What is Narrative Therapy By: Robyn Huntley, LMFT

Narrative Therapy is a psychotherapy model that is relatively new to the therapeutic landscape.  It was developed by an Australian man by the name of Michael White.  The Narrative approach is postmodern in its philosophy.  This means that it is based on the assumption that the meaning-making we do in life is open to multiple interpretations. This differs from traditional psychotherapy (think Freud’s psychoanalysis) which is based on the assumption that there is only one correct way to interpret experience.

Narrative therapy is called such, because its premise is entirely on the narratives, or stories, people tell themselves about their lives.  It is particularly concerned with the way people perceive and interpret their experiences.  Human beings are innately wired for storytelling.  In fact, neuroscience even confirms that our brains need to create stories, in order to integrate and make sense of our experiences. (For more information on the neuroscience behind this, I encourage you to read the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, and author of many books, including The Whole-Brain Child.)

The process of weaving our life experiences together into a cohesive narrative comes very naturally to us, which is a very good and helpful thing. However, often times, our stories are dominated by distorted, unhelpful, disempowering assumptions and meaning-making.  In Narrative Therapy, these are called “problem-saturated” stories.  Narrative therapists strive to work collaboratively with  clients to help them make sense of their experiences and revise their life stories to be more empowering – challenging unhelpful interpretations and assumptions, and changing narrow, self-defeating views of self, others and the world.

Narrative therapy is a very unique approach for several reasons.  As a postmodern psychotherapy model, it seeks to do away with language often used in traditional psychotherapy that tends to be pathologizing and hierarchical. One particularly powerful way this is done in Narrative Therapy is by incorporating the concept of externalizing problems.  Externalizing a problem means to “recast” the problem as its own separate character in the client’s story.  This can be extremely helpful in reducing blame, shame and hopelessness in the clients, as it helps clients realize that they themselves aren’t their problems.  Instead of having a problem or being a problem, the therapist encourages client to think of themselves as struggling against a problem.  Narrative therapists also seek to change the paradigm by which family members and other important people in client’s lives view the client and the problem as well.  Narrative therapists seek to help clients enlist support, identifying people in the client’s life who can “team up against the problem.”  Therapists see themselves as just another member of this “anti-problem team.”  As I mentioned before, they intentionally avoid taking a hierarchical “expert/patient” stance, and prefer to work alongside clients, collaborating as equals in overcoming problems and reconstructing more empowering narratives.

Though Narrative Therapy does not place as much of an emphasis on behavior change, this, in no way means that behavior change and symptom reduction does not occur.  For example, Narrative Therapy has shown to be a particularly effective approach in the treatment of Eating Disorders.  Often combined with other modalities of therapy, such as CBT, narrative therapy, as a result of changing the way clients think about themselves, their problems, others and the world, can be a very helpful tool in bringing about positive change in people’s lives.

Sources:

Nichols, M and Schwartz, C. (2007). The Essentials of Family Therapy, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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