This classic adage from creative writing class has launched many a novel. According to those who practice narrative therapy, it also can launch a counseling client into a transformative and healing process of self-reflection.
Narrative therapy refers to the work most often attributed to Michael White and David Epston. The approach emphasizes a person’s life stories and considers problems to be created out of different contexts, not as the result of who the person is. A well-worn maxim associated with narrative therapy is that “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” Narrative therapy emphasizes clients’ strengths, helping them to tell the alternative personal stories that often get overshadowed by the more dominant stories about their problems. Using gentle questioning techniques, the counselor collaborates with the client to deconstruct stories and thoroughly investigate any problems together, as though they were reporters getting to the bottom of a lead.
This approach resonates deeply with Jane Ashley, a former newspaper editor and reporter who left journalism because she was disenchanted by the way that preconceived ideas often shaped how the media presented stories. “What I found in the first few years as a therapist was that the same way of listening and seeing clients was at work in the [process] of therapy,” she says. “So, I was starting to be a bit discouraged when I heard Michael White’s approach. What he had to say spoke directly to my concerns with journalism and the mainstream world of psychotherapy.”
Since discovering narrative therapy in 1995, Ashley, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Arlington, Va., has participated in dozens of related trainings, including a one-week intensive workshop with White. She also runs a narrative peer study group that incorporates mindfulness techniques. Ashley says it is the nonimpositional stance of the narrative therapist in particular that helps her avoid the pitfalls of preconceived notions.
“Narrative ideas inform my position in the conversation as a curious, nondirective collaborator in exploration of how the problem, or problems, have taken up more space in the lives of my clients,” Ashley says. “I try to stay curious and to keep my language and questions based on the language and expressions of the client. To me, this position is the most important aspect and hardest to learn for therapists.
“We are trained in all the other approaches to interpret and offer suggestions and interventions that come from the ‘expert’ knowledge of whatever theoretical orientation informs our interpretations. We are trained to speak from expert knowledge. In narrative work, the expertise is in listening for ‘sparkling moments’ and ‘exceptions to the problem’ in the words, attitudes and expressions of the client. It is very honoring of the lived experience and values and beliefs of the client.”
Ginny Graham, an American Counseling Association member who is one of Ashley’s counseling supervisees, agrees. “I love the accessibility of the genre,” she says. “The more I use the context of story to frame clinical discussions, the more I appreciate how its familiarity invites and grows content. Who doesn’t love a good story? By its very nature, story elevates and even celebrates conflict as the central vehicle for change.”
Graham, an LPC with offices in Alexandria and Arlington, Va., came to counseling work after a career as a high school English teacher. She acknowledges that this background likely predisposed her to an appreciation of narrative therapy. “Using story as a gateway to greater meaning in life — a key component of this approach — is a given in any English classroom. A way I’d create relevancy for my English students was to talk about all literature as a kind of ongoing conversation that people have been having since the first word was spoken,” she notes. “Finding a therapeutic approach that says the most defining story of all is each person’s own unique story felt like a natural progression for me clinically.”
Crediting her supervision work with Ashley as the spark that ignited her curiosity about narrative therapy, Graham says, “It probably sounds simplistic to explain the experience as one of being taken seriously. If that doesn’t happen in a clinical or supervision relationship, there’s something wrong, right? Yet there was something powerful about being on the receiving end of the questions she asked, as well as her encouragement to expand on and enrich the content.”
Graham also attended a workshop that Ashley led about using narrative techniques in group therapy. “After selecting witnesses to listen to a conversation between the practitioner and the client in which the client told a story, we were asked to do a few simple things: isolate a phrase or image that stuck with us and to talk about how it resonated, how we could relate it to our own story,” she explains. “After we shared our material, the client talked about how what we’d said had changed her original perceptions.
“The result was unanimous energy and enthusiasm for the creative way we had experienced each other and unwittingly grown in honing our own understanding of ourselves. … Experiencing it spoke volumes about the empowering possibilities inherent in this approach for doing group work. It was a living, breathing illustration of how stories overlap in a powerful way to inform, confirm, contradict, challenge and inspire.”
