What Is Narrative Therapy?

There are a variety of therapy modalities used for many different reasons all with a similar purpose: to help people live positive and fulfilling lives. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that according to national surveys in 2015, nearly 18 percent of American adults suffered from some form of mental illness. In addition, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes that just over 8 percent of adults in the United States battled addiction in 2014.

Treatments for mental health disorders, addiction, and overall improvement of life satisfaction typically include some form of therapeutic measure. Narrative therapy is a type of therapy that can help individuals to take charge of their lives and potentially shed some of the labels and negativity that may be shaping behaviors and self-destructive patterns, such as frequent relapses. Individuals and families can both benefit from narrative therapy, which can be helpful for a variety of issues that may impact daily life and overall wellbeing.

What Are the Key Principles of Narrative Therapy?

Founded in the 1970s and 1980s by David Epston and Michael White, narrative therapy differs from traditional talk therapy methods where the therapist or counselor is the expert dispensing advice to patients. With narrative therapy, the therapist and individual receiving therapy form a collaborative bond, working together to reach positive outcomes.

As people go through life, their experiences shape how the world is viewed, and these can determine how a person will react to situations and people. Labels may dictate that a person act a certain way or that specific problems inhibit everyday life. For example, a person may be labeled as a “troublemaker,” which makes it easier for them to continue to act out. Narrative therapy works to dispel these labels and helps individuals to remove themselves from such labels.

What Is the Preferred Outcome of Narrative Therapy?

People tend to focus on negative and emotionally charged situations in their lives, and these events can shape thoughts and behaviors. Narrative therapy helps people to detach themselves and externalize problems. Instead of seeing themselves as depressed, for instance, narrative therapy can help a person to understand that while they may feel depressed, the depression does not define who they are as a person. By separating oneself from problems, a person can better manage these issues from a more detached position. Narrative therapy works to help people “rewrite” the story of their lives in a more positive light.

What Are the Goals of Narrative Therapy?

The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that narrative therapy has three main components and goals: exploring the potential “untold” aspects of a person’s personal story, helping people to rewrite and emotionally engage in their own stories and lives, and assisting people in forming new meaning within their lives. The individual is the author of their own story, and the therapist acts as a kind of editor, helping people to recognize certain thoughts and behaviors for what they are.

Dominant storylines are often inherently negative, as negative emotions and traumatic events can significantly impact a person’s life. While it can be easy to focus on the negative storylines, there are often positive threads buried within. Together, a therapist and client can work to highlight these happier storylines and focus on things like hope, resilience, and a more positive self-image. Narrative therapy helps a person to map these events and emotions, and find other storylines that exist within that may not have been as noticeable. The non-dominant storyline may then be brought to the forefront as a more positive narrative. The narrative of a person’s life is formed, and like all stories, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The end goal is to challenge previously held adaptive behaviors and find more meaning in life. Unlike other therapeutic methods such as various models of didactic therapy or Gestalt therapy, narrative therapy does not necessarily explore the “why” behind potential mental health issues, but is more solution-focused on figuring out how to move forward. The focus is on a person’s positive accomplishments and personal attributes, the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition) publishes.

What Are the Benefits of Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy may be shorter in duration than traditional behavioral therapy methods, with fewer sessions overall. The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing reports that narrative therapy addresses issues that disrupt everyday life while helping a person to adapt socially. It can be a very useful method for helping people to realize that they can control how their story goes and what things they choose to give meaning to.

Narrative therapy can have many benefits, such as:

  • Families and individuals can be served through narrative therapy together, alone, or both.
  • By externalizing problems or concerns, an individual may be better able to objectively look at them and come up with ways to overcome or manage them.
  • Reevaluating the narrative of a person’s life can bring to light other, or even parallel, storylines that may have not been understood or recognized before.
  • The “untold” story can become the “told” story, and individuals can find strengths and positive emotions within themselves they may not have known existed.
  • Narrative therapy focuses on a person’s positive storyline, reworking the negative aspects until a positive outcome and preferred story are formed.
  • People are empowered to become experts in their own lives instead of relying on a professional or therapist to tell them how to feel or behave.
  • Narrative therapy is non-pathological and helps to dispel restricting labels.
  • Instead of focusing on a person’s weaknesses, narrative therapy highlights their strengths.
  • Narrative therapy is generally very optimistic and complementary to other therapeutic and treatment methods and modalities.

Who Can Benefit from Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy may be helpful for a wide range of disorders, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), personality disorders, and other mood and behavior issues and disorders. Typically, narrative therapy will likely be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that may include other therapy modalities, counseling, support groups, and medications or medical interventions. It may be performed in an inpatient facility or on an outpatient basis, depending on the circumstances required.