Narrative Therapy

By Jessica Anderson|Updated May 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Narrative therapy is a method of mental health therapy that separates a person from their challenges. This therapy helps people to rely on their internal skills and use emotional tools to lessen the troubles in life. The idea behind this is that our life is a long story and that we give our lives meaning through the little stories that exist within them — the vignettes that take place inside a person's larger story. By narrating our own life story and relying on non-blaming and non-pathological principles, we can begin to grow in new ways in our own lives we didn't think were possible before — and all of this is possible through online therapy.

narrative therapy principles
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Narrative Therapy Techniques & Interventions

When you see a narrative therapist, they can help you recognize specific recurring ideas in your life.

You don’t have to keep engaging in cyclical patterns anymore.

That’s where narrative therapy can help. It’s time for you to change the story of your life with the approaches outlined in this article.

Narrative Therapy History

The approach of narrative therapy was developed by Michael White and David Epston, who were therapists from New Zealand. Michael White and David Epston believed that it was essential to see people as separate from their issues. Narrative therapy came about in the 1980s, and the idea was that it was supposed to be a kind of treatment that was non-blaming and non-pathological. White and Epston made it extremely clear that they didn’t want clients of narrative therapists to be viewed as a problem or viewed as though there was something “wrong” with them; people aren’t broken, and they can change the story of their lives or identify alternative stories in their lives. They wanted to make sure that narrative therapists weren’t labeling people as defective and that these people were empowered to take control over their lives and how they handle the issues within them.

3 Components Of Narrative Therapy: Respect, Non-Blaming, And Client As The Expert

Respect

A person who enters narrative therapy will receive respect from their narrative therapist. They’re there to work through their problems, but they aren’t a problem. Sometimes people struggle with viewing themselves as “broken” or “messed up.” One of the best parts of this approach is that you’re working hard to respect yourself and detach those negative perceptions of yourself from your being. Your therapist helps you positively view yourself by recognizing you as a human being. Everyone goes through hard times, and that doesn’t make you defective – it means you’re human.

Non-Blaming

When things go wrong, it’s easy to blame others or ourselves. But that behavior doesn’t help you. In narrative therapy, the client doesn’t get blamed for their problems, nor do they place blame on other people. They recognize the alternative stories and dominant stories within their lives and focus on acknowledging their story and working actively to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Narrative therapy seeks to show that blaming isn’t helpful in our own lives because it focuses on a person rather than the problem. When one can identify alternative stories in their life, they are able to recognize themselves as an individual with a story rather than defining themselves by dominant problematic stories. 

Rather than placing blame on a person, narrative therapy techniques help the client focus on the problem or the problematic story itself. They can look at the issues and start to find an alternative story to handle these. You tell your narrative therapists what the problem is, and if you’re frustrated that you can’t seem to solve it, that’s okay. But your narrative therapists are going to show you that blaming doesn’t work. It only makes the problem feel more insurmountable. Instead, you can identify alternative stories for these problems and realize you are not the problem at hand. 

The Client As The Expert

In many other kinds of therapy, the client comes to the therapist seeking guidance. They view their counselor as an expert in the field. Therapists are human beings, too, though. They have an education in psychology, but they also have flaws and make mistakes. While narrative therapy also involves talking to a therapist and therapeutic conversations, a significant aspect of narrative therapy is that narrative therapy stresses that the client gets to be an expert. You know the story of your life. You can tell it because you’ve lived it. You get to discuss aspects and explore events of your life because you know your life story better than anyone, even close friends and family members. 

Narrative therapists help illustrate what could be painful patterns or old and unhealthy beliefs in your dominant story. As the writer of your own story, you get to make the final decisions. Much like person-centered therapy and systemic therapies, in narrative therapy, the narrative therapists don’t view themselves as an authority figure or as though they’re above the client in any way. It’s a collaborative process in which the client gets to know who they are and trust themselves. They’re telling their dominant story in depth, and the therapist is guiding them along the way while helping and supporting them through the process as the story gains richness. Maybe your story begins with an easy to read introduction and gets more problematic as time goes on. A qualified narrative therapist will help you work through all narrative ideas you have and will help you remember why you are seeking treatment in the first place.  

