I am not my Stories: How Narrative Therapy Changes Circumstances and the People they belong to
People perceive, interpret, and give meaning to themselves and their world through the language of stories that they have learnt, were a part of, have become attached to and to which they have given their own meanings. The word “narrative” means to emphasise stories of people’s lives and the differences that can be made through the telling and re-telling of such stories. Gene Combs and Jill Freidman, authors of Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, published 1998, state that, “We become who we are through relationships. Through how others perceive us and interact with us and how we make meaning of the social interaction.”
Narrative Therapy was developed by Michael White and David Epston. It is a method of therapy that focuses on separating the problem from the person. A problem is something that a person has, not what a person is. The therapist, therefore, helps clients externalise their problems. Narrative therapy is a non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which views people as the experts in their own lives. Individuals already know and have the solutions in their control. It is just for them to effectively implement and maintain such changes. In the text, What is Narrative Therapy, Alice Morgan posits that, “Narrative therapy assumes that people possess the necessary skills such as competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.”
Narrative therapy is effective because it encourages people to address the existing problem in a respectful and corporative relationship setting regardless of status, class, age, political or religion. Narrators’ personal stories are examined, used to solve issues and find the true purposes of these individuals’ lives. Therapists seek to find what is really important and valuable to the person in a wider context; in a context beyond the problem. Narrative therapy is beneficial because it allows clients to use experiences and life stories to reveal things that had been hidden about themselves. It doesn’t try to change the person. The aim is to transform the effect of the problem so it has less harm on the individual. This approach also allows people to understand themselves better so that they are more capable of handling similar situations in the future as they learn how to separate themselves from the problem.
Narrative Therapists around the world use a variety of practices. There are slight differences but they all yield successful results. Firstly, the therapist usually asks questions. Questions allow the person to narrate their experience to the therapist, who in turn puts these answers into perspective to understand the client more. Epston once said, “Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.” Questions rather than statements create the platform for clients to continue sharing experiences rather than giving blunt responses.
Narrative Therapy encourages externalising conversations. Externalising is giving a personality to the problem and separating it from the person. Clients are taught how to view the problem as separate from themselves and not acquire the label of being the problem. This is based on the belief that labels influence behaviour. Thus, removing the label will facilitate change. For instance, if an individual says “I am a selfish person,” that person will have to change who he/she is to eliminate the problem. Therapists would encourage clients to externalise the problem by saying, “I am a person who engages in selfish behaviour.” By doing this, the person can make an effort to change the behaviour rather than change who they are. Once problems are externalised, they can be put into storylines to make therapy more effective.
Often, the problems people are faced with are become generalised. Narrative Therapists encourage clients to deconstruct the problem to make the problem more specific and manageable. This encourages clients to express what the problem means to them. For instance, if a person says, “My child is unappreciative and I am pissed”, that does not clearly indicate which emotion needs empathy. A statement like “When my child doesn’t say thank you or show that he/she appreciates the things that I have done throughout my life for him/her, I feel like I am not respected. This makes unimportant and like no one cares about me,” tells more of a story. Deconstructing the problem in such a manner allows the therapist to better understand what the person is experiencing so that they can better help in providing alternatives to dealing with the issue.
Therapists also listen for openings to preferred stories. A unique opening is one such technique used. This means the therapist seeks to change the dominant negative storyline to something more positive that the person may be overlooking. For example, if the problem is lying and the individual hesitates before lying, the hesitation could be the unique outcome that shows a gap in the story. Right there and then, the unique opening creates an avenue for the narrator to develop a more positive or preferred story.
At its core, Narrative Therapy teaches people how to connect stories from the past and present situations, thereby equipping them to ‘author’ their future.