In 2009, writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED Talk on the danger of reducing people to a single narrative, using her own personal stories to illustrate the complexity of individuals. In one of those stories, she revealed how her college roommate in the United States had a single understanding of Africa — one of catastrophe. Adichie, a middle-class Nigerian woman, did not fit this single-story narrative. To her roommate’s surprise, Adichie spoke English, listened to Mariah Carey and knew how to use a stove.
Adichie points out that people are impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story. Stories are powerful, she says, but that power is dependent on who is telling the story and how it is told. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” Adichie says.
Storytelling can also be used to empower people, which is one of the primary functions of narrative therapy. In many ways, the story of narrative therapy began in the late 1970s through shared stories and conversations between Michael White and David Epston. This counseling approach assumes that culture, language, relationships and society contribute to the way that individuals understand their identities and problems and make meaning in their lives.
The narrative approach also separates the person from the problem — a technique that allows clients to externalize their feelings. “The spirit of externalizing the problem is so that the client doesn’t see that as something that they can’t change,” says Kevin Stoltz, an American Counseling Association member who is an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of New Mexico. Moreover, this approach places clients as the experts in their own lives (see sidebar, below).
Don Redmond, an associate professor of counseling at Mercer University in Atlanta and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Narrative (CSN), points out that White and Epston’s original vision of narrative therapy was not prescriptive. “It really is in some ways theoretical, even though there are specific techniques that you can learn. It really is about celebrating and appreciating each person’s unique story and helping them frame it in a way that is more self-affirming and less self-defeating,” he explains.
Narrative therapy can help clients release the burden of painful memories. Cheryl Sawyer, professor of counseling at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, started using narrative therapy in part because of an aha moment she experienced while watching a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In the scene, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore shows Harry the Pensieve, an object that stores thoughts and memories.
Sawyer specializes in trauma counseling and often works with children who are refugees or who have been abused. She wanted to help her child clients release their traumatic memories, so she created a narrative project in which children create memory books. As Sawyer explains, the memory books operate like the Pensieve, allowing the children to unpack their trauma and give it a safe place to live.
Children do not narrate the episodes of their lives chronologically, Sawyer notes. Instead, their level of trust determines where their stories begin. If they trust the counselor, she says, they will reveal more intimate details (e.g., “I was beaten up at my birthday party”) rather than offering only the generic version (e.g., “I received presents”).
Because children’s narratives typically are structured but not sequential, it can be hard to discern cause and effect, says Sawyer, a member of ACA. To overcome this, counselors can have child clients place events from their stories on a timeline. This technique allows clients to see the cause and effect, understand their own behavior and possibly project what might come next based on the patterns they notice.
In Stoltz’s experience, Adlerian theory and early recollections (an Adlerian process in which counselors instruct clients to remember actual events from their early life) work well with narrative therapy. This is because they help people understand their self-concept and self-identity and make meaning out of the experiences embedded in their lives.
In a classical Adlerian sense, early recollections are defined as memories before age 10, Stoltz says. “The time frame … is somewhat artificial in some aspects, but in other aspects, it’s good to understand the very core of when those first experiences started to come out for people — what they remember, what they really think is poignant that … shapes their beliefs and their worldview,” he says. Childhood memories are often distorted by one-dimensional thinking because people’s perception in childhood is different than in adulthood, he adds. Re-storying involves recalling these early memories and reinterpreting them with an adult mindset that is capable of higher cognitive exploration.
Stoltz is currently applying guided imagery to career narrative stories. As he explains, clients often have a fictional or real-life person they admired when they were young because the person’s traits or behaviors matched the way they thought the world should operate. Often, they used this hero narrative to move through life, Stoltz says.
For example, with one client who presented a heroic memory of Spider-Man, Stoltz noticed a pattern: The client kept using the word conflict in his narrative. In discussing this pattern, they discovered that the client no longer wanted to let his responsibilities be an excuse for shying away from conflict. So, they worked together to determine how the client handled conflict currently, how the client wanted to handle it in the future and how the client’s role models handled conflict.
“Guided imagery is a way of projecting that hero data onto a future career decision or a career transition. And it makes it more lifelike in the session for the person. It begins to allow them to purposefully imagine and really begin to apply that self-concept to the next step in their career,” Stoltz says.
Stoltz uses narrative data from the career construction interview to develop individualized scripts, including ones focused on supporting client identity, meaningfulness of work and aspects of adaptability and skills. “The narrative approach is always about writing the next chapter, and this is a way of applying the next chapter to an imagined world, a daydream,” he explains.
