Narrative therapy is a style of therapy that helps people become—and embrace being—an expert in their own lives. In narrative therapy, there is an emphasis on the stories we develop and carry with us through our lives.
As we experience events and interactions, we give meaning to those experiences and they, in turn, influence how we see ourselves and our world. We can carry multiple stories at once, such as those related to our self-esteem, our abilities, our relationships, and our work, for example.
Although elements central to narrative therapy are utilised in a variety of psychotherapies, this approach to therapy was primarily developed through the writings of Michael White and David Epston, two New Zealand-based therapists who believed it was important to see people as separate from their problems. Developed in the 1980s, narrative therapy seeks to have an empowering effect and offer counselling that is non-blaming and non-pathological in nature.
White and Epston felt it was critically important for people to not label themselves or to see themselves as "broken" or "the problem," or for them to feel powerless in their circumstances and behaviour patterns.
Narrative therapy was developed with three main components in mind. The following create the foundation for the relationship between a narrative therapist and their client:
Respect: People participating in narrative therapy are treated with respect and supported for the bravery it takes to come forward and work through personal challenges.
Non-blaming: There is no blame placed on the client as they work through their stories and they are also encouraged to not place blame on others. Focus is instead placed on recognizing and changing unwanted and unhelpful stories about themselves and others.
Client as expert: Narrative therapists are not viewed as an advice-giving authority but, rather, a collaborative partner in helping clients grow and heal. Clients know themselves well and exploring this information will allow for a change in their narratives.
The focus of narrative therapy is around stories that we develop within ourselves and carry through our lives. We give meaning to our personal experiences and these meanings that we come up with, or that have been placed on us by others, influence how we see ourselves and the world around us.
Narrative therapy is concerned with our stories, which are believed to influence our thoughts and, in turn, our decision-making and behaviors.2 Narrative therapy is based on the following principles:
Reality is socially constructed. The way we interact with others impacts how we experience reality. These experiences with others become our known reality.
Reality is influenced by (and communicated through) language. People interpret experiences through language and people can have different interpretations of the same event or interaction.
Having a narrative can help us maintain and organise our reality. The development of a narrative or story can help us to make sense of our experiences.
There is no "objective reality." People can have different realities of the same experience. What might be true for us may not be true for someone else.
Narrative therapy suggests that we create stories throughout our lives as a way to make sense of our experiences and we can carry many stories with us at one time. Although some stories can be positive and others negative, all stories impact our lives in the past, the present, and in the future. As described in narrative therapy, stories involve the following four elements working together:
- Linked in a sequence
- Across time
- According to a plot
- Socioeconomic status
As we think about these factors, we likely hold beliefs about them and what they mean to us or how they impact us in the world. Our beliefs around these things shape how we might see ourselves and what we tell ourselves about an experience or interaction.
We carry multiple stories with us at once, such as stories about our relationships, our professional lives, our weaknesses, our strengths, our goals and more.
Narrative therapy emphasizes the exploration of these stories, as they can have a significant influence on our decision-making and behaviour.
Our Dominant Story
Although we can carry several stories at the same time, there is typically a story that is more dominant than the others. When our dominant story gets in the way of us living our best life or seems to sabotage our efforts at growth and change, it becomes problematic. Many times, when people come into counselling, they are faced with a problematic dominant story that is causing them emotional pain.
A narrative therapist works with clients to explore the stories that they carry about themselves, their lives and their relationships When a dominant story is problematic, it will surface in our interactions with others, in our decision making and in our behaviour patterns.
A problematic dominant story that we carry may have started with a judgment that was placed on us by others, particularly those who might have been in a position of authority or influence over us, like a parent or caregiver.
For example, if, when we were young, we behaved in a way that resulted in a parent calling us "lazy," we may begin thinking of ourselves as lazy and weaving that label into our story as we move into other experiences. The trait of being lazy then continues to grow and become part of a dominant story for us, influencing how we see ourselves and how we behave or interact with others in the future.
These specific judgments are referred to as thin descriptions in narrative therapy and may continue to be carried through our lives, becoming what is called a thin conclusion.3
In essence, using the term "thin" to describe these specific descriptions and conclusions means that there is little consideration for outside circumstances that might influence our decision-making and behaviour. Once something like this takes hold, it can be easy to imagine how it can grow over time and become a problem for us.
Confusing Ourselves with Our Problems
If we have been judged a certain way by our family growing up, referring back to the example of being lazy, it can be very difficult for us to shake that off or get that label out of our story. Not only do we end up often carrying this with us over time, but events that leave us to feel or be seen as lazy continue to support the dominant story that we are a lazy person.
This story becomes problematic, getting in the way of us being able to make healthy decisions that more accurately represent who we are and what we value.4 We find it more and more difficult to separate ourselves from our problems. In fact, we come to think that we are the problem.
Unfortunately, thin descriptions tend to be focused on our weaknesses or areas that we might believe we don't measure up. When we try to make decisions that challenge our dominant story, it may be overlooked by others, and even ourselves, because it is seen as the exception rather than the rule. Our "not lazy" behaviours might be minimised or overlooked because it doesn't match up with our dominant story.
In other words, we might even not give ourselves credit for or behaving in a positive way because it doesn't match up with the story, we tell ourselves about who we are and what we're capable of.
Narrative therapy and trauma
The immediate period following a traumatic event is a crucial time in the survivors' process of recovery. During this time, a narrative of the trauma is generated and constructed, alongside a process of cognitive processing of the traumatic events. Most adults have at least a few memories that are downright painful. On the lighter end, there are those embarrassing experiences that cause a person to cringe, even decades later. Then, there’s heavier stuff, like heartbreak, loss, and regret. These memories are more than a series of facts and images—they also carry powerful emotions that feel like a punch to the gut every time they surface.
In the case of trauma, this phenomenon is taken to the extreme. Traumatic memories are so emotionally loaded that even the smallest of reminders can be crippling. The sound of a car horn might trigger a panic attack, or a familiar smell can lead to an uncontrollable rage. Naturally, many survivors of trauma do their best to avoid these memories—who would willingly expose themselves to even more pain? Unfortunately, avoidance of trauma can sometimes be more harmful than it is helpful. Avoidance can cause trauma can become more painful, and some triggers are simply impossible to avoid. Without treatment, the memories of a trauma can feel like a jumbled mess—an unbearable wash of images, sounds, and emotions. When completing a trauma narrative, the story of a traumatic experience will be told repeatedly through verbal, written, or artistic means. Sharing and expanding upon a trauma narrative allows the individual to organise their memories, making them more manageable, and diminishing the painful emotions they carry.