How Narrative Therapy Works (2022)

What Is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy is a style of therapy that helps people become—and embrace being—an expert in their own lives. In narrative therapy, there is an emphasis on the stories that you develop and carry with you through your life.

As you experience events and interactions, you give meaning to those experiences and they, in turn, influence how you see yourself and the world. You can carry multiple stories at once, such as those related to your self-esteem, abilities, relationships, and work.

Developed in the 1980s by New Zealand-based therapists Michael White and David Epston, narrative therapy seeks to have an empowering effect and offer counseling that is non-blaming and non-pathological in nature.

Techniques

There are a variety of techniques and exercises used in narrative therapy to help people heal and move past a problematic story. Some of the most commonly used techniques include the following.

Putting Together Your Narrative

Narrative therapists help their clients put together their narrative. This process allows the individual to find their voice and explore events in their lives and the meanings they have placed on these experiences. As their story is put together, the person becomes an observer to their story and looks at it with the therapist, working to identify the dominant and problematic story.

Externalization

Putting together the story of their lives also allows people to observe themselves. This helps create distance between the individual and their problems, which is called externalization. This distance allows people to better focus on changing unwanted behaviors.

As people practice externalization, they get a chance to see that they are capable and empowered to change.

Deconstruction

Deconstruction is used to help people gain clarity in their stories. When a problematic story feels like it has been around for a long time, people might use generalized statements and become confused in their own stories. A narrative therapist would work with the individual to break down their story into smaller parts, clarifying the problem and making it more approachable.

Unique Outcomes

When a story feels concrete, as if it could never change, any idea of alternative stories goes out the window. People can become very stuck in their story and allow it to influence several areas of their lives, impacting decision-making, behaviors, experiences, and relationships.

A narrative therapist works to help people not only challenge their problems but widen their view by considering alternative stories.

What Can Narrative Therapy Help With

While narrative therapy is a relatively new treatment approach, there is some evidence that it may be helpful for a variety of conditions. Mental health conditions it might help include:

  • Anxiety
  • Attachment issues
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This approach can also be useful for anyone who feels like they are overwhelmed by negative experiences, thoughts, or emotions. Narrative therapy allows people to not only find their voice but to use their voice for good, helping them to become experts in their own lives and to live in a way that reflects their goals and values. It can be beneficial for individuals, couples, and families.

(Video) What is Narrative Therapy?

This type of therapy stresses the importance of people not labeling themselves or seeing themselves as "broken" or "the problem," or for them to feel powerless in their circumstances and behavior patterns.

Benefits of Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy holds a number of key principles including:

  • Respect: People participating in narrative therapy are treated with respect and supported for the bravery it takes to come forward and work through personal challenges.
  • Non-blaming: There is no blame placed on the client as they work through their stories and they are also encouraged to not place blame on others. Focus is instead placed on recognizing and changing unwanted and unhelpful stories about themselves and others.
  • Client as the expert: Narrative therapists are not viewed as an advice-giving authority but rather a collaborative partner in helping clients grow and heal. Narrative therapy holds that clients know themselves well and exploring this information will allow for a change in their narratives.

Narrative therapy challenges dominant problematic stories that prevent people from living their best lives. Through narrative therapy, people can identify alternative stories, widen people's views of self, challenge old and unhealthy beliefs, and open their minds to new ways of living that reflect a more accurate and healthy story.

Narrative therapy does not aim to change a person but to allow them to become an expert in their own life.

Effectiveness

Narrative therapy appears to offer benefits in the treatment of a number of different conditions and in a variety of settings. Some evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach:

  • One study found that adults with depression and anxiety who were treated with narrative therapy experienced improvements in self-reported quality of life and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • One study found that narrative therapy was effective at helping children improve empathy, decision-making, and social skills.
  • Other research has found that married women experienced increased levels of marital satisfaction after being treated with narrative therapy.

Further research is needed to determine what mental health conditions narrative therapy might treat most effectively.

Things to Consider

Narrative therapy may present some challenges that you should consider before you begin treatment.Some things to be aware of before you begin:

  • This type of therapy can be very in-depth. It explores a wide range of factors that can influence the development of a person's story. This includes factors such as age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity.
  • It involves talking about your problems as well as your strengths. A therapist will help you explore your dominant story in-depth, discover ways it might be contributing to emotional pain, and uncover strengths that can help you approach problems in different ways.
  • You'll reevaluate your judgments about yourself. Sometimes people carry stories about themselves that have been placed on them by others. Narrative therapy encourages you to reassess these thoughts and replace them with more realistic, positive ones.
  • It challenges you to separate yourself from your problems. While this can be difficult, the process helps you learn to give yourself credit for making good decisions or behaving in positive ways.

This process can take time, but can eventually help people find their own voice and develop a healthier, more positive narrative.

Press Play for Advice On Self-Talk

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring best-selling author Kindra Hall, shares how to tell yourself more helpful stories. Click below to listen now.

