As I mentioned in the theoretical orientation post, it’s important for clients to be informed (to an extent!) about how their therapist does their work. What assumptions do they hold about the world? Are they aligned with yours? Last week, I explained Internal Family Systems, the first theory I use in my own work. Today you’ll be reading about the other: Narrative therapy!
**The information on this website is purely educational and not to be used as therapy. While my post-grad job prospects are still in the air, if you think you might need a therapist, please check out BetterHelp! They have thousands of licensed therapists that you can meet with online for a fraction of the cost of in-person therapy.
Background of Narrative Therapy
Narrative Therapy was created by Michael White and David Epston in the 80s. Its a cool theory because the founders truly believe people already have the skills necessary for change, which allows them to see clients as the experts of their own lives. The therapist is simply a collaborator.
This method changes how people look at their problems. Often, clients have written themselves a narrative, or story of their lives in which they are the problem. In reality the problem is outside them, which a therapist would help them see through a process called externalization. They would show them that the story they’ve written is limiting, and there are infinite versions of the story of anyone’s life. Once the client sees this, they are able to write a new story with healthier, happier themes woven throughout. And all the therapist has done is offer a new perspective!
Narrative therapy is relational in an interesting way. It gives us an opportunity to interact with the problem as if it were a part of the external system. Like with IFS, it can be used with individuals, couples, and families alike.
Assumptions and Goals of Narrative Therapy
As with IFS and any other theory, narrative therapy starts with some assumptions. If you’re not really pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down here, you either need some more information (which I’m happy to provide!) or narrative just might not be for you. And that’s okay!
1. Reality is socially constructed
To believe in narrative therapy, one generally must believe that reality is subjective. This assumption allows for what I love so much about this theory– that the client is the expert on his or her own life. If there were only one objective truth, the therapist would simply be a teacher of it, and the client would very likely feel quite stifled by it.
2. People are always attempting to make meaning out of their lives.
After all, isn’t that why stories exist in the first place? To make meaning out of this crazy world we live in? Narrative therapy simply shows us how we do that within the self. We use the events of our lives and weave them together into a story about who we are that makes sense to us. Everyone does this differently, because demographic factors like race, culture, socioeconomic status, sex and gender all play a role. And yet, one thing we have in common is that we’re all attempting to make meaning via stories. Personally, I think that’s really beautiful.
So, what does this look like? Imagine a client who comes to therapy saying they are depressed. That word, depressed, carries the weight of all the life events that led to that conclusion. In a family where emotionality is looked down upon, “depressed” will have a very different significance than in a family where everyone openly attends therapy. Perhaps the first story includes a great deal of pushing back against unsupportive family members who don’t understand what it means to feel sad and not know why. Perhaps the second story includes events where the client was told they were likely to have depression someday because it ran in the family.
3. We do not give meaning to all the events in our lives.
In the future, both of these clients with depression are likely to give significance to events that support their story. If one was really writing a story about depression, they likely wouldn’t include the times they felt happy. This is what we call a dominant narrative. Your dominant narrative is the main story you tell yourself about who you are. There are infinite possible versions of the story of anyone’s life. However, if you see yourself as a depressed person, the other happy events fall away because they’re not important.
Human brains naturally take shortcuts to make life easier– it’s called a heuristic. And that’s essentially what the brain is doing here. It’s trying to make life easier for you. But as can be expected with shortcuts, they make you prone to mistakes. In this case, the shortcut is making your dominant narrative quite a thin story, and saturated with problems. While we will never be able to include every life event in your story, we can enrich it with a bunch more.
4. People are multistoried.
We’ve been talking about these depressed clients as if that’s the only thing they use to describe themselves. In reality, both of those clients may also be good drivers, bad singers, frugal, loving, etc. These are all dominant narratives. You can think of it as how each of those traits won out in their category. If they’re a good driver, the bad driving events all fell away. Seeing themselves as frugal means they don’t find significance in any times they might have made bad money choices. You get the idea!
5. The client is the expert on his or her own life
Narrative therapy would be really easy if the therapist could just say “well, what about this event? You weren’t depressed here! Put this in the new story.”
We don’t have access to all that, so the client really has to lead the way. All we can do as therapists is offer tools to help them come to conclusions about their lives themselves. This may seem like a downfall, but it’s actually perfectly aligned with the theory. If the therapists did the work for the clients, they would never feel comfortable taking their agency back. How can taking control of the client’s life help them learn to take control of their own lives?
6. The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem.
Ahh, the famous last words of every narrative therapist. The problem is something the client is going through— not something they are! This assumption allows the client to feel less blame and guilt over their struggles. When they don’t feel overwhelmed by that, they usually feel comfortable claiming their agency.
Think of what this means for diagnosis! When the problem is not within the person, diagnosis becomes almost irrelevant, doesn’t it? It’s radical, but intriguing. Often, people end up feeling defined by their diagnoses, which is the opposite of what we try to do in the narrative therapy room. We want the client to take control of who they are, not feel controlled by what someone else has told them they are. We teach them that they’re more than a diagnosis, a traumatic event, etc.
Now that you know what narrative therapists tend to believe about the world and people, what does that mean for therapy goals? Basically, it means we’re working on expanding the dominant narrative, and externalization. When the client has done that, they will feel comfortable taking control of their lives– claiming their agency!
Expanding the Dominant Narrative
You know what a dominant narrative is now– the story you’ve chosen, out of infinite possible versions, to describe who you are. We’ve also mentioned how sometimes they can become problem saturated. That means that the story is so weighed down by problems that the client starts to see themselves as a problem. This is when clients feel depressed or anxious or otherwise unwell. So how do we get clients to see themselves in a new way? We expand their dominant narrative.
Expanding the dominant narrative means opening the client up to the possibility of the other stories. It involves helping them find unique outcomes or sparkling events, which are times when the problem didn’t exist. Together, we attempt to make the client’s story more rich and full. Therapists can help clients do this in many ways, including writing out their own life story.
Externalization helps people to interact with their problems in a more objective way, and it’s my favorite part of narrative therapy. I love it because it builds the client’s self-esteem, and reduces the blame so they’re more comfortable taking responsibility for themselves. They don’t feel so guilty when the problem is not them.
One way to externalize the problem is by naming it. If a family tells me they’re bad at communication, I start by asking them how communication issues have affected the family. This phrasing implies that the problem is something that happened to them rather than something that they are. Right from the get-go, we’re in a mindset of interacting with the problem rather than being it. You’ll often see eating disorder recovery programs using this term– often calling the eating disorder “ED.” When the eating disorder is it’s own entity, they can interact with it and set boundaries with it. The same goes for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more.
With children, I love having them draw their problem. If they’re feeling angry all the time, I have them draw their anger like a monster. What does their monster look like? How big is it? What does it say to them? What is it’s weakness? Young children who are still very concrete may feel very empowered just by the act of crumpling up their monster drawing and throwing it in the trash.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Narrative Therapy
I love narrative therapy because it’s really effective at reducing blame in clients. When the problem is outside themselves, they tend to feel less guilt about what they’ve done because of it. Then, they are more able to accept responsibility. The same goes for clients who simply feel they do not have control over their lives. When narrative therapy shows them they actually DO have control, they’re happy to take it.
A second strength is the power it offers the clients. In narrative therapy, the therapist is not the expert. They have tools of course, but only the client knows enough about his or her own life to make the change work.
Since narrative therapy is relational, it is very versatile! Individuals, couples, and families can all benefit from it.
One weakness of this theory is that it is not yet evidence-based. They are working on it, but it’ll take some more time!
A second weakness of narrative therapy is that, like IFS, it’s not conducive to working with clients with very serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.