Tools for the narrative
Narrative therapy demands that counselors hone their listening skills. “I try to train myself to listen for wisps of dreams that are barely spoken — those hopeful thoughts that might be drowned out by the influences of the louder, more emphatic problem narrative,” Graham says. “What’s more, it’s not enough for me to hear it. I want to create a sense of collaboration. I want to be considerate and explicitly check out what I think I’m hearing with my client.
“In my collaborative, narrative mode, I might say something like, ‘It’s funny when you say that it seems like some of what you’ve said is barely written — as if it’s written with a light, thin pencil. Yet, as you talk, there’s something that has me thinking that you might want to swap that pencil for a permanent marker. Am I right? Or what am I hearing unfold here? Is this something you want to talk more about?’”
Graham has found that the narrative approach is particularly helpful with clients who are facing adjustments related to loss and major life changes, as well as when multicultural issues come into play. “I love asking questions that invite [both myself and] folks to reflect on the relative strengths and weaknesses that exist in our social discourses,” she says. “For many, examining themselves objectively as a person in history becomes a first opportunity to think critically about culture, politics and the dominant stories that inform unconscious attitudes, hold us back and dictate behavior.
“For me, undoubtedly the most satisfying aspect of this approach is that the act of inviting and encouraging authorship automatically means there will be revisions because, as every writer of story comes to know, revising is where the real story emerges,” Graham adds. “The act of revising a story is such a positive, possible task and serves to lessen the sting and stress of the change process. Some clients have likened the approach to the pick-your-own-ending books they remember delightedly from their childhood.”
Sandy Davis, an ACA member and LPC in Fenton, Mo., was drawn to narrative therapy during her graduate program. “As students, we were challenged not to just be ‘eclectic’ but to find a mode of therapy that would fit us,” she says. “I began searching for a therapy that fit me rather than forcing myself into a mold. Narrative therapy utilizes my strengths, and I am consistently adding to my skill set by seeking educational opportunities on narrative therapy through journals, articles and continuing education.”
Davis uses narrative interventions to help clients separate themselves from their problems. “I am interested in the person’s self-talk, how they describe themselves, how a ‘problem’ begins using a small truth or situation and creates a challenge to the person’s concept of self. … Learning the ability to utilize externalizing language often allows [the client] to relax and begin building self-confidence,” she explains. “They are usually relieved that they are not identified as ‘the problem’ and welcome the opportunity to have someone to team up with to address and combat the problem.”
“Asking a person how depression keeps them from having fun forces them to develop more concrete reasons,” Davis continues. “They may reply that depression tells them they are not good enough, not skinny enough, not smart enough and that they do not have energy. This gives me insight into their thought process and how the problem manipulates the person.” Other narrative tools include letters, contracts, poetry, art and addressing cognitive distortions.When using narrative techniques, Davis says, counselors should know there is always more than one version of a story. “Mapping the problem and its effects on the person is an important first task,” she says. “We assist the person in [developing] a more complete story of exceptions for when they were able to defeat the problem. We ask questions like, ‘How does the problem talk you into your behavior?’ The person is then invited to take a position on the problem, to decide how it will affect the person from that point on.”
Davis’ first homework assignment to clients asks them to consider their own self-talk. “I ask the person to create two lists of adjectives that they see as truths about themselves. I am careful to state not to include what others say about them,” she says. “One list is to contain negative [adjectives] and the other, positive adjectives. They bring the list into the safety of the office, and we together try to find evidence that these words portray what is really true. I work with the person to find exceptions for the negative words.”
Davis adds that narrative work also offers flexibility, allowing her to use it in conjunction with other models, including solution-focused and cognitive behavioral techniques.
A career context
Many agree that narrative therapy, with its invitation to consider one’s life experiences as a set of rich stories that can build off one another, is particularly applicable to career development work. Lisa Severy is an ACA member who primarily works with traditionally aged college students as assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She applies narrative techniques in this capacity, especially as she helps students determine their next steps after graduation.
