The stories you believe about yourself can shape your worldview. Narrative therapy can empower you to “re-author” your own narrative.
Most everyone has stories that they tell about themselves, either consciously or unconsciously. Life experiences don’t often happen in a vacuum — human beings tend to process these events and give them meaning through the lens of what they already believe.
Narrative therapy seeks to help you become aware of the stories you carry with you through life and how these stories can influence the way you view yourself. It can empower you to take back your narrative and see any problems as distinct from you.
This process is sometimes known as re-authoring.
Narrative therapy aims to harness a person’s natural storytelling tendencies to improve their psychological well-being. There are various approaches in narrative therapy, which are:
- specific to the individual’s needs
First developed in the 1980s, narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy based on the idea that a person’s identity and self-perception are made up of a huge number of connected narratives. Some of these stories may be helpful and others unhelpful — but they can all have a profound impact on your mental health and relationships.
Narrative therapy focuses on giving people the tools to re-author their narrative in a more balanced and compassionate way.
This usually starts with becoming aware of the stories you’ve absorbed and developed from:
- personal experiences
- social and political pressures
- cultural or religious beliefs
- pop culture
- media, books, and advertising
Once you can understand and express these stories, you can start to reframe, question, and even change them.
Narrative therapy can be used in several different situations. It may benefit:
Let’s say a person comes to therapy because they’re experiencing anxiety about their performance at work. A mental health professional can use narrative therapy to help that person identify the stories they’ve internalized about their:
- beliefs on what success should look like
These stories could be rooted in:
- their upbringing
- their experiences at school
- their cultural or religious beliefs
- many other external factors
Or a couple may seek therapy because they can’t stop arguing. In this instance, narrative therapy could help each person to externalize the problems in the relationship and see them as distinct from their partner.
Narrative therapy can create space for more helpful communication by encouraging partners or family members to reframe a fight as an “us vs. the problem,” rather than a “me vs. you” narrative.
Depression is one example of a condition that may respond well to narrative therapy. Symptoms of depression that can sometimes be rooted in unhelpful stories include:
- feelings of worthlessness
- negative self-talk
- excessive guilt
There are many techniques that can be used within narrative therapy. Here are just a few of the most common.
Storytelling is a fundamental technique in narrative therapy. A therapist can help you put together your personal narrative in your own words by asking questions that encourage reflection and sharing. During this process, they can also help you reframe and explore alternative interpretations of your experiences.
Another key technique is externalization, or speaking about a story or problem as distinct from the individual. This technique allows you to observe yourself in a more objective way, which can help you see that you are capable of change.
Externalization has also been shown to be useful in family therapy, when parents are encouraged to identify specific concerns within a child’s behavior, rather than viewing the child as the problem.
This technique involves working with a therapist to pinpoint times when a story wasn’t completely accurate or when there were exceptions to a problem.
For example, if a person has the belief that they don’t fit in or are bad at making friends, narrative therapy could encourage them to identify times when the opposite was true.
Relative influence questioning
With relative influence questioning, your therapist helps you in mapping out your relationship with a given problem.
This is usually done using two sets of questions: the first set addresses how much influence the problem has on the person, while the second set addresses how much influence the person can have on the problem.
The goal of relative influence questioning is to empower you to exert agency in your life.
Forming a collaborative relationship with your therapist and creating a safe space so you can explore your stories is one of the main goals of narrative therapy.
With narrative therapy, it’s important that your therapist encourages you to find your voice and tell your story in your own words, rather than speaking for you.
Seeing yourself as distinct from the challenges you are facing is another key factor.
Social worker Michael White and anthropologist David Epson, who pioneered narrative therapy, suggest that this internal shift is what creates the opportunity for change, according to a research review from 2000.
Narrative therapy also aims to help you question assumptions you may have about your life and instead consider alternatives you may have overlooked. These alternative storylines and interpretations are often more helpful and nonjudgmental, and they allow room for a more balanced vision of the future.
Since narrative therapy is a relatively new form of therapy — only around 40 years old — research on its usefulness is currently limited.
The research that does exist indicates that narrative therapy can be effective for many conditions and situations, including:
- chronic pain
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- eating disorders
- conduct disorders
- parent-child conflict
However, the limits of this research make it hard to draw broad conclusions about how effective narrative therapy really is.
Another criticism of narrative therapy is that it involves complex terms and concepts, many of which are unique to this model. This could create a barrier to entry for some people, who may find it overwhelming or intimidating.
Narrative therapy is a non-pathologizing, person-first therapeutic approach that focuses on the stories people often develop and carry throughout life. This form of therapy also helps people view themselves as separate from their concerns.
In narrative therapy, a person is encouraged to become aware of the stories they’ve absorbed about their own life and externalize those narratives alongside any problems they’re experiencing.
The goal is to reframe and question assumptions about yourself and in some cases, replace existing stories with more helpful alternatives.
Narrative therapy can be useful for individuals, couples, and families. While the scope of research into its impact is limited, existing studies suggest that it is helpful for certain situations and conditions.
If you think narrative therapy may be a good fit for you, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding a therapist.
Many therapists practice narrative therapy along with other models, so you can work with your therapist to find the best approach for your individual needs.