21 Jul What is Narrative Therapy? Breaking Down Our Stories for a Better Future
As human beings, we tell stories to make sense of the world. More noticeably, we tell stories to ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. We assign meaning to our experiences to better understand what it is we’re experiencing. It only makes sense. But it’s those meanings that make up the stories of our lives—they create our reality. So what happens when the stories we tell ourselves are negative? How will we act in the world, what decisions will we make? Narrative Therapy provides a way to control the chatter inside and rewrite resilience and accountability back into our narrative and so, back into our lives. So what is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative Therapy is but another social-emotional learning tool that we can use to help our students overcome their challenges. But how can we use it, who else can use it, and how does it differ from other kinds of therapy? Let’s break it down.
Defining Narrative Therapy
What’s Narrative Therapy
Narrative Therapy is a very specific therapeutic modality that, like other forms of therapy, seeks to heal pain and transform our inner disturbances into positive stepping stones for personal growth.
Narrative Therapy Definition
What is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative Therapy is a therapeutic practice that can involve self-reflective writing (or speaking) to externalize the problems or events of our lives (the narratives we tell ourselves) in order to examine them objectively.
This externalization process helps us see the problems outside of ourselves, which invites a level of self-awareness often lost when we’re in the height of our personal problems. Developed in 1980 by New Zealand-based therapists, David Epston and Michael White, they believed it was critical for individuals to see themselves separate from their issues.
Narrative therapy is non-blaming in nature in order to make the problems of our lives more manageable to overcome. But by the same token, it is a practice that can keep an individual highly accountable for the future, as they begin to unravel and get honest about the stories they’ve been telling themselves. This practice recognizes the client as the expert, and an accountable and integral part of the way their future will unfold. Narrative therapy for this reason, isn’t concerned with diagnoses and a therapist merely guides the individual in the healing process.
Narrative therapy techniques:
- Retelling your story
- Externalizing the problem
- Deconstructing the issues
- Unique Outcomes Theory
By examining our own perspective, we begin identifying for ourselves why we feel the way we feel. In Narrative therapy, it is us as the individual who takes charge of our own healing process.
Who does narrative therapy help?
Narrative Therapy is for anyone of any age, race or class. It can be for students or professionals.
For students, this kind of therapeutic writing and even art, can strengthen creativity and critical thinking skills early on. The externalization and deconstructing portions of the practice often enhance their self-awareness, building conflict negotiation skills.
As mentioned in the webinar, Narrative therapy is a great tool for the workplace. Perceived work conflicts and reflecting on professional barriers within the work environment that might be causing inner conflict can be worked out well using this kind of therapy.
Women Wonder Writers invited Editor-in-Chief of Phthia Publishing, Jeffrey Kidd, to discuss this form of therapy in greater depth.
WWW hosts Narrative Therapy Webinar
Jeffrey discusses the difference between journaling and Narrative therapy writing. Narrative therapy differs from journaling or free form writing in that it uses structured practices with specific goals in mind.
What does that look like?
Narrative Therapy Writing
The writing process
The process for reflective narrative therapy writing can differ based on the person, therapist, or preference.
But most often, a good rule of thumb is as follows:
1. Sit down and write for 15 minutes – write about an event, conflict, or block you may be experiencing.
2. Then stop. Re-read what you just wrote. What do you see?
3. Reflective writing begins. In an additional 2-3 sentences or paragraphs, write about what you just wrote. You might ask yourself questions like, “what caused me to feel like this “why am I really upset?” or even “how has the way I feel, affected my behavior in this situation?”
The structured writing practice of Narrative therapy gives the individual time to reflect on why they may be feeling the way they’re feeling, and learn more about how they specifically express certain feelings or emotions.
This is helpful for anyone, but what’s unique about Narrative therapy is that it gives them an opportunity to see themselves clearly and take ownership of their process. It empowers a kind of accountability harder to access when a therapist distills their story down to a diagnosis.
It doesn’t mean other forms of therapy aren’t welcomed, or that diagnoses are always wrong, but here the focus is on helping the person find their true voice, the one that’s able to change the story they, (or other people) have been telling them for years. For being such a non-blaming modality, it actually balances accountability and responsibility fairly well through this kind of empowerment.
