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What Is Narrative Therapy and How Does It Work?

Narrative therapy can be highly effective in individuals with mental illness and trauma. Get a full explanation, learn techniques on HealthyPlace.

Narrative therapy is a form of collaborative counseling that allows people to separate themselves from their problems and treats them as experts in their own lives. The approach is grounded in the therapeutic benefit of "rewriting your own story" and encourages positive problem-solving as well as finding meaning.

In narrative therapy, the client or patient becomes the "narrator" of their own tale. With the help and support of a therapist, the narrator can learn to utilize beliefs, values and skills that they already possess in order to overcome their difficulties.

Narrative Therapy Definition: What Is It?

Narrative therapy is defined by the concept of life as a story. The word "narrative" refers to a series of events over time that revolves around a specific character, theme or plot.

It's hard not to think of our own lives as stories that follow a particular trajectory of ups and downs. For many people, the series of events that make up their narrative is mostly positive. For others, the stories they tell themselves and others can be negative and damaging.

Those who define themselves by their struggles tend to focus more on the problems at hand than the solutions. Narrative therapy helps people to reframe the narratives of their lives to help them cope with challenging experiences and focus on positive events as well as negative ones.

The method was developed by Michael White and David Epston as a non-pathologizing approach to therapy – meaning it doesn't dwell on specific symptoms and diagnoses. It was intended to offer an empowering and collaborative experience for those in therapy.

Narrative Therapy Techniques, Aims and Benefits

Narrative therapy aims to help guide change so that you can move from the known (the problem story) to the unknown (your future). Narrative therapy techniques are employed to help you separate from the problem and externalize – rather than internalize – sensitive issues. White and Epston believe that objectifying an issue helps people to deal with it in a more productive, less defensive manner.

Techniques used in narrative therapy include

  • Objectifying problems to view them outside of the self
  • Framing problems within a larger sociocultural context (i.e., helping you to realize that the problems they face may be indicative of other issues in society rather than because there is something "wrong" with you)
  • Identifying what is absent but implicit. This is where your therapist will help you see beyond the problem to observe other life experiences and values that are not viewed as part of the problem. This process can help you develop a better understanding of life and provide you with motivation for change.
  • Making room for other storylines. These storylines exist beyond the "problem story" and often will provide a contrast to the problem you're experiencing and allow you to "rewrite" your narrative.

The benefits of narrative therapy include:

  • Enhanced problem-solving abilities
  • A more positive or balanced outlook
  • Increased self-compassion
  • Improves your ability to change
  • Allows you to see your problems in different contexts, such as social, political and cultural.
  • Encourages posttraumatic growth (the positive change that can occur after a traumatic incident)
  • Gives you a greater sense of your personal story

Does Narrative Therapy Work with Families?

Narrative therapy is often applied to individuals and couples. However, it can also be effective when treating families – particularly those that have been through a separation or shared trauma.

Narrative therapy with families helps to facilitate positive interactions and heal fraught relationships. It can also help family members accept and understand negative interactions. This approach helps families to deal with problems in an objective, collaborative way so that, ultimately, they can address how the problem has challenged their bonds to one another and find ways to reconnect.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, September 18). What Is Narrative Therapy and How Does It Work?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, February 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/what-is-narrative-therapy-and-how-does-it-work

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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