Inside Narrative Therapy
Many types of therapy can help with different problems, and one such type of therapy that we will be discussing today is narrative therapy, 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 about narrative therapy.
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, who later on created the Narrative Therapy Centre. Because narrative therapy is relatively new, many people don't know much about it. Michael White and David 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.
Techniques For This Approach
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 as proposed by the Narrative Therapy Centre.
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 alternative 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.
Goals & Objectives
The goal of narrative therapy is not transformation. Instead, it 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, creating alternative stories to their preferred realities, and changing 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 or other events 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 themselves. 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 consider the context in which the situation occurred. This may include the political and cultural climate 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 factor into their experience. This can be useful in helping to humble the issue and make it more manageable to address.
When Narrative Therapy Is Used
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 a narrative therapist can help by considering and combining the different stories of family members into one. This, in turn, helps families and couples see other perspectives, or narratives, think outside of themselves, 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 of fights, they have two sides to their story. In each alternative story, 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 since there are always other events that influence a person’s life and world views. Narrative therapy can help the couple realize that there is an objective answer. being more objective can help the couple try to find a solution rather than fighting over who is right or wrong.
Controversies And Concerns
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 truly 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, healthily addressing those things 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 with narrative therapy. 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 Narrative Therapy
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 as 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.”
You’re The Author of Your Own Story
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the steps in narrative therapy?
Narrative therapy seeks to change a problematic story or a series of old and unhealthy beliefs into healthier or even neutral ones. The goal of narrative therapists is that clients take charge of their own life stories so they can identify disruptive thought patterns that may be causing mental distress. In narrative therapy, the events that occur throughout a person’s life are seen as many stories that individually make up one dominant story or theme that shapes a person's overall identity.
Narrative therapists employ several techniques to help their clients both individually and in family therapy. While there’s no single course of action, the steps in narrative therapy may include:
- Putting together the narrative: The narrative therapist and client go over the dominant story. This usually involves the person explaining their life story and the narrative therapist listening and asking relevant questions to explore and identify alternative stories and themes within the client’s life. As the story gains richness, the narrative therapist encourages the client to become an observer rather than a participant in the story, which helps create distance between the person and the problems.
- Externalizing the problem: Once a person has started narrative therapy and begun looking at the dominant plot of their life as an observer rather than an active participant, they can view their thoughts, behaviors, and personal challenges from a different perspective. This distance allows the client and narrative therapist to focus on changing the problematic stories and behaviors instead of dwelling on the same events over and over.
- Deconstruction: Narrative therapists may ask their clients to break down dominant stories into smaller, more detailed events when a problematic story feels too fixed and the person cannot view it from other perspectives.
What are the goals of narrative therapy?
The goal of narrative therapy is to take negative narrative ideas that dominate a person’s life, leading to unhealthy beliefs, anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, and turn them into positive or neutral stories. According to narrative therapists, dominant problematic stories can undermine a person’s autonomy when they become too fixed. But when they can observe their dominant story in depth without becoming emotionally attached to it, this can help reduce the effects a problematic story can have on that person’s life and help decrease symptoms of mental health distress.
Is narrative therapy a CBT?
No. While cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and narrative therapy have many things in common, they are not the same form of therapy. To retrieve information on narrative therapy, Dulwich Centre Publications is a great resource. The Dulwich Centre has been around since 1983 and is located in Australia. It provides training opportunities, site work, and in-depth information for those interested in narrative therapy. The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry is another valuable resource.
What disorders does narrative therapy treat?
By narrating the stories of their own lives, evidence suggests that narrative therapy can help with the following:
- Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorders
- Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Issues with sexual identity
Narrative therapy can also be helpful for marital satisfaction; married women and men can benefit from reframing the stories they tell themselves about their marriages with a non-blaming, non-pathological lens that brings new meaning and understanding.
Who would benefit from narrative therapy?
Anyone who feels like they are weighed down by unhelpful stories or narratives that occurred throughout their lives can benefit from narrative therapy. Narrative therapy can also help couples and families by functioning as a form of couples therapy or family therapy.
Narrative therapy involves talking about your life story in detail and following a particular sequence of events. As you explore events of your life and discuss aspects and details from a narrator’s point of view, this can help create some distance between you and your problems, which in turn can help you find more realistic solutions. Narrative therapy provides a new way of looking at negative experiences as people practice externalization, which can have an empowering effect that leads to decreased symptoms of mental illness and makes it easier for clients to live their best lives.
Is narrative therapy good for anxiety?
Yes, narrative therapy is one of the newer forms of systemic therapy that has been shown to help people seeking treatment for anxiety and other mental health conditions. During narrative counseling, the narrative therapist seeks to help you view your “problem story” from a different perspective by respectfully and non-judgmentally listening to your main and alternative stories while you are in the driver’s seat as the expert of your own life. In some cases, even one session can make a difference in helping clients begin sharing new versions of the stories they’ve always told themselves about their lives.
How many sessions does narrative therapy take?
You and your narrative therapist can decide upon the number of sessions depending on your goal for therapy. Narrative therapy stresses the importance of taking charge of your own life story and unique outcomes through storytelling, without the need of labeling yourself as a result of your circumstances. You’ll no longer feel powerless; instead, this process helps clients feel more in control of their lives and their future.
Is narrative therapy good for trauma?
Narrative therapy can be a good treatment for people who have lived through trauma. However, not all forms of therapy will be effective for every person. The only way to know if these therapeutic conversations will work for you is by giving them a try. You can find a therapist who will work with you as a collaborative partner through narrative therapy by looking through therapist directories.
Do narrative therapists diagnose?
If your narrative therapist is a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or medical doctor, they can diagnose mental health conditions and provide professional medical advice.
Wondering more about what narrative therapy is? Therapy is a personal experience, and not everyone will go into therapy seeking the same things.
Keeping this in mind can ensure that you will get the most out of online narrative therapy, regardless of what your specific therapy goals are. If you’re still wondering if therapy is right for you, and how much this therapy costs, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. BetterHelp specializes in online therapy, including narrative therapy, to help address all types of mental health challenges. We are here to help you with secure and affordable therapy. For more information about BetterHelp's therapy platform, please find us on:
Does online therapy work?
Peer-reviewed sources have discussed the fact that online therapy works just as well as other forms of therapy. A study from the Journal of Psychological Disorders found that online cognitive behavioral therapy from licensed therapists was effective, acceptable, and practical health care that can benefit friends and family, as well as yourself. As a whole, online therapy is proven to be cost-effective and helpful in allowing a person to seek the treatment they desire.