What is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy was developed in the 1980s by Australian social worker Michael White and New Zealand family therapist David Epston, and popularized in the U.S. in 1990. Narrative therapy is a collaborative and non-pathologizing approach to therapy and community work which centers people as the experts of their own lives. A narrative approach views problems as separate from people and assumes people as having many skills, abilities, values, commitments, beliefs and competencies that will assist them to change their relationship with the problems influencing their lives. It is a way of working that considers the broader context of people’s lives particularly in the various dimensions of diversity including class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
Stories Shape Our Perspective
Stories in a ‘narrative therapy’ context are made up of events, linked by a theme, occurring over time and according to a plot. A story emerges as certain events are privileged and selected out over other events as more important or true. As the story takes shape, it invites the teller to further select only certain information while other events become neglected and thus the same story is continually told. These stories both describe and shape people’s perspectives on their lives, histories and futures. Often by the time a person has come to therapy the stories they have for themselves and their lives have more often than not become completely dominated by problems. These narratives on a timeline have been referred to as ‘problem-saturated’ stories, which can also become ‘identity stories’. For example, we may hear someone describing them self by saying I’ve always been a depressed person. Or an adolescent may be described as a young offender versus a young person who has been in trouble with the law. Such identity stories can invite a powerful negative influence in the way people see their lives and capabilities (ex: “I’m hopeless”).
Therapists engaging with narrative ideas and practices work alongside people in resisting the effects and influences of problem stories and deficit descriptions. In therapeutic conversations this involves listening and looking for clues to knowledges and skills that run counter to the problem-saturated story. Often to be discovered are what begin as thin traces to subordinated stories of intentions, hopes, commitments, values, desires and dreams. With curiosity and exploration these preferred stories and accounts of people’s lives can become thickened and richly described.
Change Your Story
Thus, within a narrative framework, people’s lives and identities are seen as multi-storied versus single-storied. Moreover, the focus is not on ‘experts’ solving problems. It is on people co-discovering through conversations, the hopeful, preferred, and previously unrecognized and hidden possibilities contained within themselves and unseen story-lines. To this end, those interested in narrative practices collaborate with people in ‘re-authoring’ the stories of their lives.