What is Narrative Therapy?

With our upcoming event on narrative therapy, we wanted to look at the topic and answer the question ‘what is narrative therapy?’ Consider this a concise introduction to the process of narrative therapy, and we look forward to seeing you in April to find out more.

Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to be non-pathologising and which utilises the concept of ‘externalisation’ as one of its key components.

Externalisation in narrative therapy

Externalisation is the process of separating the person from their problem, allowing clients to get some distance from their issue and to see how it might be hindering them, helping them, or even protecting them. It sounds simple enough, but can be incredibly challenging especially when a life narrative has been clung to that appears to be serving a purpose despite obvious damaging effects.

We all have a life narrative that we cling to for a variety of reasons, and that can frame problems and issues that we encounter in specific ways based on our own perceptions.

Through this process of externalisation, the aim is to empower the individual to make whatever changes feel necessary in their thought patterns or behaviours so as to ‘rewrite’ their own life story to include a future that is more reflective of who they are, where they want to be, and showcases their capabilities in a way that is not hindered by ‘the problem’ or ‘the issue’. Another key component here is the centrality of the client’s values and beliefs and incorporating them into a life narrative that more closely resembles the client’s sense of self or identity.

The development of narrative therapy

Originally developed during the 1970s and 80s by Michael White and David Epston at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia, the key components of narrative psychology can be used by therapists of any modality to assist clients who might be stuck in a life story that appears oppressive and stagnant.

Narrative therapy is known for ideas such as ‘re-authoring’ or ‘re-storying’ the conversations (or narratives) that people bring to their therapy. The central premise of narrative therapy is that humans are interpreting beings who constantly seek to find meaning in their experiences and in their surroundings. We try to find meaning, and meaningfulness, in what we do and experience.

We all have a number of stories about ourselves and about our lives which link in particular ways. To quote Alice Miller in her excellent introduction to Narrative Therapy: “The stories we have about our lives are created through linking certain events together in a particular sequence across a time period, and finding a way of explaining or making sense of them. This meaning forms the plot of the story. We give meanings to our experiences constantly as we live our lives. A narrative is like a thread that weaves the events together, forming a story”.

We may end up with ‘dominant’ stories or ‘dominant’ plots that loom very large and might keep us in one place or seem to push us down a particular pathway. What would happen if there were other stories and plotlines to our life narrative, alternative stories that might enable us to change our view of ourselves and others and the plotline of our future selves?

Just as we have a narrative about ourselves and the world we live in, we also have the power to change and develop new understandings of that narrative which can change how we view ourselves and others. This is the heart of narrative therapy.

The narratives we choose to have about ourselves will have an impact on our lives and implications for how we live. It therefore goes that if we were to develop alternative narratives we could choose more than one pathway to move forward.

Narrative psychology is a way to enable clients to understand the storylines and plots that they already use, and the implications they have for the client’s life and growth. It is also a way to help clients to develop alternative narratives to empower and enrich the client’s life going forward.

Therapists of any modality will find these key concepts of Narrative Therapy helpful when working with clients who have become stuck in life stories that are holding them back or keeping them stuck.

For more on narrative therapy, we look forward to seeing you at our training in April to discuss the topic in detail.

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