What is Narrative Therapy? Plus the Basic Assumptions Of Narrative Practice

Narrative Therapy was developed by social workers from Australia and New Zealand, Michael White and David Epston. It is derived from postmodernism, social constructuralism, and feminist theory. Michael White brought together the ideas of social and learning theorists, such as Bruner, Myerhoff, Bandera, Mears, Erikson, Vygotsky, Derrida, and Foucault, and applied them to therapeutic practice and community work. Epston was a student of Milton Erickson, and his playful engagement of one’s imagination highly influenced what he brought to Narrative Therapy.

what is narrative therapy

What is Narrative Therapy?

Unlike the strengths-based approach, which it often is associated with, Narrative Therapy is strongly rooted in theory. Out of this grew a specific and followable, though non-prescriptive, practice application collectively called the Maps of Narrative Practice. The Maps are lines of inquiry, or a series of questioning, that a therapist uses to transverse the gap of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development–taking people from what is known and familiar about the problems they face to what is possible to know about themselves and what they give value to.

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“Dominant Stories”

As social workers, White and Epston liked challenging the status quo and critiquing power differences in gender, race, sexuality, and culture. They emphasized the effects of context on a person’s life, especially oppressive contexts, which is why Narrative Therapy emerged as an impactful approach to healing individual, family, and community trauma. They understood lived experience through Vygosky’s social constructionist theory, which poses that there is no one truth. Instead, realities and understandings come from history and context.

White noticed that problems create powerful narratives through which people view themselves and their lives. When the problems affected several areas of a person’s life in a narrowing way, he called them dominant stories. White recognized that, though preferred storylines are subjugated by the dominant story taking up so much space, they are always present in a person’s life. The Maps deconstruct dominant stories and construct preferred stories.

“Externalizing Conversations”

People often take their problems into their identity: “I am depressed,” “I am a bad decision-maker,” or “I am worthless.” Externalizing is a term for therapeutic conversations that remove the problem from a person’s sense of themselves and talk about it as a separate entity to manage, remove, or handle. An example of speaking about a problem in an externalizing way is, “When the depression comes, I don’t want to get out of bed, so I have to make myself,” (instead, an internalizing way of speaking: “I’m depressed, so I can’t get out of bed.”)

The first statement allows for some change to occur on the person’s part. They are validated for their feelings, but they can still override the not wanting to and get up. The second statement validates a person’s inability, firming the person’s belief about what they can’t do and they stay within those limits.

Externalizing is not just a technique, like calling an eating disorder a personified name – like “Ed.” Rather, it is a way of thinking about problems. The benefits of externalizing conversations are that the person stops blaming themselves for being flawed, and they feel empowered to understand how their actions might contribute to or resist the problem.

Assumptions that Inform Narrative Therapy

The approach is based on several assumptions, such as:

  • Problems are located in contexts and relationships rather than in people.
  • People are meaning-makers and actively make meaning about their lives.
  • Personal narratives, or stories, are the frames through which people make meaning.
  • Stories are constitutive of life. 
  • A stock of lived experiences exists outside one’s dominant stories that can create pathways to new meanings. 
  • Life is multistoried.

The word ‘assumption’ is used to designate that they are ideas and metaphors, or a way of thinking, rather than a TRUTH about how the world is. The following is a deeper dive into the main assumptions of narrative therapy.

Narrative therapists often quip, “The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.” Thinking about problems this way helps people not judge themselves. Plus, understanding the context helps validate felt emotions. For example, the anxiety of a middle age white, recently divorced man and the anxiety of a young Bosnian woman whose house was just broken into are located in two different contexts.

1. Problems are located in contexts and in relationships, not in people.

The medical model of mental health care assumes that mental health problems are from an illness inside a person. But narrative therapists don’t see it this way. Our emotions and feelings come from experiences and relationships, which are the contexts of our lives. People are not depressed for no reason. They are depressed because something happened that triggered it. You may feel like there is no context for your sadness. That is because past contexts can create a negative self-view, perpetuating the context of your mind even when the problematic outer context is no longer happening.

Narrative therapists often quip, “The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.” Thinking about problems this way helps people not judge themselves. Plus, understanding the context helps validate felt emotions. For example, the anxiety of a middle age white, recently divorced man and the anxiety of a young Bosnian woman whose house was just broken into are located in two different contexts.