The foundation of this method is that reality is a social construct and our interactions with other people form a particular sequence that influences what we see as “real.” Meaning forms based on our view of what reality is. People interpret their interactions with others, and that’s their perception of reality. There’s no singular reality; your perception is your reality and what may be true for one person won’t necessarily be real for someone else. There’s no objective reality. Instead, it’s subjective. Narrative therapy sets forth the idea that we can make sense of our lives by telling our stories and narrative therapists can help you tell it. 

Narrative Therapy Benefits For You

By focusing on the lived experiences and stories within a person’s life, narrative therapy separates an individual from their personal challenges and unhelpful stories or problems. Narrative therapy also helps people see that they can at any time re-navigate their story- there are unique outcomes for each individual. It shows that their story is always evolving and changing and that they’re the author of that story. A trained narrative therapist helps people to be curious and explore different elements of their story, even their problematic stories. They help clients challenge themselves and see that they can change; that even in situations in which a person doesn’t have full control, the individual can still choose how they handle it and perceive it.

Four Narrative Methods

Many narrative techniques help people learn to take control of their lives and their stories. Here are four common narrative methods that can help you change your perception of self and see yourself as separate from your problems:

Developing Your Own Story

You might be aware of how your story is going, or you may feel clueless as to why certain things have happened to you in your life. When you go to narrative therapy, your therapist is there to help you figure out what the nature of your story is and how to get you on the right track to telling it. One thing that a narrative therapist will help you do is to collect information to understand your story and find your voice, looking beyond a person's personality characteristic.

Some people don’t know that there are repetitive stories within their lives, but narrative practice will help a client see that repetition and help them to identify those dominant themes that may be impacting them negatively. A therapist will then empower the client by showing them that they can re-steer the common, same events in a person's life that they’re experiencing so that they can live a more happy, healthy, and productive life. A narrative therapist seeks to walk you through different stories throughout your life, even a problematic story, showing how these different stories are connected, as many stories in our lives have a dominant plot that parallels another without us realizing this. 

Externalization

You are not your problem. You are a human being who is moving through life, writing your journey as you go. You might struggle with specific issues, but you are not the challenges that you meet. The concept of distancing yourself from the problems you experience is called “externalization.” When you’re putting together a story, it’s important to differentiate yourself from the problem so that you don’t fuse the two: you’re not your problem. Externalization helps you view issues from an objective, non-judgmental point of view or your preferred realities. Once you create that distance between yourself and your problems, you see that change is possible and that you’re in control and able to heal.

Deconstruction

Sometimes, people become anxious or overwhelmed when taking in their stories. They might feel that it’s too big or too much to tackle all at once, and they might feel lost in it. If you’re trying to look at everything in your life at once, that will probably make you feel anxious, or maybe even powerless. The good news is that you don’t have to tackle every single problem in your life at once. When you’re in narrative therapy, you can break down the pieces of your story using deconstruction. Deconstructing the story and looking at it in smaller parts makes the process far less overwhelming and allows an individual to see that they can impact change in their life.

Outcomes

Your story doesn’t have to end one way. You’re not the victim of fate or your narrative ideas. You have the choice to change the narrative. Narrative therapy helps you understand how many options you have in your life and how much you can change your life based on how you write your story. A narrative therapist can show a client that there are alternative endings or ways that you can change your story; it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but in therapy. Life is a long book, and you’ve got a lot to say. Your therapist is ready to hear your story and help you determine where it goes, providing guidance and professional medical advice when you may need it most. 

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Finding A Counselor To Help You

Are you ready to continue writing your life story, but feel you need some help getting an idea, sense, or example of how to do so? If the answer is “yes,” then it is the right time in your life to find a therapist expert who can help anyone interested who may have started narrative therapy to explore a variety of ideas, ways, and others to help you achieve your goals as individuals. Whether you decide to work with someone in your neighborhood or online, you can find a provider or someone that practices narrative therapy. The therapists at BetterHelp are here to help you see that you aren’t your problems and that you can take charge of your life at any time.