Narrative therapy has been around since the 80’s and thanks to years of practice and honing, we can employ a few techniques into our writing process so that any individual interested can take part.
Narrative Therapy Exercises
Narrative therapy techniques to try
Narrative therapy exercises can be practiced with a therapist or alone.
Here are some helpful techniques to try. The acronym REDU is an easy way to remember them.
Retell your story
Retelling your story is the broadest method. It’s an essential place to start because you must first understand what stories you’re telling yourself, if you want to change or improve them. By retelling your story, you can start to see what narratives are more dominant than others and start assessing which ones are holding you back. And often, it’s a combination of what you’ve been telling yourself with what society or others in your life have said about you.
Another big pain point Narrative therapy attempts to solve is one that is so universal, it often goes unnoticed. The inevitable bombardment of daily narratives that enter into our psyche without permission is endless. From the moment we wake up, we are likely affected by a million different narratives and viewpoints per day. But with Narrative therapy, we are empowered to take our power back and be our own narrator.
Externalize the problem
If we hold any negative beliefs about ourselves, it’s common to think that we are the problem, rather than that we simply have a problem. Narrative Therapy’s next exercise is understanding that difference.
When something is external to us, it’s harder to be defined by it. When we write down our stories and begin to reflect on them, we can begin to create distance between ourselves and the problems we have. This is an essential part of the modality and for letting go of our problematic narratives.
Say we have been branded by family members as irresponsible—that may stick with us for a long time. Now every time we go to make a big decision, we don’t trust ourselves. This narrative has become a dominant, problematic story that is stopping us from making sound, healthy decisions. Our actions are based on who we were in the past, not who we are becoming or what we now value.
We are fixed in the past version of ourselves.
Externalization allows us to see that although we may have been irresponsible in the past, we won’t forever be an irresponsible person.
Keep in mind, this isn’t about removing blame from our mistakes or not remaining accountable.
In fact, Narrative Therapy can strengthen accountability. The individual begins to believe they are capable of acting differently when it’s not who they are but rather just something they have done. It’s much easier to deal with something when we don’t feel like it’s part of who we are.
Creative tip – Writing prose isn’t the only way to externalize our problems. Artistically—poetry, painting and drawing, are great ways, especially for children, to express and describe feelings.
Deconstruct the issues
Once you’ve externalized the issue, you then can deconstruct its parts. It’s time to understand why we act the way we do.
If we’ve externalized our irresponsibility issue and determined it is not who we are, we can examine it. We can start to deconstruct what it looks like when we’re acting irresponsible. This is where we get into the specifics of our problems.
We can begin to understand that we tend to not take initiative on a project when we’re scared we won’t be able to do it well. So we can determine that our irresponsibility often is a fear of failure rather than some sense of laziness. We can then work on smaller tasks to help ourselves become more prepared in the future.
This technique gets to the heart of the matter -the real reasons why we act the way we do. Once we become better acquainted with the exact nature of the problem, we can begin to find solutions.
Unique outcomes theory
After you’ve deconstructed all of the different parts, you can begin to look for alternative solutions. If you realize you tend to act irresponsible or maybe even come off as lazy, when really you are just terrified of failing, you can begin to ask questions like, “well, what would happen if I didn’t fail?” “What would happen if I worked extra hard and got the promotion?”
Envisioning new solutions changes the story inside that says you’ll fail so “what’s the point?” It offers the possibility of “what if I couldn’t fail?”
Side note: chances are you probably wouldn’t act lazy or irresponsible.
Inspiring Creativity from the Practice
If we practice seeing our old situations in a new way, we naturally start thinking more creatively. This could help us find new ways for dealing with problems that arise or habits that are ingrained in us.
Resilience from Narrative Therapy
Additionally, Narrative therapy enhances resilience. If you separate the problem from yourself and are able to detect possible new remedies yourself, you become unstoppable. No matter what comes your way, your problems never become who you are, they simply are realized as a thing that will pass or can be worked through.
Why Narrative Therapy?
The mental and physical benefits
As mentioned in the webinar, this kind of therapeutic writing has a myriad of benefits.