2. People are meaning makers and actively engage in making meaning about their lives.

When people have an experience, they immediately assess that experience to decide what it means. They want to know how to think about it and how to feel about it. They assess the people involve and also decide what their participation means. Plus, that meaning extends to how they see themselves because of the experience. 

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When something troubling happens, humans experience it as nonsensical and that feels out of control. There is an urgency they feel to understand what happened so that they can feel in control again. Once they make meaning, that meaning creates another context, a narrative about the event that continues to have consequences on emotions, identities, and actions a long time after what happened. 

3. People who consult us (therapists) have meaning-making skills; everybody makes meaning about the world around them.

Humans are selective about the events of life that we give meaning. We make meanings around events through the lens of the dominant stories we tell about ourselves, emphasizing and spinning meanings that go with that story and rendering invisible or insignificant what doesn’t. Also, people are selective about the events of life that we give meaning.

For example, when we have a dominant story like depression, it affects how we understand the world and experiences we have. We create meaning around what happens that goes with the theme of depression. Or, someone experiencing an eating disorder would notice who else is refraining from the cake at a party but not give themselves kudos for reaching out to a friend when they needed support. This is why helping people deconstruct problematic narratives and construct preferred meaning-making is vitally healing. Meanings are also influenced by one’s culture and history. We know how to interpret the world because it has been taught to us by our family, experiences, and communities.

4. When people consult us, they tell very specific stories about their lives.

Humans are skilled storytellers. They learn, communicate, and perform the stories of their lives.  Time is important and people are often precise about dates. They link events in a sequence around a plot. Events, sequence, time, and plot make up the narrative. There are usually stories that are significant, either positively and negatively, that get the most energetic bandwidth due to their significance. 

5. Stories are constitutive of life.

Stories shape life and have real consequences as people live their stories. Reality is created by the stories we hold about ourselves. In fact, we perform these stories. They make up our beliefs, identity, and knowledges and affect our experiences. We step into created reality as actors do when they go on stage in a character. Here are some examples:

  • Thinking we are worthless often has us participating in activities that justify this description, like staying in hurtful relationships.
  • Continuing to lie if we see ourselves as a liar.
  • Seeing yourself as having good skills in assessing people has these skills more accessible to you.
  • Seeing oneself as kind has that person living kindness.
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6. Life is multi-storied.

Being a therapist is only one small part of who I am. I am also a gardener, mother, sister, writer, therapist, friend, movie lover, and dog mom. We all have many stories that make us up. Even though some are dominant, the others are still there, even if they have been invisiblized by the main story. It is healing to bring more preferred stories out in the open, so they can inform our actions, intentions, and how we see ourselves.

People often come to therapy with an account of their life that is quite ‘thin’ (singled storied) and problem saturated. Dominant stories have the potential to give them ‘thin’ conclusions of their identity (i.e., depressed, anorexic, abused). There is a stock of lived experiences that exist outside the dominant stories people have of their lives that can be the source of new meanings. If the dominant story is anxiety, then bringing out stories of courage and empowerment can turn the tide.

Michael White used the term “stock of lived experiences” for these other stories, which gives me such a great image of rooms and rooms full of lived experiences to find new meanings. This fills me with so much hope. People have skills, knowledges, beliefs, values, people and history, etc, to find. Sometimes the problem makes them inaccessible. 

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into what was behind Narrative Therapy. Narrative Therapy can be confusing to read about, but trust that it deconstructs your problems and constructs how you want to see yourself. I witness this powerful approach changing lives each and every day. I am so glad to say this is how I practice.

6 thoughts on “What is Narrative Therapy? Plus the Basic Assumptions Of Narrative Practice”

  1. “How many of you have heard someone say that they are really depressed for no reason?” Yesterday, my therapist asked me: how was your week? how are you feeling? I said, I’m tired and angry at myself for feeling down for no reason at all. I don’t think it’s denial, but maybe lack of self-love?

    1. We are never down for no reason. There is always a context. Lack of Self Love came from a context too! Create a context, even inside you or from an online community bring self love back in! <3

      1. It’s true, that’s what she said too: you have all the reasons in the world to feel the way you do, and its very important to give yourself the right to feel this way.
        Since August 2011, i started joining lovely pages on facebook, reading, commenting, supporting others and getting support from them, and feeling their love is giving me a new image of myself, an image i can start loving. <3

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