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Therapy of the Week: Narrative Therapy

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Narrative therapy is a technique that helps an individual separate themselves from a problem that may be present in their lives (“Narrative Therapy”, 2018). This in turn leads them toward playing the role of “narrator” in their own lives and using skills they’ve acquired through life to develop an alternate view of those problems (“Narrative Therapy”, 2018). Using this technique, individuals can rediscover their purpose in life by separating themselves from their negative experiences, using various tools like creative writing to explore their own story (Ricks, Kitchens, Goodrich, & Hancock, 2014).

This article will further explore some aspects of narrative therapy, as well as approaches that counsellors can use throughout their careers.

The Origins and Purpose of Narrative Therapy

Developed by David Epston and Michael White, narrative therapy is an approach that helps the client in therapy externalize difficult situations in their life, which they may have otherwise internalized (Ricks, Kitchens, Goodrich, & Hancock, 2014). This approach allows them to see their problems with a different lens, and tackle them more productively. In other words, one of the major goals with narrative therapy is objectifying these problems, which then helps clients tell their own story and see the impact of a problem more broadly and without judgement (“Narrative Therapy”, 2018). Through narrative therapy, “Those who define themselves by their problems, whose lives are dominated by such feelings as ‘I am a depressed person’ or ‘I am an anxious person’ can learn to see their problem as something they have but not something that identifies who they are.” (Narrative Therapy, n.d.) By separating the individual from their problem and helping to externalize and recontextualize it, the client can see their own narrative from a different perspective (“Narrative Therapy”, 2018).

Through narrative therapy, clients can recontextualize problems
Through narrative therapy, clients can recontextualize problems

Narrative Therapy Helps Clients Become Authors of Their Own Story

By separating the problem from the client, narrative therapy can help people use what they’ve already acquired through life—skills, abilities, values, beliefs, etc.—to help them minimize how much influence those problems have in their lives (Morgan). With an approach that is built on respect and remaining non-judgmental, clients become the expert of their own life. They become the narrator or author of their own life story, while those with a counsellor therapist career assist the client through the process. 

Through “re-authoring” stories or conversations, (Morgan) clients can be separated from problematic behaviours or experiences, and see themselves in ways that don’t lead them to blaming themselves or viewing themselves as a problematic person. Rather, the client can instead see themselves as humans with certain behaviours they could aspire to change (Ackerman, 2019). In many ways, this type of therapy is founded on curiosity, and encourages clients to ask questions they don’t know the answer to (Morgan).

Therapists Can Use Their Counselling Skills to Improve the Process

When providing this sort of therapy to clients, there are a number of approaches a counsellor can use. For example, the use of creative writing has been known as a therapeutic means of helping clients better understand their narrative, particularly with traumatic or troubling life experiences (Vaandrager & Pieterse, 2008). While there is no specific direction a narrative therapy session has to take, the narrative therapists’ counselling skills can help clients view life in terms of stories (Morgan), as well as assist the client in seeing what is “absent but implicit” with regards to their problems (“Narrative Therapy”, 2018).

Numerous strategies can help move the process along, including creative writing
Numerous strategies can help move the process along, including creative writing

However, the relationship between the client and the therapist is a major element of how progress can be made (Richert, 2003). In the eyes of narrative therapists, stories are made up of events across time in sequence with one another, and are in accordance with a plot (Morgan). By helping clients come up with alternative stories that allow them to break free of their respective issues and minimize their influence, the narrative therapist can help them view life itself with a new lens and open up new possibilities for their future (Morgan).

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Works Cited

(2018, June 18). Narrative Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/narrative-therapy

Ackerman, C. (2019, July 4). 19 Narrative Therapy Techniques, Interventions Worksheets [PDF]. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/narrative-therapy/

Morgan, A. (n.d.). What is Narrative Therapy? Retrieved from https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/

(n.d.) Narrative Therapy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/narrative-therapy

Richert, A. J. (2003). Living stories, telling stories, changing stories: Experiential use of the relationship in narrative therapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 13(2), 188–210. doi: 10.1037/1053-0479.13.2.188

Ricks, L., Kitchens, S., Goodrich, T., & Hancock, E. (2014). My Story: The Use of Narrative Therapy in Individual and Group Counseling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 9(1), 99–110. doi: 10.1080/15401383.2013.870947

Vaandrager, C., & Pieterse, H. (2008). The pen and the couch: possibilities for creative writing and narrative therapy in South Africa. The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, 20(3), 391–406.