Using Stories in Counselling & Therapy

This article looks at the power of a personal story in the eyes of narrative therapy, and how we can develop and change the stories we tell about ourselves in order to change our lives.

Narrative Therapy is the term given to an approach developed in New Zealand during the 1970s and 80s by Michael White and David Epston. It seeks to help clients to identify their values, skills and knowledge in order to feel able to confront their current difficulties. This is done through collaborative exploration within therapy of the clients recollections which can be reframed to give a more positive view of the client and their strengths.

However, when Martin Weegmann spent the day with us, he introduced Narrative Therapy as a tool which could be integrated into a therapists existing framework.

What is a narrative?

Our lives are our story. And that story shapes how we experience the world around us.

Stories are a uniquely human experience, but provide biases and perception to individual experiences and understanding of the world around us. Counselling can help us to address our stories and even change the narrative.

Sometimes we can become stuck in a particular narrative (helpful or unhelpful), and sometimes in retelling we create variations from the original resulting in a perceived change to our original experience.

When we tell a story to another we embellish it, because we want to be engaging. Our own internal stories are the same – rich and vibrant retellings of the facts of our experience.

In therapy we often begin sessions by asking for a narrative without even intending to with phrases like “where do you want to begin?…” and so utilising narratives in therapy is less new knowledge, and more integration of existing ideas into a more conscious form.

Sharing a narrative

Shared narratives are an interesting phenomenon. We can take on another’s ideas as our own, and we can develop them into something new.

Even in the prehistoric, humans have used stories as a way of explaining information but utilising the helpful or unhelpful bias of individual’s experiences in sharing that information.

Narratives can bond people, and help them to feel like part of a group, yet everyone will have a unique story and perception of an event. Stories have been an integral part of the human experience since caveman days, and we continue to use them to share information today, albeit embellished with our emotions and experiences.

A simple exercise – the story of where you grew up

Have you ever considered how you describe the place where you grew up? What does your home town mean to you?

What stories would you tell to someone who’d never been? This was an exercise Martin used on the day to get us to understand that stories are everywhere, not only where we consciously create them. If we simply told the facts it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging as telling a story even though the content would be the same, even to ourselves and so we create stories of our lives to define ourselves in an ever-changing way.

The story in therapy

In therapy we ask clients to tell us the story of what brought them into that room. They tell their story as they see it, and sometimes over the process they might change their story. The facts remain the same, but their interpretation can shift. This is often seen as growth.

Challenges in therapy can arrive in many forms. In narrative therapy, the ways in which clients tell their story can often reveal a little of the clients internal world. Examples include…

  • Stuck stories – if stories never change the client could feel trapped.
  • Contradictory stories – could be an indicator of self-defeating behaviours.
  • Absence of emotion in the story – could lead to clues about the client’s attachment style.
  • Unviable stories – could suggest the client is unable to adapt to changing situations.

Through re-authoring, the client can gain strength and autonomy by taking back control of their story. This can be done through gentle exploration of the client’s story, allowing it to adapt as necessary over as long or short a period of time as the client needs to regain control.

In short, narrative therapy is to most of us not new in practice, but simply a new name for a well known experience (particularly within the humanistic field). It can help us as therapists to gently explore the clients world in a way which feels safe and unobtrusive, leading us to clues about the client’s journey and difficulties alongside our usual practices.

For more on this topic, we highly recommend Martin Weegman’s book.

Leave a Comment