem with this client, you might ask him to be more specific about what is bothering him.
This might lead to a better idea of what is troubling the man, like feeling lonely and missing a sense of intimacy with his partner. From here, you might find that intimacy is very important for this man in romantic relationships, and when his partner doesn’t share with him he is left feeling isolated and like his partner doesn’t truly trust him.
Deconstructing the problem helped us to learn exactly what the problem is (he is feeling lonely and isolated) and what this means to him (it makes him feel like his partner doesn’t trust him, or perhaps is not willing to commit to the relationship like he is).
This technique is an excellent way to help the client dig deep into the problem, understanding what is important to them and how this issue threatens that.
Unique Outcomes Technique
This technique is a bit involved and complex, but keep in mind the storytelling aspect of narrative therapy.
The unique outcomes technique involves changing one’s own storyline. In narrative therapy, the client aims to construct a storyline to their experiences which provides meaning and gives them a positive, functional identity. We are not limited to just one storyline, though. There are many potential storylines we can subscribe to, some more negative and others more positive.
Instead of continuing to see his or her life from the same perspective as always, the unique outcomes technique can help a client to change their perspective and perceive more positive and life-giving narratives.
Like a book that switches viewpoints from one character to another, our life has multiple threads of narrative running through it with different perspectives, different areas of focus, and different points of interest. Putting the unique outcomes technique to use is simply choosing to focus on a different storyline or storylines from the one that has been the source of your problems.
Using this technique might sound like avoiding the problem, but it’s actually just reimagining the problem. What seems like a problem or issue from one perspective can be nothing but an unassuming or insignificant detail in another (Bishop, 2011).
As a therapist, you can introduce this technique by encouraging your client(s) to pursue alternative or new storylines.
You might have a particular association with the term “existentialism” that makes its presence here seem odd, but there is likely more to existentialism than you think.
Existentialism is not a bleak and hopeless view on a world without meaning.
It’s true that, in general, existentialists believe the world holds no inherent meaning, but they do not take this belief as a license to fall into a deep pit of depression and meaninglessness; rather, they believe we can create our own meaning.
In this way, existentialism and narrative therapy go hand in hand. Narrative therapy encourages individuals to make their own meaning and find their own purpose rather than search for some pre-existing, absolute truth.
Borrowing some techniques or interventions from existentialism can provide excellent support for the client working through narrative therapy.
If your client is an avid reader, you might consider suggesting some existentialist works as well, such as those by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, or Martin Heidegger.
You can download the printable version of the infographic here.
3 More Narrative Therapy Exercises and Interventions
While narrative therapy is more of a dialogue between the therapist and client, there are some exercises and activities to supplement the regular therapy sessions. A few of these are described below.
Statement of Position Map
This simple handout consists of four areas to be filled in:
- Characteristics and naming or labeling of the problem
- Mapping the effects of the problem throughout each domain of life it touches (home, work, school, relationships, etc.)
- Evaluation of the effects of the problem in these domains
- Values that come up when thinking about why these effects are undesirable
This map is intended to be filled out in concert with a therapist, but it could be explored individually if it is difficult to find or meet with a narrative therapist.
Generally, the dialogue between a therapist and client will delve into these four areas. The therapist will ask questions and probe for deeper inquiry, while the client talks through the problem they are having and finds insight into each of the four main areas listed above.
There is power in the simple act of naming the problem, and it is necessary to understand how and in which areas the problem is having an effect. Finally, it is vital for the client to understand why this problem bothers them on a deeper level. What values are being infringed upon or obstructed by this problem? Why does the client feel negative about the problem? These are questions that this exercise can help to answer.
For a much more comprehensive look at this exercise, you can read these workshop notes from Michael White on using the statement position maps.
You can also access a PowerPoint in which a similar exercise is covered here.
My Life Story
One of the most basic therapeutic principles in narrative therapy is that we find meaning and healing through telling stories. This exercise is all about your story, and all you need is the printout and a pen or pencil.
The intention of the My Life Story exercise is to separate yourself from your past to gain a broader perspective on your life. It aims to help you create an outline of your life without diving too deeply into your memories.
First, you write the title of the book that is your life. Maybe it is simply “Monica’s Life Story,” or something more reflective of the themes you see in your life, like “Monica: A Story of Perseverance.”
In the next section, come up with at least seven chapter titles, each one representing a significant stage or event in your life. Once you have the chapter title, come up with one sentence that sums up the chapter. For example, your chapter title could be “Awkward and Uncertain” and the description may read “My teenage years were dominated by a sense of uncertainty and confusion in a family of seven.”
Next, you will consider your final chapter and add a description of your life in the future. What will you do in the future? Where will you go, and who will you be? This is where you get to flex your predictive muscles.
Finally, the last step is to add to your chapters as necessary to put together a comprehensive story of your life.
This exercise will help you to organize your thoughts and beliefs about your life and weave together a story that makes sense to you. The idea is not to get too deep into any specific memories but to recognize that what is in your past is truly the past. It shaped you, but it does not have to define you.
