Narrative Therapy: The Importance of Your Story
My name is Jessica Waters, and I am a counseling intern at the Center for Family Transformation. I attend Liberty University and plan to graduate in December 2022. I’m honored to present an article on a type of therapy I am learning about in my studies called narrative therapy. This type of therapy offers a framework for clients to heal emotional wounds through storytelling, and I’m so excited to use what I am learning with my current and future clients.
Narrative therapy can be a helpful tool for people to “rewrite” some of their toughest stories. Narrative therapy was created by Michael White and David Epston who were social workers from Australia and New Zealand (4). White and Epston did not plan to create a new therapy model and were intentional not to give their work a name, so their theory was labeled as narrative therapy after they passed it along to others (1). These social workers wanted a model of therapy that was intentional to stay out of the teacher or expert role and were open to others adding their own perspectives and discoveries to the work (1; 3).
Narrative therapy believes that “people make sense of their everyday lives through narratives” 2). The stories they tell themselves about their lives are very important for communicating meaning. Halbur and Halbur (2) share an example of a young person who was forgotten at daycare. This youth told the story that reflected how alone and forgotten she felt, or how she saw that she was able to survive on her own and even take charge of her environment by taking a toy from another child (2). There are different meanings that this child could have attached to the situation. Narrative therapy can be a tool used for rewriting or re-authoring the story to help empower the client (4).
Another important assumption would be that narrative therapists “believe the stories people tell themselves are important in determining how they will act” (2, p.91). Another example is of a five-year-old who started wearing glasses and won an award for the best fire safety poster; then, when he was twelve years old, he was picked on for wearing glasses and won another award for computer skills (2). This kid could either see himself and tell his story as a successful person or a person who is different (2). As a successful person, the twelve-year-old would most likely have confidence and be proud of his awards. On the other hand, if he always told stories about getting glasses and being different, a goal for therapy may be to expand his perspectives regarding how successful he is and how it can help with the behaviors in his life (2).
Another basic assumption of narrative therapy would be that it “emphasizes empowering family members to re-author their own life stories in more constructive and less oppressive ways so that they see more options” (4, p.292). This also relates to the boy who could see himself as successful or different (2). A hope for narrative therapy would be to help him see that what they are telling him is important, as well as how to rewrite it to be part of a healthier self-concept. Each of these basic assumptions are tied to the fact that the language people use is very important (3). Narrative therapy requires a sensitivity to the words and language people are using (3).
Vetere and Dowling(5) summarize the narrative therapy approach into four steps. First, there is greater importance given to what the client is experiencing over what the therapist is thinking about “defining as the problem” (5, p. 6). Second, the therapist will ask questions to help the client “separate” from the events that are happening in the story (5, 2016). The third step would be to point out the exceptions that are happening in the story and when the client is trying to separate from the story (5, 2016). Finally, Vatere and Dowling (5) suggest the therapist ask questions to help uncover the meaning and have a “goal of helping clients re-author an alternate story” (p. 6). Overall, it is a process of helping people process their stories in a more productive way.
Telling our story is therapeutic. Putting words to the thoughts, desires, and experiences we have is a way of connecting with those around us. Narrative therapy is a powerful tool to help when the stories we are sharing need a space to be rewritten. In my journey as a therapist, I will be using this approach to aid clients in finding the healing and freedom they desire. After all, healing and freedom are essential ingredients for a joyful and peaceful life!
Beels, C. C. (2009). Some Historical Conditions of Narrative Work. Family Process, 48(3), 363–378. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01288.
Halbur, D., & Halbur, K. V. (2019). Developing your Theoretical Orientation for Counseling and Psychotherapy. Pearson.
Payne, M. (2006). Narrative Therapy an Introduction for Counselors. Sage.
Tan, S.-Y. (2011). Counseling and Psychotherapy: a Christian Perspective. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Vetere, A., & Dowling, E. (2016). Narrative Therapies with Children and Their Families: A Practitioner’s Guide to Concepts and Approaches. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.