Pictures worth a thousand words
Words can sometimes fail clients. If clients cannot or will not articulate their stories with words, counselors must be creative and find another way for clients to express themselves, Redmond says. “The more versatile a counselor can be, the better,” he adds.
Sawyer works with some clients who possess limited vocabularies because they have lived on the streets from an early age and haven’t been exposed to higher levels of language. For example, a child might say, “I’m really mad,” but that statement is insignificant compared with what he or she is actually feeling.
When children don’t have all the words they need to express their thoughts, Sawyer relies on pictures. She asks clients to draw pictures, find pictures on the Internet or even go out and take pictures that support the deeper level of emotion in their personal stories. Often, she will take a series of pictures into the counseling session and ask clients if any of the pictures express how they feel that day and why that image best exemplifies what they are feeling.
Technology is providing yet another avenue for clients to communicate their stories. Sawyer finds that children and adolescents are often more comfortable texting than talking, so she has started using technology as a tool in storytelling. She creates digital narratives by typing the clients’ stories into PowerPoint slides. Then, she gives clients the option of adding music, images or art to depict how they feel. For example, one client added a picture of his father’s death certificate, and another client added a picture of a pair of shoes she was going to send her sister before her sister was murdered.
Redmond also combines technology and narrative therapy. At Mercer University’s CSN, counseling students interview people in the community and then convert these interviews into digital narratives (approximately five-minute videos) by selecting pictures, art and music to complement each person’s narration of his or her own story. One woman whom Redmond interviewed painted and sang to express her story, and both aspects were incorporated into her digital narrative. Pairing descriptions of her artwork with actual images of it captured her essence more fully than if she had been only interviewed, he adds.
These digital narratives allow individuals not only to rewatch their stories but also to share their stories with others. In fact, one of Redmond’s goals for CSN is to create a digital library that will help individuals going through a difficult time to realize that they aren’t alone.
Taking a back seat
Narrative therapy falls under postmodern theory. “One of the hallmarks of the postmodern approach is embracing the fact that there is subjectivity with an individual’s perception and what they’ve been through and not having the counselor come in and be the expert,” Redmond says. With narrative therapy, he explains, clients are the ones verbalizing the new or modified narrative of their lives, and counselors only paraphrase or mirror what clients are saying.
Because narrative therapy is client driven, it is more important for clients to understand how they are feeling than for the counselor to understand it, Sawyer says. “[Counselors are] the tool that [clients are] using, the base that they’re using, to tell their stories for themselves,” she explains. Clients must be provided with a safe space where they can share their stories and learn to express their feelings about what happened.
As a volunteer with Bikers Against Child Abuse, Sawyer often attends court cases involving children who have been abused, and she has observed children’s frustration when lawyers interrupt or guide their stories in answer to a specific question. For Sawyer, this observation further underscores the importance of allowing clients, not counselors, to direct and narrate their stories. As she points out, counselors are facilitators for the client’s story, so their job is to listen and help the client structure the order of the story, not the content.
Stoltz has found that the process of deconstructing and reconstructing the elements of a client’s story is often challenging, particularly for counseling students. To demystify this process, in 2015, Stoltz, along with Susan Barclay, published a guidebook, The Life Design ThemeMapping Guide, that provides counselors with a process for deconstructing narrative data, developing specific themes for the career construction interview and helping clients reauthor their stories. For the past five years, Stoltz has used this technique to train students to deconstruct and theme elements together.
Taking a back seat and allowing clients to guide the session can be particularly difficult for new counselors because they want to feel that they are accomplishing something, Stoltz says. They want to sense that the client has made a decision and is moving in a direction. Drawing on James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente’s Stages of Change model, Stoltz reminds counselors that they’re “raising awareness now. You’re in the beginning of the change model. You’re in the contemplation stage or precontemplation stage. You’re not looking for movement. You’re looking for insight or awareness, the aha moment.”
A voice for marginalized, multicultural populations
With narrative therapy, clients inform counselors about their world, values and beliefs. In fact, early recollections provide counselors with an inside view of the client’s culture, Stoltz says.
Within this dynamic, a counselor’s culture and values may differ from the client’s, but counselors should not place cultural judgment on what clients have done, Sawyer says. For example, clients might disclose that they have offered sex in exchange for food, or they may use profanity in telling their story, but counselors must refrain from passing judgment, even if they think this act or language is hideous or immoral based on their own cultural perspective. Clients must feel safe to use their own language and words to freely tell their stories, Sawyer adds.