How Narrative Therapy Works (1)

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(Video) Narrative Therapy Role-Play - Externalizing the Problem - Excessive Worry

How to Get Started

Narrative therapy is a unique, specialized approach to counseling. There are training opportunities for therapists to learn more about narrative therapy and how to use this approach with clients.

Trained narrative therapists are located throughout the world and can be found through online resources and therapist directories. You might also consider asking your doctor to refer you to a professional in your area with training and experience in narrative therapy.

During your first session, your therapist may ask you to begin sharing your story and ask questions about the reasons you are seeking treatment. Your therapist may also want to know about how your problems are affecting your life and what your goals for the future are. You will also likely discuss aspects of treatment such as how often you will meet and how your treatment may change from one session to the next.

The Best Online Therapy ProgramsWe've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain.

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(Video) Theories of Counseling - Narrative Therapy

6 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Wallis J, Burns J, Capdevila R. What is narrative therapy and what is it not?: The usefulness of Q methodology to explore accounts of White and Epston's (1990) approach to narrative therapy. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2011;18(6):486-97. doi:10.1002/cpp.723

  2. Hutto DD, Gallagher S. Re-authoring narrative therapy: improving our self-management tools. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology. 2017.24(2):157-167. doi:10.1353/ppp.2017.0020

  3. Shakeri J, Ahmadi SM, Maleki F, Hesami MR, Parsa Moghadam A, Ahmadzade A, Shirzadi M, Elahi A. Effectiveness of group narrative therapy on depression, quality of life, and anxiety in people with amphetamine addiction: A randomized clinical trial. Iran J Med Sci. 2020;45(2):91-99. doi:10.30476/IJMS.2019.45829

  4. Beaudoin M, Moersch M, Evare BS. The effectiveness of narrative therapy with children’s social and emotional skill development: An empirical study of 813 problem-solving stories. Journal of Systemic Therapies. 2016;(35)3: 42-59. doi:10.1521/jsyt.2016.35.3.42

  5. Ghavibazou E, Hosseinian S, Abdollahi A. Effectiveness of narrative therapy on communication patterns for women experiencing low marital satisfaction. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 2020;41(2):195-207.doi:10.1002/anzf.1405

  6. Muruthi B, McCoy M, Chou J, Farnham A. Sexual scripts and narrative therapy with older couples. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 2018;46(1):81-95. doi:10.1080/01926187.2018.1428129

    (Video) Narrative Therapy

Additional Reading

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FAQs

How Narrative Therapy Works? ›

What Is Narrative Therapy? As you experience events and interactions, you give meaning to those experiences and they, in turn, influence how you see yourself and the world. You can carry multiple stories at once, such as those related to your self-esteem, abilities, relationships, and work.

How effective is narrative therapy? ›

From the current literature on Narrative therapy, it appears that it has been proven effective in various uses including groups, with children, with adults and families. In addition, it has shown effectiveness when dealing with depression, addiction, anxiety, trauma, family issues, attachment issues and grief.

How is narrative therapy conducted? ›

The therapists help their clients to put together their narrative. This will usually involve listening to the client explain their stories and any issues that they want to bring up. This allows the person to express their thoughts and explore events in their lives and the meanings they have placed on these experiences.

What is an example of narrative therapy? ›

An example of how Narrative Therapy would help Tom rewrite is story is by first separating The Anxiety from Tom. Instead of Tom saying, “I have anxiety, I am a loser,” he would say, “The Anxiety tricks me to think I am a loser.” Why does Narrative Therapy do this?

What is wrong with narrative therapy? ›

The concern is the tendency for therapists to value the client's perspective over cultural narratives. The values and morals of the therapists may influence the client in a potentially destructive manner or in a way that may impede healing.

How many sessions does narrative therapy take? ›

Often, small groups of people receive four to 10 sessions of NET together, although it can be provided individually as well. It is understood that the story a person tells himself or herself about their life influences how the person perceives their experiences and wellbeing.

Is narrative therapy a form of CBT? ›

In a similar fashion to how the CBT therapist helps the client construct alternative beliefs about themselves, the narrative therapists helps the client construct more useful stories about themselves, helping them to make sense of their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

Who benefits from narrative therapy? ›

Narrative therapy separates people from their problems. This allows therapists to help people externalize sensitive issues. Objectifying an issues may lower a person's resistance and defenses. It allows people to address issues in a more productive way.

What are some limitations of narrative therapy? ›

Cons of Narrative Therapy

Some professionals also critique the assumption that there are no absolute truths in life. It's not for everyone. Your unique needs are different from anyone else's. If trauma limits your cognitive, intellectual, or language skills, you may not be ready for narrative therapy.

How do you start a narrative therapy session? ›

Narrative Therapy Session - YouTube

How does narrative therapy create change? ›

Narrative therapy suggests that change happens by paying close attention in therapy to "unique outcomes," which are narrative details outside the main story (White & Epston, 1990).