You can download this worksheet here.
This intervention can be especially useful for children, but many adults may find relief and meaning through engagement as well.
We all have different methods of telling our stories, and using the arts to do so has been a staple of humanity for countless generations.
To take advantage of this expressive and creative way to tell your stories, explore the different methods at your disposal. You can:
- Meditate. Guided relaxation or individual meditation can be an extremely effective way to explore a problem.
- Journal. Journaling has many potential benefits, and this is yet another. You can consider a specific set of question s (e.g., How does the problem affect you? How did the problem take hold in your life?) or simply write a description of yourself or your story from the point of view of the problem. This can be difficult but can lead to a greater understanding of the problem and how it influences the domains of your life.
- Draw. If you’re more interested in depictions of the problem’s impact on your experience, you can use your skills to draw or paint the effects of the problem. You can create a symbolic drawing, map the effects of the problem, or create a cartoon that represents the problem in your life.
- Movement. You can use the simple medium of movement and mindfulness to create and express your story. Begin by moving in your usual way, then allow the problem to influence your movement. Practice mindful observation to see what changes when you let the problem take hold. Next, develop a transitional movement that begins to shake the problem’s hold on you. Finally, transition into a “liberation movement” to metaphorically and physically explore how to escape the problem.
- Visualization. Use visualization techniques to consider how your life might turn out in a week, a month, a year, or a few years, both with this problem continuing and in a timeline in which you embrace a new direction. Share your experience with a partner or therapist, or reflect on your experience in your journal to explore the ways in which this exercise helped you find meaning or new possibilities for your life (Freeman, 2013).
If you’re interested in learning more about how to put your creativity to work on developing a more positive story, follow this link or click here to dive a little deeper into expressive arts therapy.
Examples of Questions to Ask Your Clients
“Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.” – David Epston
Narrative therapy is a dialogue in which both you and your client converse to learn about your story. As you may imagine, it requires many questions on the part of the therapist.
The list of questions below is intended to go with the statement of position maps, but these questions can be extremely useful outside of this exercise as well:
- It sounds as though [problem] is part of your life now.
- How long have you been noticing this [problem]?
- What effect does the [problem] have on your life?
- How does the [problem] impact on your energy for daily tasks?
- Does [problem] have an impact on your relationship with other family members?
- What effects does [problem] have on your child’s life?
- What do you think about the effects [problem] is having on your life?
- Are you accepting what [problem] is doing?
- Are these effects acceptable to you or not?
- Why is this? Why are you taking this position on what [problem] is doing?
- How would you prefer things to be?
- If you were to stay connected to what you have just said about what you prefer, what next steps could you take? (Muller)
The website www.integratedfamilytherapy.com also provides some excellent examples of questions you can ask your client as you move through their story:
Can you describe the last time you managed to get free of the problem for a couple of minutes? What was the first thing you noticed in those few minutes? What was the next thing?
Linking Openings with Preferred Experience
Would you like more minutes like these in your life?
Moving from Openings to Alternative Story Development
What was each of you thinking/feeling/doing/wishing/imagining during those few minutes?
Broadening the Viewpoint
What might your friend have noticed about you if she had met up with you in those few minutes?
Exploring Landscapes of Action
How did you achieve that? How did Tim help you with that?
Exploring Landscapes of Consciousness
What have you learned about what you can manage from those few minutes?
Linking with the Exceptions in the Past
Tell me about times when you have managed to achieve a similar few minutes in the past?
Linking Exceptions from the Past with the Present
When you think about those times in the past when you have achieved this, how might this alter your view of the problem now?
Linking Exceptions from the Past with the Future
Thinking about this now, what do you expect to do next?
More questions and information for therapists interested in applying narrative therapy can be found here.
You can download the printable version of the infographic here.
Narrative Therapy Treatment Plan
Coming up with a treatment plan for narrative therapy is a personal and intensive activity to be completed within the therapeutic relationship, but there are some guidelines on how to set up an effective plan.
This PDF provides a profile of a treatment plan, including goals and guidelines for each stage and theories that can apply to the client’s treatment.
Another resource comes from the co-founder of narrative therapy Michael White. According to White, there are three main processes involved in planning treatment:
1) Externalization of the problem, which mirrors the steps of the statement of position mapping exercise:
Developing a particular, experience-near definition of the problem
Mapping the effects of the problem
Evaluating the effects of the problem
Justifying the evaluation
2) Re-authoring conversations, or helping the client include neglected aspects of themselves that do not fit within the problem-centered narrative.
3) Remembering conversations, which focuses on actively engaging the client in the process of renewing their relationships, removing the relationships they no longer want, and finding meaning in aspects of their story not prevalent in the negative, problem-saturated story.
To see these processes in more detail, click here.
Best Books on Narrative Therapy
If you’re as much of a bookworm as I am, you’ll want a list of suggested reading to complement this piece. You’re in luck! These three books are some of the highest rated books on narrative therapy and can provide an excellent foundation in the practice of narrative techniques.
