As therapists we regularly encounter people when they are experiencing extraordinarily difficult feelings of grief, loss, shame, frustration, confusion, etc. As you might expect, in initial consultations, people tend to share the stories of why they have come to seek support and what they would like to address - in narrative therapy, we call this the problem narrative. We tend to have complicated relationships with our problems, even shaping our identities in relation to, or in consideration of, our problems. While exploring the problem narrative, the therapist and client work together to uncover the landscape of the issue. The therapist may ask questions such as: What is your understanding of the problem? How do you believe the problem has come to be? What impact does the problem have on your life and the lives of others? What does the problem tell you about who you are?
The job of the narrative therapist is to maintain a non-judgmental and curious standpoint. Micheal White (2007), one of the originators of narrative therapy, compares the process to investigative reporting. Narrative therapy relies on questions to explore the meaning we make of our lives, and in doing so, the narrative therapist listens for glimmers, instances, and examples that run counter to the problem narrative. These counter-narratives add detail to the stories of who we are and remind us that we are more than just the stories of our problems. Narrative therapy believes that people have the tools and capacity to make change in their own lives. Generally, we are already doing helpful things...we just don’t notice our own good work. In collaboration with the therapist, individuals explore their lives and the meaning they make of their experience, and in doing so, engage the power they have to re-author the parts of their story that are no longer useful.
A primary strategy of Narrative therapy is to separate people from problems - to externalize problems. For example:
“When the problem becomes an entity that is separate from the person, and when people are not tied to restricting ‘truths’ about their identity and negative ‘certainties’ about their lives, new options for taking action to address the predicaments of their lives become available. This separation of the person’s identity from the identity of the problem does not relinquish people from a responsibility to address the problems that they are encountering. Rather, it makes it more possible for people to assume this responsibility. If the person is the problem, there is very little that can be done outside of taking action that is self-destructive. But if a person’s relationship with the problem becomes more clearly defined, as it does in externalizing conversations, a range of possibilities become available to revise this relationship” (White, 2007, 26).
Here, White (2007) explains that the process of realizing that we are not the problem, rather that the problem is the problem does not mean we wash our hands of our issues and behaviours. Instead, what separating our identities from our problems does, is create space in which we can imagine new and more helpful ways of moving forward.
What possibilities for our lives might we imagine if we weren’t restricted by the ‘certainties’ and ‘truths’ our problems hold us to? Narrative Therapy aims to explore these possibilities.
To learn more about narrative therapy and to be connected with a trained narrative therapist, call C & C Resources for Life.
More information can be found in the resources below:
The Dulwich Centre: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/
Madigan, S. (2019). Narrative therapy (2nd Ed). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.