Mental Health Benefits
Narrative therapy helps mitigate
Physical Health Benefits
Narrative therapy can help with
- Dieting habits – individual can learn to make better choices
- Blood pressure/heart health – much of how we process issues affects our stress level
- Mental health benefits can manifest as physical health benefits – if we experience a decrease in anxiety and depression from Narrative therapy, we are likely to be healthier people. Additionally, The happier we are, the more energy we have to participate in healthy things like exercise.
Ensuring Privacy to Write Authentically
Safety and privacy concerns for writing
The most critical element of narrative therapy is the honest telling and reflection of what has happened in our lives and how we feel about it. The level of honesty required in this kind of therapy is crucial and anything that threatens it, should be addressed.
Possible Privacy & Safety Concerns
If we live with our parents, privacy might be a concern. If we’re nervous they might read our words, we may skew what we write down, compromising our healing potential.
In a more threatening situation, what if a domestic violence victim is trying to do this work? What if someone they live with sees it? The integrity and honesty of the writing will most likely be compromised if the fear of someone finding it is an issue.
But luckily, there are some solutions.
Implementing Privacy & Safety Measures
- If possible, set boundaries with parents, spouses, or others.
- Websites like penzu.com offer online journals with secure passcodes and safety features to lock and protect your work.
- If a student doesn’t have the Internet at home, they can also request to leave their notebook in the classroom. Most educators understand everyone has a different situation. This is also applicable for therapists if they agree, and you trust them.
- For teachers: if you implement Narrative therapy exercises in your classroom, ensure you’re taking into account that sharing out loud could compromise the writing. The self-editing the student might do to avoid being mocked is a reality if they’re asked to share before they start writing. A great practice is to have them share something separately from the self-reflection work they’re doing.
Making Reflection Fun
Tips if you or your clients hate writing
This is common with younger cohorts, but anyone can have trouble sitting down to write.
For students or younger clients, making writing fun is important. Providing them with really attractive-looking journals is one way to get them excited to write. And get creative. Maybe the writing isn’t in the journal form. Jeffrey offered one example as sidewalk chalk. Getting them outside to draw or write how they’re feeling.
As an adult, maybe drawing on the sidewalk isn’t your thing. That’s okay too. You can still push yourself to write. Remember that prose isn’t your only option. Lyrics, poetry, screenwriting, or even drawing can be effective. As long as you’re taking the time for true reflection, you can use any medium that feels comfortable.
Consistency is also key here. Rather than trying to fit into your busy schedule each day, write at the same time each day, everyday, until it develops into a habit. Once it’s ingrained, it won’t be something to dread anymore.
Should Family Be Involved?
Be careful when collaborating
This kind of therapy, at its core, believes the individual is the expert. And so, the main issue with having family members or loved ones help you tell your story, or help externalize your problems, is that they have their own perspective of why they believe you do what you do.
So while constructive criticism is great, for Narrative Therapy, it’s hard to break down your perspective when it’s being muddled with their perspective or their narratives about you. Their narratives may have nothing to do with the truth of why you act a certain way.
Secondly, when we introduce others, we may start to write and change our narrative for what they want, or what we think they look at us as. If we want to keep the integrity of our writing to break down these narratives, one-on-one sessions with a therapist is the recommended approach.
As mentioned in the webinar above, if you are having trouble writing about yourself at all, feel free to work with others, but keep in mind, that should remain a supplemental practice.
Find a therapist or learn more with narrative therapy training
While you can practice these methods at home, trained narrative therapists exist everywhere! Navigate to The Dulwich Centre site (started by Epston and White) or to websites like Psychology Today.to find therapists close by.
Jeffrey Kidd also provides a 6-hour in-depth training to go further into Narrative Therapy.
10 of our own instructors here at Women Wonder Writers have already been trained on Narrative Therapy, and we’re eager to share this with you.
This is a full 6-hour live and interactive training (in-person or online) where you will:
- Engage in reflection exercises examining limiting beliefs, which include breakout sessions
- Examine the key components of narrative therapy
- Examine ways to teach narrative therapy
- Examine strategies to measure results of your writing or teaching
- Have access to online group circles for support for up to 12 weeks, while you implement strategies learned during the training
If you’re interested in more information, reach out to email@example.com or visit our alternative programming page at thewriteofyourlife.org