What is narrative therapy?

Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on telling your story of events and experiences, which are presented in a written form.

What is the goal of the narrative therapy?

The main goal is to help you identify stories that have prevented you from moving forward. It also aims to help you create a new version of yourself without the problem.

How it works

In this type of therapy the therapist encourages you to explore different “narratives” (personal stories), and elaborate on them. As the client, you usually do this as homework and bring it into therapy to be read aloud.

This can be an incredibly cathartic and validating process in itself, by way of being truly heard for the first time. Verbalizing your story and making it real brings empowerment, especially when others have denied or invalidated your experience before.

Problems can be then separated out and examined. The therapist will help you work out strategies to address the issues. However, sometimes even just the act of “speaking your truth” is enough to lift a long-held burden that has weighed heavily on you. The telling of your story is part of grieving, and can be an emotional process.

7 Main Steps to Narrative Therapy (edited from O’Hanlon, 1994)

1. Work together with the individual

The therapist will discuss with you what the problem actually is. Using your own language, you will try to find a name for the specific problem. The therapist may ask questions about the problem, how it affects you and those closest to you, and the historical basis for the problem.

2. Personify the problem and compare to aspects of life

Once you have explored the problem in step one, you are able to move on and assess areas of your life. In particular, this aims to find areas of life that don’t fit in with the problem.

3. Investigate the problem

The key investigation at this stage is how the problem has been affecting you and the specific impact it has had; it is likely that you will have been disrupted and dominated by the problem and this is the centre of this stage. You will be encouraged to describe how the problem has been dominating your life.

4. Identify problem-free moments

This involves working with you to find examples of when you have not been dominated by the problem. You may need some encouragement if you are fixated on the problem, but these problem-handling moments are likely to be part of your history.

5. Find historical evidence

This is the narrative part of the therapy where the therapist assists you. You are aided to find examples in your life when you were stronger than you realised and stood up to your problem.

6. Discuss the possibilities for the future

By this point, hopefully you will realise the problem is not a permanent state of being. You are asked to discuss the possibilities for a problem-free future. You can outline your expectations from the new, competent person that you are becoming and how that fits into the rest of your future.

7. Find an audience

Once the new narrative has been created, it needs an audience. There are many ways to achieve this, for example, writing a letter. This can be done with the therapist to aid completion. It is often suggested that those who were most affected by the old problem should be focused on first. Remember: letters don’t always need to be sent! Some could be more damaging than helpful. Sometimes just the letter writing can be catharsis enough. Or, this could be the beginning of a creative story or memoir that will inspire others! Often, the audience only needs to be a compassionate listener – either your therapist or close friend.

You are also able to communicate your thoughts and feelings to those who are deceased; talking is not an option but writing enables the thoughts to be conveyed to them in a structured way.

Narrative therapy v talking therapy

Narrative therapy shares some similarities with talking therapy; ultimately both aim to support you to move forward from a particular problem. However, there is one key difference – reading, rather than just talking, aloud. Narrative therapy enables you to fully consider your thoughts before saying anything out loud. This can help clarify your thoughts, and create a more coherent voice.
How is narrative therapy like journaling?

In some ways narrative therapy is like journaling; you can use the therapy to consider your thoughts and feelings and use the process of writing to help organise your thoughts.

Narrative therapy has the advantage of a structured process and the influence of the therapist. Sometimes simply writing the thoughts out helps, but there are times when the help of a therapist can be highly beneficial – for example, if you need to make sense of something that is unclear and need a sounding board and constructive input.

Benefits of narrative therapy

Narrative therapy has many benefits and can be particularly useful for clients who have suffered some kind of trauma or addiction. Clients have reported finding it highly beneficial to separate themselves from the problem and not place the blame on themselves.
But narrative therapy can be beneficial for anyone who is willing to give it a try. It can help with any issue, whether it’s a long-held dysfunctional belief, resentment, anger, grief, or just the opportunity to say what you always wished, but never had the chance. It can help you see things differently, and come to a new solution. Hopefully at the end of the process you can move forward in a much happier and more positive way. It is certainly worth trying so ask to your therapist more about how it could help you.