Many types of therapy can help with different problems, and one such type of therapy that we will be discussing today is narrative counseling, which is a relatively new form of therapy that has quite a few interesting aspects to it.
As the name implies, there is a narrative aspect to this therapy. The client tends to be the narrator, taking their problems and forming them into stories. This does make sense as, in a way, the events in our lives can be equated to stories. People use their life stories all the time, either as a way to entertain themselves or others or as a way to cope. Whether we fully realize it or not, we all have our own life stories that we tell ourselves and others. What we may not always realize, however, is that we have the power to change that story. That’s where this type of therapy can make a big impact. Read on to learn more.
Narrative therapy first came to fruition during the 1970s and 1980s. Narrative therapy's founders are Michael White from Australia, and David Epston from New Zealand. Because narrative therapy is relatively new, many people don't know much about it. White and Epston believed that people are not their problems — and this is a key component of narrative therapy.
In other words, people are separate from their problems and are not defined by them. The idea is that people can use their skills to solve their problems and have the ability to tell and define their own stories. Their problems are not their story; the people themselves are.
Narrative therapy fundamentally realizes that people can tell stories and have the skills needed to change their own lives and stories.
To do this, they need to separate themselves from their problems. This allows the therapist and client to externalize one's problem, which, in turn, makes deepening understanding of the client and the issues they’re facing rather easier. By turning the problem into a story, people become less defensive, which makes exploration of the problem and the possible solution(s) less challenging and intimidating. Let's look at some of the techniques often used in narrative therapy.
The first goal of narrative therapy is to let people look at their problems and objectify them. Instead of the problem being something intangible, the problem is viewed as something more concrete and less abstract. Being able to put the problem into exact words, instead of a nebulous idea, is key here.
The therapist may then take those problems and frame them. Our stories are part of a bigger picture, and often, these stories will be looked at through the lens of a larger societal context. If someone has a problem with another person, the other person's story may be brought into context as well. Framing the issue(s) within this bigger picture is key to better understanding them and how they fit into our story.
Another lesson in narrative therapy is that other stories can be told. Besides the stories of other people, which help humanize us and allow for empathy, the therapist may ask the client how they would like their own story to end, or what an alternative storyline would be that they would prefer to have to better fit their needs.
For example, someone living with depression may initially narrate their story simply as “I have depression. I’m depressed,” finding it difficult to see beyond this narrative. However, with narrative therapy, the client will be encouraged to explore how they would like their story to be told, and may then delve further to say, “I have depression, but I’m working through it. Doing so is allowing me to get to know myself on a deeper level, and that’s a beautiful thing!” This allows the client to reframe their entire thinking process, and see their story from a different perspective.
The goal of narrative therapy is not transformation. Instead, the goal is to take a problem and modify its effects to ones that the person can handle and work through. By separating people from their problems, this practice becomes a lot easier. Narrative therapy helps people look at their concerns and realize that they can overcome them or not be affected by them as much as they used to be. It’s a matter of shifting perspectives and thoughts into a healthier frame that we can then use to guide our mental health journey onto a more positive path.
Let's take PTSD for example. Often, post-traumatic stress disorder is brought on as a way to protect oneself from the emotions that a traumatic experience may trigger. Long-term, however, PTSD can create serious problems and compromise one's mental health to a high degree. With narrative therapy, one can take the traumatic experience and transform it so that it doesn't affect them as intensely. This can help the individual become more compassionate toward herself. This self-compassion is important and necessary for a change to occur.
This is known as post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth means that positive changes can happen after experiencing a traumatic event if properly addressed.
Narrative therapy can also help the individual to consider the context in which the situation occurred. This may include the political and cultural climate can as well as one's social and emotional status. This can help the individuals view their problem in a more accurate light, and take into account other things that factored into their experience. This can be useful in helping to humble the issue and make it more manageable to address.
Many people can benefit from narrative therapy individually, but narrative therapy can be applied to families and couples as well. Odds are, people who share a problem (as in the case of family and couples counseling) have different sides to the same story, and therefore narrative therapy can help by considering and combining the different stories into one. This, in turn, helps families and couples see other perspectives, or narratives, think outside of themselves, and agree on one story (or at least accept that there is more than one way to see any story) and move on.
For example, when a couple fights, they have two sides to their story. In both stories, one is likely the hero, and the other is the antagonist. In truth, it usually lies somewhere in the middle, where both bring something positive as well as negative to the situation. Narrative therapy can help the couple realize that there is an objective answer. By being more objective, can help the couple try to find a solution rather than fighting over who is right or wrong with narrative therapy.
Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for people who are dealing with their problems, but it does have a few criticisms that are worth mentioning.
First, narrators can be unreliable, especially when the person telling it is the client. The client may pick the narrative they are most comfortable with and put themselves in the best light possible, perhaps consciously or subconsciously. Ideally, narrative therapy will help the client to realize this, but that’s not always the case as the therapist may have no way of knowing what happened.
Another problem with narrative therapy is the lack of scientific evidence. Not enough studies have been conducted to assess its validity, as studying this particular approach is rather difficult.
That being said, narrative therapy can be useful, especially for those who are more creative. It can help individuals tell a story that is more conducive to a healthy life and put things into perspective – hopefully, a healthier one! After all, everything is a matter of perspective, and we get to choose which perspective it is that we want to see.
You are the writer of your own story with narrative therapy. And while you can only control certain things, addressing those in a healthy way can positively change the outcomes of your story. If you feel stuck in a problem, narrative therapy can allow you to look at that problem externally and from new perspectives. You can imagine a story where the problem isn't there or has been resolved. Once you do that, you can take the steps you need to resolve the problem, as those steps become clearer when the problem is isolated and rewritten. That's narrative therapy in a nutshell.
Online therapy may be beneficial for you. BetterHelp therapists are trained, certified, and highly experienced in a variety of treatment methods, including narrative therapy. Simply clicking a therapist’s profile will show you which types of therapy they practice. Online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy, with 98% of BetterHelp users showing significant improvement in their mental health, 100% of users rating it as convenient, and nearly 100% forming a strong relationship (known as the therapeutic alliance) with their therapist (as opposed to closer to 60% of in-person therapy users).
“Bruce invites a presence of understanding with humor. He does not take your feelings lightly, yet he challenges you in other ways to take the lighter side of things. He emphasizes and shares experiences that are presented applicable to your story. Through narrative therapy, wondering, reframing, and as simple as reminding you to be present with your emotions, that it is ok - he gives the client space to access their healing through his space.”