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What is Narrative Therapy?

 

What is Narrative Therapy? You may have heard the term Narrative Therapy lately, as it seems to be a buzz-word in the field of clinical counselling these days. But what does it actually mean and how can it help people improve the quality of their lives and relationships?

There is a rich history to the development of narrative therapy that borrows on the ideas of many great thinkers, intellects, practitioners, and philosophers from our modern era. For those readers interested to learn more, the groundbreaking book “Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends” by Michael White and David Epston (founders of narrative therapy) is a good starting place. No time to read a whole book on this exciting approach to counselling? We hope to break it down for you with a few key assumptions of narrative therapy… in a nutshell.

  1. Narrative therapy believes that language is not just about describing the way things are, rather it actually has the power to construct or shape your experience. For example, saying to yourself, “I am depressed” does not just neutrally describe a fact about yourself, these words can shape how you interact with the world and others around you. This self-statement, or self-narrative, can actually impact your behaviours. You may not put effort into making new relationships because who would want to be friends with somebody who is depressed all the time? You might not apply for an exciting new job, because what if your depression got in the way? So you stop putting yourself out there in the world and your life gets smaller and smaller until…well….you become depressed. The language we use to describe ourselves can shape our world in an influential way.

 

  1. Narrative therapy posits that what we pay attention to and remember throughout the day is not neutral or random, but is actually dictated by our self-narratives. We all have a story we tell about ourselves, and sometimes this story can be pretty negative, or problem-saturated, as narrative therapists say. For example, you might have a belief (story) about yourself that you are an anxious person. Your day will be full of experiences in which you are anxious (this is part of the normal human range of emotions) but also full of experiences in which you are not anxious. But the self-narrative (I am a nervous person) is like a filter that only registers anxiety-confirming experiences and disregards non-anxiety moments. Therefore we ascribe meaning to, or hold on to, all the things that happened during our day that match the plot of “I am an anxious person” and pay no attention to any evidence to the contrary. But it gets worse, these problem-saturated narratives can be so powerful, that even when ambiguous situations happen (a work presentation that went ok, for example) you are so used to believing the anxiety narrative that you assume anxiety was present (I was such a nervous wreck!), forgetting that you got through the presentation all in one piece and your boss even congratulated you on it. So your self-narrative of anxiety gets bigger and stronger because you only pay attention to things that confirm it.

 

  1. Narrative therapy views mental health struggles (depression, anxiety, addiction) not as a something inside of us, like a condition or a disease, but rather as problems created by forces external to us that have social, political, and historical roots. Our culture gives us many powerful “should” messages about how we should look and behave, what type of parent or partner we need to be, where we should work, what we should wear and how we should look, how much or how little we should eat, when we should exercise etc….. There are “shoulds” for pretty much everything. So when you show up in a narrative therapist’s office struggling with sadness, hopelessness, and low energy, the counsellor doesn’t think of the problem as located inside of you (like due to a chemical imbalance in your brain). Instead, the counsellor will explore extensively with you what factors in your life and which social messages you received growing up in this culture, that may account for the sadness. Not measuring up to society’s “should” can be a common source of suffering for people. Imagine a 15-year-old boy who is being raised by a single mom working for minimum wage, and who is overweight, gay, struggling in school and has been diagnosed with depression. From a narrative therapy perspective, the depression problem does not lie within this boy, his cause for suffering is more likely attributed to things external to him. Sizism, homophobia, and poverty (all things that are located within our society) are probably responsible for his feelings of depression. A narrative therapist believes these social structures must be considered to get a fair and just assessment of the situation.

So how would a narrative therapist work together with you? Here are some things you would accomplish collaboratively:

  • Identify the problem you are up against and help you explore its effects on your life and your relationships.
  • Consider the broader context of your life and explore how the problem you are dealing with is related to class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
  • Help you start to pay attention to the gaps and inconsistencies in the problem-saturated story as you broaden your awareness to include all the non-problem experiences that happen in your day.
  • Look for moments in your day-to-day life where the problem was not as present (called unique outcomes) and start to generate a new story from these events that is more in line with what you prefer for your life. Narrative therapists call this “re-authoring your preferred story.”
  • Help you look for evidence of the developing preferred story over time and assist you to strengthen its sticking power so that positive change can happen.

To work with a narrative-trained counsellor and experience how narrative therapy can help you reduce problems and move closer to your preferred way of living, please contact us to book a counselling session. Okanagan Clinical Counselling Services offers individual, couples, family and group counselling services specializing in a variety of approaches including narrative therapy. OCCS also offers online counselling services using narrative therapy and has 3 locations in downtown Kelowna, Westbank, and Penticton with clinicians who have extensive experience in narrative therapy.  Contact us today to find out how narrative therapy and our online and face to face counselling services may help you.

This blog post was written by our Clinical Counsellor:

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