If you’re unsure, take a look at this study conducted on the efficacy of BetterHelp. It reported that 98% of users showed significant improvement, while 94% of users preferred face-to-face sessions. Online counseling is just as effective as in-person therapy and can change the lives of people, with narrative therapy similarly being just as effective in treating mental health conditions like depression as cognitive behavioral therapy.

One of the many benefits of BetterHelp is that you can find licensed therapists who specialize in a range of therapeutic approaches to best suit you. Additionally, online sessions can be accessed anytime and anywhere with access to the internet. Convenience and accessibility are further enhanced by the ability to hold sessions via video chatting, phone call, live voice recordings, or even texting.

A narrative approach can help you - read below for reviews about BetterHelp counseling.

BetterHelp Reviews

“I have come a long way. With the help of Alexis, I have accomplished things I thought I’d never do. I am glad I did this, it has benefited me so much. With the guidance and encouragement of Alexis, I am more confident in myself and I see a clear path to success and happiness. I have learned to control myself and not doubt myself. It is hard to let go but I know I will be fine and if I need she will still be here for me. Thank you Alexis you have truly helped me change my life. I am so grateful. I wish you the best!”

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Conclusion

If the details of narrative therapy shared in this article pique your interest or seem like they could be beneficial in your life, consider giving this approach a try. Find a counselor to help you tell the story of your life in a way that is free of judgment and blame. Remember that life challenges are normal; these challenges are not your fault, and they can be improved.

You can move forward to live a happy and healthy life.

Narrative therapy is available on BetterHelp. Reach out today to try it with a qualified narrative therapy counselor.

FAQs And More Info

What is an example of narrative therapy?

Imagine a narrative therapist working with Sally. She says she is depressed. The therapist would have Sally separate her feelings of depression from her identity. So instead of saying "I'm depressed and my life is awful," Sally would say "Depression is impacting my life and making me think my day-to-day is awful, when it really isn't." This is a core element of re authoring your story about yourself to tell others, encouraging the patient to have more self compassion for the challenges they might be facing in life.

What are the key concepts of narrative therapy?

Key pillars of narrative therapy include alternative stories, confronting old and perhaps unhealthy beliefs, creating a wider sense of yourself, and encouraging new thought patterns to take shape. Mental health professionals rely on these tactics and other narrative therapy resources when working 1-on-1 with a client, helping them move past their initial problem story.

What are the steps in narrative therapy?

Stephen Madigan, who has written extensively about narrative therapy, says the steps include: deconstruction or unpacking a person's prevailing stories, re-authoring and bringing aspects of themselves to expand their preferred plot, and remembering conversations to find new "communities of concern."

What is narrative therapy good for?

It's especially helpful for a person to find their voice and use that new ability in a positive way. Through the sessions, they can develop expertise in their own life experiences, allowing their own goals and values to shine through, whether for individual therapy, couples therapy, or family therapy. This re storying of a person's lived experiences can be incredibly helpful for their overall outlook and mental health.

How is storytelling therapeutic?

Narrative therapy has its roots in the well-known phrase, "the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem." In other words, a person's framing and storytelling around their past experiences can play a large role in how they view the future and their own decision making.

How is narrative therapy different from other therapies?

This therapy approach sets itself apart from the rest by not seeking to fundamentally transform the client through therapy. Instead, it takes aim at the way the person views themself and their past experiences. By re-framing the past, they will allow themselves to have space between their challenges/issues and themselves.

What are the strengths of a narrative?

Narratives are authentic to you, and they are a representation of how you see yourself. As a result, narratives can be extremely powerful in building positive thinking about your own mental health. Community work can also help a great deal when it comes to creating a new narrative for your issues.

Who should use narrative therapy?

A wide variety of people can benefit from this approach, including those with eating disorders, attachment issues, general anxiety or depression, grief, and many more mental health challenges. 

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