What type of therapy is narrative therapy? ›

Narrative therapy (or Narrative Practice) is a form of psychotherapy that seeks to help patients identify their values and the skills associated with them. It provides the patient with knowledge of their ability to live these values so they can effectively confront current and future problems.

Do narrative therapists diagnose? ›

Narrative therapy finds no cause or reason to diagnose and/or label a person's lived experience.

Which is the correct order of stages in narrative therapy? ›

In this video Steve Madigan describes the three stages of narrative therapy:
  • Deconstructing problematic dominant stories. Naming the problem. ...
  • Re-authoring problematic dominant stories. ...
  • Remembering conversations.

Is narrative therapy evidence based? ›

Few studies exist that would be considered as 'good' evidence for the effectiveness of narrative therapy within the traditions of therapeutic outcome research. Some of the reasons for this may relate to the type of research valued by narrative therapists and problems with positivist 'evidence-based research'.

Is narrative therapy person centered? ›

Results: Results showed that person-centered narrative therapy has a positive effect on increasing happiness and reducing death anxiety. Percentage change for happiness and anxiety was 42% and 53% respectively. Conclusion: The effects of these improvements largely remained during follow up period.

What is the ultimate goal of narrative therapy? ›

This approach seeks to reach one of three goals: to put "untold" aspects of the client's past into the life narrative, help clients emotionally enter and reauthor their own stories, or help clients construct new meanings in relation to stories that may emerge in therapy.

How is narrative therapy used for trauma? ›

Instead of recalling the event and then trying to remember details while already stressed, narrative therapy has you build out the context first. In short, you tell your life story from the beginning. Then you can fit the traumatic events in the gaps like puzzle pieces.

Is narrative therapy beneficial? ›

Narrative therapy allows people to not only find their voice but to use their voice for good, helping them to become experts in their own lives and to live in a way that reflects their goals and values. It can be beneficial for individuals, couples, and families.

Is narrative therapy evidence based? ›

Few studies exist that would be considered as 'good' evidence for the effectiveness of narrative therapy within the traditions of therapeutic outcome research. Some of the reasons for this may relate to the type of research valued by narrative therapists and problems with positivist 'evidence-based research'.

Who is narrative therapy good for? ›

Narrative therapy separates people from their problems. This allows therapists to help people externalize sensitive issues. Objectifying an issues may lower a person's resistance and defenses. It allows people to address issues in a more productive way.

What are the strengths of a narrative? ›

Narrative texts provide a more rich and detailed glimpse into the narrator's experiences through inner dialogue and explanation. While an outside perspective would only allow the reader to assume or interpret a character's emotions, a first-person account allows the reader to emotionally connect to the character.

What are some limitations of narrative therapy? ›

Cons of Narrative Therapy

Some professionals also critique the assumption that there are no absolute truths in life. It's not for everyone. Your unique needs are different from anyone else's. If trauma limits your cognitive, intellectual, or language skills, you may not be ready for narrative therapy.

Is narrative therapy a CBT? ›

In a similar fashion to how the CBT therapist helps the client construct alternative beliefs about themselves, the narrative therapists helps the client construct more useful stories about themselves, helping them to make sense of their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

Which is the correct order of stages in narrative therapy? ›

In this video Steve Madigan describes the three stages of narrative therapy:
  • Deconstructing problematic dominant stories. Naming the problem. ...
  • Re-authoring problematic dominant stories. ...
  • Remembering conversations.

What type of theory is narrative therapy? ›

Narrative therapy is a form of counseling that views people as separate from their problems. This allows clients to get some distance from the issue to see how it might actually be helping them, or protecting them, more than it is hurting them.

Do narrative therapists diagnose? ›

Narrative therapy finds no cause or reason to diagnose and/or label a person's lived experience.

Why is 1st person important? ›

A first-person narrator gives the reader a front row seat to the story. It also: Gives a story credibility. First-person point of view builds a rapport with readers by sharing a personal story directly with them.

What are the disadvantages of a narrative observation? ›

  • It can be hard to write everything down quickly.
  • The observer is likely to have to keep stopping, or to choose what to focus on.
  • It can be hard to record accurately and without judgement.
Mar 27, 2019

What is the disadvantages of narrative inquiry? ›

Some critics of narrative research emphasize the limitations of the place of stories in people's lives, and in the social and political world. Stories can be comforting fictions that people tell themselves; they may divert us from deeper, more intractable and more important concerns.

Videos

1. Narrative Lecture 2017
(Diane R. Gehart, Ph.D.)
2. Narrative Therapy: Theory, Process, & Practice
(Integrative Counseling Services)
3. Narrative Therapy: Therapeutic Process
(Jennifer Vaughn)
4. Narrative Therapy
(Therapy Solutions)
5. Narrative Therapy + Case study example | Social Work
(Jasmine Ama)
6. Hala Alyan on How Narrative Therapy Works
(Deviate Clips)

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