From One Therapist to Another: What is Narrative Therapy and Aren't We all Doing it Anyway?
Updated: Jun 25
My first exposure to the idea of narrative therapy was in an Adlerian class while working on my masters degree in counseling. Adler developed the notion of "the Story of My Life" as a way of understanding why people developed the problems that they experienced in life. He suggested that if we tap into a person's story, we will understand what they need for change. Adler developed the strategy of assessing early recollections and identifying their themes. I studied and even did research on this concept and was thus very impacted by these ideas as I developed my style as a psychotherapist.
As I worked with people, I always wondered what beliefs they had developed in childhood that were causing them to develop problems in their current life. I became curious about resiliency and how some people could recover from hurt more easily than others and how some seemed to recreate hurtful scenarios in life repeatedly. I would assess their earliest recollections and look for themes among them. Then I would try to help my clients see how they projected these early beliefs, which were always understandable but almost never justifiable, onto their current circumstances - oftentimes with disastrous results. These early beliefs go by many names such as
core beliefs, personal beliefs, scripts, tapes,
false narratives, irrational or false beliefs.
I noticed that although all my clients had experienced painful experiences, some suffered more than others. As I began to help my clients change their dysfunctional beliefs, I began to be wonder about
the difference between pain and suffering and what does
Narrative Therapy have to do with it?
It seemed to me that pain was something that happens to everyone, while suffering is related to the story that we tell ourselves about the pain. Pain is inevitable, suffering is a reaction.
“It isn't what happens to us that causes us to suffer;
it's what we say to ourselves about what happens”. ~ Pema Chodron
I began doing a version of narrative therapy without actually recognizing that my approach was narrative therapy. You may relate to this because isn't that what we are often doing in therapy regardless of our therapeutic approach? When people come for therapy, they often need help to develop a new perspective to enable them to see themselves and the world through a more accurate lens.
Meet Callie. Callie was a very talented artist who came into therapy for help with motivation. She had lost her job and couldn’t motivate herself to look for something new. She reported having a difficult relationship with her manager in her previous job and felt that she had been mistreated. She wanted to have a successful career in web design and improve her personal relationships. After working with Callie for a few sessions, I became aware that she made assumptions in life that were probably formed long ago. In therapy, she began to understand the story that she had been telling herself:
When I was little, my parents constantly had to tell me to sit still and be quiet. I had way too much energy and was always getting dirty and breaking things. My dad would play with me in the back yard but I wore my mom out and she was always tired. I had two older siblings who were able to stay neat and play quietly. My mom spent much more time with them doing crafts and homework. When I was seven, my parents divorced. After dad left, mom had even less time for me. I didn’t do well in school and I told myself that dad finally got tired of me like my mom had and that I should try very hard to be quieter. I would not share my feelings because they were always too extreme. I believed that I was a burden. As I grew up, I wanted to have relationships with friends but I always tried to shrink myself so that they would like me. Sometimes though I couldn’t take it anymore and my true, obnoxious, loud self would come out. Eventually, people would distance from me because they thought I was unpredictable. I knew no one would ever love the real me, but it hurt and angered me when people would begin to withdraw.
Callie was very aware of the part of the story that she told herself about needing to be quiet and obedient to help others and to be liked. She was less aware of the part of her that wanted to be liked for who she was. The more she tried to shrink herself the more she would express herself impulsively, resulting in people getting confused, overwhelmed and ultimately, leaving. Similarly, if someone was initially drawn to her exuberant personality, she actually felt anxiety since she believed that it wouldn’t last. This was creating a
self-fulfilling prophesy and was, quite literally, ruining her life.
I worked with Callie to identify her early beliefs, look at them from an adult perspective and re-write her narrative. Once I realized that I was basically doing narrative therapy, I studied it and then developed my own approach.
Tenets of Narrative Therapy (Adler, White, Metcalf, Buchanan)
People see the world through the story they developed in childhood to guide them.
Their story will be based on a combination of experiences and individual characteristics.
The story can become a self-fulfilling prophesy with devastating results.
People come to therapy with a “problem –saturated narrative” which has been internalized in identity.
Problems serve a purpose and are externalized.
The therapist sees the client as the expert in their own lives thus there is a therapeutic posture of collaboration.
Narrative therapy can help people re-author identity.
Therapy is about searching for “unique outcomes” or exceptions to the narrative.
The story can be re-written and the brain can be re-wired.
I have now developed a very structured and strategic approach to narrative therapy. If you are interested in learning more, you can find my workshop (5 CEUs) on demand at The Knowledge Tree. I also offer individual and group consultation. Finally, I have developed a client workbook with over 30 handouts designed to walk your client through a step by step approach to rewriting narratives which you can read more about here. This can help you get right to the heart of the matter in your sessions with them, increasing positive outcomes and satisfaction.
I'm hoping your week will be filled with many positive stories. I'd love to hear from you. Please scroll down and leave a comment.
(Images used under license from Shutterstock.com)