Redmond agrees that narrative therapy is compatible with cross-cultural environments because narrative counselors do not presume to know and tell clients about their problems. He also realizes that too often, the stories of marginalized individuals remain unheard. One of Redmond’s inspirations for creating CSN was StoryCorps, an oral history project that allows people to record their stories in a studio by having a family member or friend interview them. The recordings are then archived at the Library of Congress. Through CSN, Redmond expanded the project to include marginalized populations (e.g., people who are homeless, refugees) who do not readily have someone available to interview them and record their stories.
Redmond believes the community plays a significant role in narrative therapy. Therefore, CSN’s purpose is both to allow counselors to practice their listening skills and to provide a service to the community by letting people who are marginalized know that they are valued. Even though the CSN interviews are not considered official therapy, most people would agree that the simple act of telling one’s story can be therapeutic, Redmond says.
Redmond’s personal story also played a role in the creation of CSN. Besides the fact that he has always enjoyed stories, Redmond had two professional experiences that strengthened his belief in the power of narrative therapy. First, in his role as a supervisor at Hillside in Atlanta, a facility that serves children with severe emotional behavior disorders, he discovered that the children with the most severe behaviors and who had been at the facility the longest also possessed the most strengths. This observation made an impression on him, especially considering all the negative messages directed at these children, many of whom had been abused and were in and out of foster care.
The second experience occurred when Redmond was an access clinician at a community services board. Many individuals were at this facility under court order or because they were dealing with mental health issues. While conducting intake interviews, Redmond amused himself by writing down the clients’ strengths (e.g., intelligent, strong work history, sense of humor, family support). At the end of the interview, he would tell the clients the strengths he had jotted down and then would ask if they wanted to add anything. He often witnessed powerful reactions from the clients, including those who cried and said no one had ever told them that they had strengths.
These two experiences reinforced Redmond’s belief that “people start creating negative self-stories, and they start to only believe the negative images, and then they forget about the strengths that they have.” Therefore, Redmond advises counselors never to forget to account for the strengths of their clients, no matter the difficulty of the case.
The cultural awareness gleaned from narrative therapy also applies to clients, allowing them to question their own cultures. Often, Stoltz says, the difficult part is relating the memories and stories back to the client’s present life. Some clients grasp this concept more easily than others, and some struggle to understand how childhood events are still affecting them as adults. The latter scenario is challenging. “Early memories really are a good tool to have to be able to talk to people from different cultures because [there are] stories in every culture. … Memories are a story, and [they are] a way of relating that whole story back to the person,” he says.
Validating narrative therapy
Critics of narrative therapy often question how counselors objectively measure narrative techniques, which are subjective. “I think we’re in the infancy of starting to measure these kinds of things. I think we’re just beginning to rediscover some of the things that have been helpful in mental health counseling, and we’re applying those as new techniques to the career narrative area,” says Stoltz, who served as chair of the research committee for the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA. At conferences, counselors are discussing how the narrative approach works, and they are doing outcome research that says it works, but they are not yet validating the process, he adds.
“You cannot quantify emotion,” Sawyer acknowledges. She and her colleagues attempted to measure narrative approaches by administering a pretest and posttest to children who had suffered trauma. They found a valid instrument and administered it in the children’s native language, but the formality of the instrument and the fact that the counselors had not yet established a relationship with the clients caused some clients to leave prematurely. Based on this experience, Sawyer decided not to administer the posttest and concluded that sometimes narrative therapy is not about research; it is about clients and their needs.
The best method Sawyer has found for measuring the success of narrative therapy involves having clients point to shapes (e.g., small, medium and large circles) to indicate how big their problems are both before and after counseling sessions. Using this method, she has found that narrative therapy has a positive effect because for most children, the representative shape decreases in size at the end of the counseling sessions. However, because counselors cannot account for all variables — if court is over, if the client is living in a home with 14 other children, if the client has learned to speak English and so on — it is impossible to know whether clients have improved strictly because of narrative therapy, she points out.
Redmond is a proponent of mixed-methods research because quantitative research (e.g., a Likert-type scale) provides more breadth than depth, whereas qualitative research provides the depth. In addition, they complement each other: Quantitative research can provide counselors with great ideas for qualitative research and vice versa. Redmond recommends first using quantitative research, such as a survey, because clients find it less threatening and less personal, but it will still get clients thinking about their experiences. Then, counselors can ask clients the magic question: “Is there anything you haven’t discussed that you would like to talk about?”
Stoltz has discovered that finding thematic codes for categorizing narrative data is one way to measure narrative techniques. For example, people who engage in storytelling about traumatic events in their lives tend to integrate these life events into meaningful stories and report higher life and career satisfaction.
“Preliminary evidence is beginning to show that when trained people read these stories, they come to the same conclusions,” Stoltz says. “That’s an important first step in validating …
In addition, digital narratives may provide opportunities to quantify narrative interventions in the future, Redmond says.