“I often ask students to think about their favorite book or movie. When they have one in mind, I ask them to describe it to me and to tell me what is happening at the plot level and what the underlying themes are,” she explains. “While many people describe the plot of the movie in similar ways, the underlying themes often vary [because] those are a reflection of the viewer as much as of the movie itself.
“In sharing that with students, I tell them that people seem to report being most happy and successful in their careers when the plot of their career story is closely aligned with their own life themes. Those people whom we see floating through their work lives with very little energy probably have a huge gap between what they are doing and who they are [their life themes]. Our goal, then, is to create the next chapter in the student’s story that carefully aligns plot and underlying theme. That description tends to help students understand the process and buy in to the idea.”
Severy, the incoming president-elect of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA, adds that narrative techniques are particularly refreshing in career development contexts. “Many career counseling models are norm-referenced. … They tend to assess a ton of people and then compare an individual to characteristics of the group. The norm, of course, doesn’t really exist, so comparing people to it can often lead to frustration — ‘Why does everyone else know what they want?’ What if there isn’t some ideal career choice hidden beneath the surface that just [needs to] be uncovered?
“Asking people to write the next chapter in their lives moves them away from the idea that they are writing their entire autobiography at 22 years old,” she says. “It also allows them to use their own words, culture and experience to create the story. I think of it as a reverse funnel. Older models are reductionist … taking the breadth and depth of a person and identifying certain traits — interests, skills, values, personality type — and reducing it down through a funnel process, the end result being something that could be compared to norms or to work settings.”
“Narrative therapy is the opposite, helping people to create holistic, broad stories in context,” Severy continues. “Not only have I found it to be much more successful in helping students, it is also much more satisfying for me as a counselor.”
A worldview in practice
For treatment-wise clients — those who have been in and out of therapy throughout their lives — the narrative approach may feel strange at first. “It will just look like a rich conversation with a loving friend,” Ashley says. She finds the techniques work best with those who are “thinking and creative people. … In my view, this includes all people.”
Severy agrees: “Some clients are certainly more drawn to [narrative work] than others, but I use the principles to guide my practice either way. In college student career counseling, some students come in just wanting someone to give them an answer quickly … and this type of counseling requires a great deal of time and effort to do well. Those that put in the time and are naturally drawn to history, culture, stories, narratives, etc., find it very engaging.”
Ashley recommends that interested counselors seek training with those narrative therapists who regard this work as a “worldview” in practice. “It is not the techniques,” she says. “The techniques — externalizing the problem, deconstructing the story, etc.— are to support the position of curiosity, interest, imagination and respect for the client.” She cautions that “many people who are practicing what they call ‘narrative work’ are actually using the techniques to deliver their ‘expert’ knowledge that comes from the other therapeutic orientations.”
Similarly, Severy warns interested counselors against jumping to conclusions as the client’s story unfolds. “There is a danger within this model of trying to move too quickly, with theme identification becoming more of a diagnosis than an authorship: ‘Oh, you told me a story about getting a kitten when you were 5. You must want to be a veterinarian!’” she quips. “The co-creation model emphasizes that the counselor should continually check assumptions and conclusions with the client to avoid that trap. I like to think of the process as the client being the writer and the counselor a test audience or editor — not someone to judge, but to ask questions and help refine.”
Searching for optimistic vignettes is part of the narrative therapist’s task as well, Davis adds. “It is a wonderful way of assisting [clients] to see a more preferred story that has been lived rather than only the dominant story that includes the present problem. The challenge is to find out what is going right, to be optimistic in the face of some horrific stories [and] to see the strength in the one sitting before us.”
“We often serve a population that lives problem-saturated stories, and yet they survive with skills that they do not acknowledge,” she says. “Rewriting history can occur, and it can change the future of those we serve. As therapists, we must remember that some remnants of resiliency and hope are there, but that the dominant story is able to disguise them. Collaborating with a person to discover these other truths is a life-changing event.”
Contributing writer Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago relationship therapist practicing in Washington, D.C. To contact her, visit stacymurphyLPC.com.
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