Narrative therapy is a therapeutic approach that focuses on the stories and narratives individuals construct about their lives.
It recognizes that people interpret and give meaning to their experiences through storytelling, and these stories can shape their identities, relationships, and ways of understanding the world. Narrative therapy aims to help individuals explore and reshape these stories, ultimately empowering them to create more positive and meaningful narratives.
At the core of narrative therapy is the belief that individuals are not defined by their problems or diagnoses but rather by the stories they tell themselves and others.
These stories can often become limiting or oppressive, reinforcing negative beliefs and behaviors. Narrative therapy seeks to externalize the problem, separating it from the person and viewing it as a separate entity that can be examined, understood, and ultimately changed.
Therapists using narrative therapy engage in conversations with clients to help them deconstruct and reframe their dominant narratives. Through this process, clients are encouraged to explore alternative perspectives and possibilities, challenge oppressive narratives, and construct new narratives that align with their values and aspirations. The therapist acts as a collaborator and facilitator, working alongside the client to co-create a preferred narrative.
One key technique in narrative therapy is externalizing conversations.
This involves personifying the problem or issue, giving it a name or character, and exploring its influence on the individual’s life. By externalizing the problem, individuals can gain a new perspective, recognizing that they are separate from the problem and not defined by it. This shift allows them to reclaim their agency and develop a sense of empowerment in dealing with the problem.
For example, a person struggling with depression may have a dominant narrative that portrays them as helpless and consumed by their depressive thoughts and feelings. In narrative therapy, the therapist may engage in an externalizing conversation, asking the client to give a name or description to the depression. By personifying the depression, the client can start to view it as an external force that is separate from their core identity. This shift can empower the client to challenge the influence of depression and develop strategies to counter its impact on their life.
Another central aspect of narrative therapy is the exploration of alternative stories or “counter-narratives.”
These are stories that challenge the dominant narratives and offer alternative perspectives or interpretations of a person’s experiences. Counter-narratives can provide individuals with new ways of understanding themselves and their problems, opening up possibilities for change and growth.
For instance, a person struggling with low self-esteem may have a dominant narrative that portrays them as unworthy and incapable. In narrative therapy, the therapist may help the client explore and construct counter-narratives that highlight their strengths, achievements, and positive qualities. By amplifying these alternative stories, the client can challenge the dominant narrative of unworthiness and cultivate a more positive and self-affirming view of themselves.
Externalizing conversations and counter-narratives are often supported by therapeutic techniques such as reauthoring, remembering, and re-authorizing. Reauthoring involves reconstructing the client’s personal narrative to emphasize alternative meanings, interpretations, or events. Remembering focuses on identifying and bringing forth forgotten or overlooked stories, experiences, or skills that can contribute to a more preferred narrative. Re-authorizing involves recognizing and validating the client’s expertise, knowledge, and agency in rewriting their own story.
Dr. Jordan Peterson, famously, offers a program called the Self-Authoring Suite. Simplified, this Narrative Therapy program asks its participants to write about who they are, where they come from and where they are going. Once the past and the present are explored, the author then imagines his/her future as a result of a choice at a fork in the road: the first possible destination is where you’d arrive if you continue doing what you are have always done; the second, where you could take your life if you get your act together.
Furthermore, narrative therapy can employ creative and expressive techniques to facilitate the exploration and expression of stories. These techniques may include journaling, art therapy, letter writing, or even creating a “Tree of Life” to map significant people, events, and values in the client’s life. Such creative exercises can deepen the therapeutic process, providing additional avenues for reflection, self-expression, and the construction of alternative narratives.
It is important to note that narrative therapy is a collaborative and culturally sensitive approach. Therapists acknowledge the social and cultural contexts that shape individuals’ stories and identities, recognizing the influence of systemic factors such as gender, race, class, and power dynamics. They strive to create a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to explore their narratives and honor their diverse experiences and perspectives.
At Align, we have found the use of narrative therapy as a therapeutic tool that our clients can use to focuses on the stories and narratives they construct about their lives.
By externalizing problems, exploring counter-narratives, and engaging in creative techniques, narrative therapy helps our clients challenge their limiting beliefs and narratives, constructing a more positive and empowering story, and ultimately shaping their identities and lives in line with their values and aspirations. It is a collaborative and culturally sensitive approach that respects the unique experiences and perspectives of each client.
Elvis, a seasoned Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Director at Align Recovery Centers, brings over ten years of expertise in addiction therapy. Skilled in evidence-based therapies like CBT, DBT, and ACT, he specializes in creating personalized treatment plans for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. His holistic approach and dedication to his clients’ transformative journeys highlight his significant impact in addiction therapy and mental health care.