Integrating narrative practices
Narrative therapy is not for the lightweight, and it is not as easy as it sounds, Sawyer says. In fact, self-doubt can prevent counselors from using narrative techniques, she points out. To avoid this, counselors need practical experience. Just taking one course or workshop or reading a book on the topic won’t mean that counselors will know how to use the approach correctly. Instead, Sawyer argues that counselor training should involve a holistic approach in which counselors expose themselves to the topic not only through courses, books and articles but also by practicing under supervision and processing all along the way.
Also, some counselors are hesitant to incorporate mental health-based approaches if their training is in another specialty such as career counseling. Stoltz, however, stresses the importance of taking an integrated perspective because people have multidimensional experiences that are not mutually exclusive. “Career counseling is often seen as limited to the career dimension, but it is really counseling with a career goal in mind,” he says.
For Stoltz, it makes sense to apply narrative therapy to career counseling because there is always a story behind one’s career. Furthermore, many people spend eight to 10 hours working every day, and work stress is a significant contributor to a person’s well-being or absence of well-being, he says. Despite this, counselors are generally not incorporating work aspects into mental health, he points out.
Thus, Stoltz argues that counselors “need to rethink [their] specialization construct.” Unfortunately, it is easy for counselor educators to design courses that address a certain standard (e.g., a career counseling course, a trauma course, a multicultural course). However, when counselor educators create stand-alone courses, students often move from one course to another without integrating those courses, Stoltz says. To avoid this, he incorporates basic counseling skills alongside career counseling because students must learn to respond to content and meaning before they can help a client deconstruct a story.
Sawyer’s counseling program at Houston–Clear Lake integrates narrative therapy into the curriculum by introducing narrative therapy as a counseling tool and working narrative techniques into multiple courses. “It is not the only way to counsel but … like how everybody knows how to do Rogers, everybody knows how to do Gestalt … all of my students know how to do CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] and trauma-focused CBT, and they all know how to do narrative counseling,” she says.
Stoltz agrees with expanding counseling areas, but he also worries that as counseling training becomes broader, counseling programs are finding it difficult to retain depth. Counseling students need to understand both the academic jargon and the practical training associated with those terms, he stresses. “Re-storying needs to be accompanied with a practical, pragmatic application of what that looks like and what that process is,” he says.
Stoltz is helping to bridge this gap by incorporating experience work in his classroom, which is a technique modeled after Mark Savickas’ pedagogical practice. For example, a counseling student might do a case study and follow someone through a career intervention, or a career story, and present this constructed story to the class.
Redmond finds that counseling students infrequently have many opportunities to train specifically in narrative therapy or narrative studies. Currently, students in his program are introduced to narrative therapy under the umbrella of postmodern approaches in a counseling theories course, but his goal is to have students do more specialized work in narrative therapy in the future. As a step toward achieving this goal, he will be working this fall on a proposal for a narrative certificate program.
Authoring the next chapter
Stoltz acknowledges that misinterpretation or a unitary interpretation of a client’s story is one of the pitfalls of narrative therapy. “[Counselors] feel like [we’ve] got the inside track on this because [we] have this psychological knowledge, this counseling knowledge, and [we] have to be careful with that,” he warns.
Often, counselors will make up their mind about what the story means to the client. But the counselor’s job is to test, not to interpret, Stoltz says. Counselors should make the client aware of what they see and test that theme or theory with the client while still respecting that it is the client’s story, he explains. The client is the one who has to live the life and rewrite the story; the counselor’s job is to help the client accomplish this.
Adichie reminds us that “stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Narrative therapy provides clients with a safe space to tell their stories. With a counselor’s guidance, clients can slowly reject the negative stories and stereotypes that create an incomplete or inaccurate representation of who they are as individuals and replace them with stories that empower them to take control of their lives and regain their humanity.
Stories are powerful, but the person holding the pen is the one who controls the story. Revision is key when writing a novel, and this holds true in narrative therapy as well. People first have to understand and narrate their stories in order to rewrite them and become the authors of their next chapter.
As explained in the fifth edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross and published by the American Counseling Association, narrative therapy is based on the following beliefs:
1) Clients are not defined by problems they present in counseling.
2) Clients are experts on their lives, so in counseling, judiciously seek their expertise.
3) Clients have many skills, competencies and internal resources on which to draw when impacting change and growth.
4) Therapeutic change occurs when clients accept their role as authors of their lives and begin to create a life narrative that is congruent with their hopes, dreams and aspirations.
Lindsey Phillips is a freelance writer and UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia.
She has 10 years of experience writing on topics such as health, social justice and technology. Contact her at email@example.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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