Maps of Narrative Practice by Michael White
This book from one of the developers of narrative therapy takes the reader through the five main areas of narrative therapy, according to White: re-authoring conversations, remembering conversations, scaffolding conversations, definitional ceremony, and externalizing conversations.
In addition, the book maps out the therapeutic process, complete with implications for treatment and skills training exercises for the reader.
What is Narrative Therapy? An Easy-To-Read Introduction by Alice Morgan
This best-seller provides a simple and easy to understand introduction to the main tenets of narrative therapy. In this book, you will find information on externalization, remembering, therapeutic letter writing, journaling, and reflection in the context of narrative therapy.
What is Narrative Therapy? is especially useful for therapists and other mental health professionals who wish to add narrative techniques and exercises to their practice.
Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs
This book is best saved for those who want to dive headfirst into the philosophical underpinnings of narrative therapy. Casual readers who are interested in learning more about narrative therapy may want to try one of the first two books, but students, teachers, and practitioners will find this book challenging, informative, and invaluable to their studies.
Included in this book are example transcripts and descriptions of therapy sessions in which the principles and interventions of narrative therapy are applied.
YouTube Videos for Further Exploration
To see some of the exercises and techniques used in narrative therapy in action, check out this information-packed video. It provides examples of narrative therapy in practice to satisfy your curiosity or help you enhance your skills.
If you’re interested in seeing an actual therapy session (recorded with the full knowledge and permission of the participants), there is a fascinating video of a narrative therapy session with a 10-year-old boy and his father, conducted by renowned narrative therapist Stephen Madigan.
This quick, 5-minute video can give you an idea of how some of the techniques of narrative therapy can be applied in real counseling sessions, specifically with children and families.
Finally, for a fun and engaging exploration of narrative therapy for in couples counseling, click the link below. It leads to a video involving puppets and outlining some of the main techniques and principles involved in narrative couples therapy.
A Handy PowerPoint to Use
If you’re more a reader or if you like to go at your own pace (or if you forgot your headphones and can’t play a video in your current location!), check out this slideshow on narrative therapy.
It’s intended for students learning about narrative therapy in an academic setting, so some of the languages may seem overly specific and jargon abounds, but there is some great information in here for any readers curious about the philosophy, principles, and theories behind narrative therapy.
Follow this link to view the slideshow.
A Take Home Message
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
How do you tell your story?
What are the chapters of your life?
Do you like the story you tell, or would you prefer to change your story?
These and many other questions can be answered in narrative therapy.
If you’re an individual curious about narrative therapy, I hope I have provided you with enough information to state that curiosity. This piece is full of resources to help you learn more if you want to dive deeper, but hopefully, I have provided a good foundation for further learning.
If you’re a therapist or other mental health professional who is interested in applying the principles and techniques of narrative therapy to your therapeutic relationships, I hope this piece can give you a starting point in your learning journey.
The books and videos listed above can provide you with a solid understanding of the basics and a chance to see it in action, but for further information on using narrative therapy, explore some of the resources listed below:
- The Approach of the Therapist in Narrative Therapy – click here.
- Training in Narrative Therapy – click here.
- Brief and Narrative Therapy Certificate Program – click here.
- Foundations Level Training: 5-Day Certificate Narrative Therapy Intensive – click here.
- Narrative Therapy Chicago’s Workshops and Training in Narrative Therapy – click here.
Whatever brought you here, I hope you found this piece informative and worthwhile.
As always, please leave us your thoughts in the comment section. Have you tried narrative therapy? If so, what did you think? Did you find it useful? If not, would you try it? If you are a therapist, would you consider using narrative techniques in your practice? What techniques in particular capture your interest?
Thank you for reading, and happy storytelling!
- About Narrative Therapy. Narrative Therapy Centre of Toronto. Retrieved from http://www.narrativetherapycentre.com/narrative.html
- Bishop, W. H. (2011, May 16). Narrative therapy summy. Thoughts From a Therapist. Retrieved from http://www.thoughtsfromatherapist.com/2011/05/16/narrative-therapy-summary/
- Dulwich Centre. What is narrative therapy? Dulwich Centre. Retrieved from http://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/
- Freeman, J. (2013, June 5). Expressive arts workshop materials. Narrative Approaches. Retrieved from http://www.narrativeapproaches.com/expressive-arts-workshop-materials/
- Michael White. (2015, July 24). Good Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/michael-white.html
- Morgan, A. (2000). What is narrative therapy? An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide, South Australia, AU: Dulwich Centre Publications.
- Muller, K. Externalizing Conversations Handout. Re-Authoring Teaching: Creating a Collaboratory. Retrieved from https://reauthoringteaching.com/pages-not-in-use/externalising-conversations-handout/
- Narrative Therapy. (2017). Good Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/narrative-therapy
- Standish, K. (2013, November 28). Introduction to narrative therapy [Slideshow]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/kevins299/lecture-8-narrative-therapy