Narrative Therapy and the Power of Storytelling
Graphic courtesy of Mood Mend
The mind tells stories about who you are
Narrative Therapy is like Art Therapy, but with words. The focus of the approach is on the manner in which individuals construct meaning rather than the way they behave. In philosophy and in neuroscience, the “I”/eye or the mind is what they call “the narrative centre of self.” Your mind is constantly generating the story of who you are to yourself and to others. Narrative Therapy seeks to address minds that may be telling themselves problem-saturated narratives e.g. The Trauma Narrative — “I experienced trauma; therefore, I am damaged goods.”
It is a post-modern, talk therapy model (typically one-on-one rather than done in groups; sometimes including writing exercises but most often not), developed by social workers Michael White and David Epston in the 1970s and 1980s, that focuses on social construction (concept: language doesn’t describe reality, it defines it), meaning-making through language and relationships, and broader social and political discourses, all whilst considering multiple vantage points and Sparkling Moments or Unique Outcomes to develop Counter Plots e.g. The Survive to Thrive Narrative — “I experienced trauma, I survived, and I aim to thrive.”
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” ~ Carl Jung
Narrative therapy has 5 main principles:
• shared and transformative experience
• naming and unpacking (assessment and intervention)
• meaning making
• listening and experience gathering
and 5 intended outcomes:
• increased self-awareness (you are the expert in your own story)
• increased self-compassion
• externalizing problems
• constructing preferred identities
• developing courses of action
The goal of Narrative Therapy is to deconstruct, rewrite, and reconstruct these narratives in a way that helps people actualize positive change.
For many people, identifying and/or processing emotions is difficult. But when they tell their stories, suddenly things that were jumbled in their minds become salient as they are expressed and named. This is called “externalizing problems.” Clients learn to put things down on paper and/or out of themselves, which can be cathartic. It’s also a way to gain critical space between oneself and one’s perspective, allowing for more objectivity.
From oral history to written history to present day digital formats, like blogging, storytelling is how people understand themselves or others, and how these stories are told changes how they are interpreted.
Generally, people live their lives by the stories they tell themselves and others, and they derive much of their meaning in life from these narratives, and the through-lines they may or may have yet to draw between them.
In this process, the facilitator or therapist will employ many techniques and types of questioning:
• Opening space questions: These function like “Unique Outcomes” i.e. identifying a time in the past when an individual was able to overcome their problem(s) without being previously aware they had done so.
• Rhetorical questions: These questions are designed to elicit a specific response or to help people see they are separate from and have power over their problem(s) e.g. "Was the way you handled it more or less effective than you have before?"
• Identifying a dominant narrative: This describes understanding one's principal view of the world and whether it is or how it is helpful or hurtful.
• Story development questions: These build the story from Unique Outcomes e.g. “How will you know when this new story has begun to play out for you?”
• Re-authoring or meaning questions: These are designed to challenge negative self images and emphasize positive agency, like — “What does this tell you about yourself that it is important for you to know?”
• Identity story questions: These consider how stories shape identities. A storyline is comprised of: i) events, ii) in a sequence, iii) across time, iv) that can be organised according to a plot or theme. If any of these elements are missing, then it is not possible to have a full storyline. So, considerations of each of these elements are critical in re-authoring conversations.
• Questions that extend the story into the future: These are especially effective for individuals who find it difficult to imagine their future or set goals.
• Questions about the experience of experience e.g. “How do I experience other's perceptions of me?”
• Landscape of consciousness questions: The unconscious is where things exist prior to our assigning meaning to them, and exploring them may bring previously unresolved issues to the level of conscious awareness.
• Co-construction: This is when a facilitator or therapist and a client work together to develop an “Alliance” (or therapeutic relationship set out in a co-active and contractual way) and to develop a different view of their problem(s). And, as they develop new meanings, clients develop new ways of resolving these problems.
• Collaborative case notes: This means writing process notes with the help of the client and constructing the meaning of the session with the client.
• Externalizing problems: This is done chiefly by naming the problem(s) and helping the client understand that problems are artifacts born of the social contract, yet functionally distinct from themselves i.e. people are not defined by their problems, they define their problems.
• Landscape of action questions: These identify times when the client was able to successfully deal with their problems, and they help the client focus on strengths and begin the solution-generating process.
• Reflecting team: Team members observe the therapy interview and then discuss their observations and thoughts in front of the therapist and client, and the therapist and family then discuss the team's conversation (as it is a process of full transparency).
• Therapeutic certificates: This is when a therapist or facilitator have the client create certificates to announce the solution of their problem(s).
• Therapeutic letters: Writing clients letters based on the sessions serves as a reminder of the emerging subjugated story.
• Objectification: “Objectification” is when an individual is conflated with their illness or, rather, when people are diagnosed and categorized by their psychiatric labels instead of being recognized for their full humanity. Understanding this helps the client disengage from the medical model, or the pathologizing of mental health consumers, and advocate for themselves.
There is roughly a ten-step process by which individuals can do all of this:
1. Identifying dominant and alternative narratives or worldviews, revisiting them and patching old gaps, helps clients understand that their stories are not etched in stone — that they were made to be re-written
2. Deconstructing these narratives, specifically, by perspective taking
3. Externalizing problems
4. Assessing and intervening on specific problems within these narratives
5. Reorienting oneself in terms of understanding the meaning and importance of these narratives
6. Using Unique Outcomes to develop Counter Plots
7. Re-authoring or Reconstructing Identity
8. Listening to and Experience Gathering from Others
10. Developing a Course of Action
In this process, the facilitator/therapist must show unlimited positive regard for the client and maintain a stance of unknowing and curiosity. They help a client question, label, and focus on strengths and re-evaluate important moments and events in their lives.
There are so many variables in anyone’s narratives that there is no way to know which direction a story can take, and this is the majesty and transformative thrust of storytelling.
Eleanor facilitates a FREE weekly peer support group – Writing for Wellness (Narrative Therapy) – for people struggling with mental health and addiction challenges. You can find her at: https://mood-mend.com or on Meetup.com, Facebook, or Twitter under Mood Mend. She helps people harness the healing power of the written word.