The therapeutic technique of narrative therapy isn’t typically in the limelight, and it’s no wonder because at face value it doesn’t seem earth shattering or glamorous.
The driving concepts of narrative therapy are that we are multistoried people, we assign meaning to the stories we are living in, and as the narrators of our own stories we have the capacity to make changes to how we make sense of ourselves and the actions that follow as a result.
There’s no “magic pill,” quick fix, or shiny new strategy operating in narrative therapy. The most radical aspect of it is the nonjudgmental, curious nature that the therapist and client take together as they approach a client’s stories. Change comes from a place of empowerment and understanding rather than from shame.
The Power of Story
Why does it matter whether we tell our stories or not? Couldn’t we just focus on the now and address any problems at-hand rather than going through the more time-consuming process of telling our stories?
Well, yes, that is one way of going about things. Sometimes present-focused problem solving is enough. But there are times when it’s not so simple. Sometimes a problem may seem “easy” enough to solve from an outside perspective, but for the individual experiencing the issue it may not seem so simple. In these cases we need more tools to move towards resolution.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
In elementary school, I struggled in history class. Rote memorization of facts didn’t play to my strengths, and I didn’t understand how these stories from our past had any relevance to my life. My parents were pulled into at least a couple of parent-teacher conferences specifically about how I wasn’t getting a passing grade in history.
I remember that I tried harder because I wanted a better grade, but I also remember not caring about history itself. I didn’t get why it mattered.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to embrace the importance of studying history. Not only do we need to know our history to avoid repeating past mistakes, but how we make sense of historical narrative affects our entire worldview and how we approach our relationships and choices today.
The irony is not lost on me. As a therapist I value knowing an individual in the context of their history to help me understand patterns in their behaviors as well as to glean information about how they see the world.
“What Good is this Going to do?”
I know I’m not the only one who’s felt disconnected from the importance of knowing our history. Although many clients are ready to dive into their history from the outset of therapy, it’s also not uncommon that I hear statements like these:
What good will it do to revisit something that already happened? What difference will it make?
Telling my story will only make me feel pain all over again.
What’s the point of sharing my past when it has nothing to do with what I’m dealing with today?
When I hear sentiments like these, a little part of me smiles on the inside. I know exactly what that feels like: Forget what’s in the past, let’s do something about what’s happening today!
Shifting the Narrative
Sometimes the simple act of sharing our story with a nonjudgmental and curious listener has healing power in itself. Doing so allows us to feel validated in knowing that our experience is important enough that it’s worth having someone else listen to it.
There is also a phenomenon that happens as people share their stories in the context of therapy: the nonjudgmental environment of therapy naturally bleeds into how the individual perceives their story as it’s told.
Every time we re-tell a story, we are essentially pulling it out of our memory bank, revising it, and storing this updated version of our story back in our memory. Our memories literally change as we tell them.
This may sound undesirable. At first glance it may sound like we’re making things up to change the facts of the story, effectively lying to ourselves about what happened in our memories.
This isn’t what’s happening in narrative therapy. Rather, the idea is that we can step outside of our own perspective for a moment and take a look at our stories as an outside observer. The observable facts of the stories are the same, but they can be viewed from a different, more compassionate perspective. We can then store these perspectives along with the memory in our mind, helping us release any unhelpful or distorted perceptions we may have originally stored with our memories.
Narrative as Part of Life
Storytelling isn’t typically a prominent feature in modern Western culture. Certainly, the majority of our daily experiences aren’t ideal moments to stop everything in order to share our stories. However, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we never have contexts where our stories can be shared. We need spaces in our lives where we can “unplug” from work, to-do lists, and screen time so we can share and listen to stories with loved ones.
If we can approach each other with nonjudgmental curiosity, not only will we support each other in our healing journeys, but we will be more connected to each other.
If you’re interested in learning more about Narrative Therapy, here are a few resources:
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.