Ever heard of Narrative Therapy before? Neither had I until I came across an article in a recent edition of Prevention Magazine. This relatively new talk therapy approach, originally developed in New Zealand, is now being used as a counseling method to help clients in need. And although I’m neither a therapist or someone in great need, I can see how beneficial such a practice could be for all of us—especially those of us who appreciate learning about ways to expand our self-awareness as well as how storytelling adds meaning and value to our lives.
I’ve written before about how story creation is a natural expression for all humans. Recognize that voice in your head? It is actually you telling yourself a “story” about something that is happening or happened in the past. Ever since people developed the ability to communicate, men and women have been using stories in order to make sense of the world around them, their own lives and their experiences. We also use it to connect to other people and create community. And while most of the time this ability stays in the background of our awareness, those of us who regularly write or develop storylines can see how much it informs and molds our identities, our relationships, and our past and future. It is also fairly easy to spot when it comes to a story that is clearly broken or harmful to anyone who uses it.
Know what I mean? How many times have you sat with an acquaintance, a friend or a family member and heard them tell the same story over and over? If the stories they routinely tell are amusing, uplifting or meaningful, we delight when we hear them. But what happens when you hear a tragic and painful story time after time after time? If you are anything like me you wrestle with the guilt that makes you want to run away from the narrating person, and the conflicting desire to be a supportive friend/relative. In other words, sometimes the accounts people relate are stories that define the best part of them, and other times they describe the most painful or problematic.
Let me give you an example. Thom and I have been taking a workshop during the last couple of weeks. In the workshop is a woman I’ll call Connie who one night started talking about how she struggled for money. In fact, Connie went into great detail for quite a while explaining how she’d tried everything and nothing seemed to be working for her. The longer she talked, the more desperate she sounded. Her story about her financial situation appeared tragic. Yet even though the teacher and other classmates chimed in with consolation and suggestions, every time she got another chance to speak she kept going back to the same sad rendition. I could see that, just like in the article I wrote previously, “Argue For Your Limitations and They’re Yours,” Connie couldn’t see beyond her own particular story—and it wasn’t helping her live a good life—let alone helping her finances.
Fortunately, Narrative Therapy appears to be a good solution whenever a person is blind or stuck in a difficult story that they habitually tell themselves and others. Obviously a qualified professional would be useful for someone in great need. But from what I can tell, virtually any story a person tells can be altered and reconstructed with intention and proper understanding. In fact, in the last week or so I’ve read a dozen articles and watched a number of YouTube videos where a Narrative Therapist guided even those with the most painful losses and tragedies in to rewriting the problematic stories that haunted their past. From there they can go on to lead a more peaceful and fulfilling life.
So how does it work? According to Narrative Therapy expert, John Winslade, Ph.D., “Narrative Therapy aims to help us create better, more productive stories. It operates on the basis that people are separate from their problems. It puts them in the driver’s seat of their lives and helps them identify ways to use their skills to confront issues creatively.” Jill Freedman, MSW and author says, “…our main purpose in narrative therapy is to develop rich stories, stories that immerse people in the alternative preferred possibilities of their lives,” She points out that clients don’t normally ever completely lose their problematic storylines. Instead by imagining multiple other stories, the problem story becomes just one small strand.
So instead of talking about an external money issue, my classmate Connie insisted on defining herself as a person with huge money problems and no solution possible. She believed herself to be without other options and choices, and deeply stuck in poverty. And guess what—in many ways she is because she can’t see life beyond that limited storyline. A much bigger challenge is for each of us to recognize if or when we are doing exactly the same with our own unique storyline.
A good Narrative Therapist would first help someone like Connie to identify the problem. Once the problem is clear, the therapist typically talks the client into naming the problem and then asks them to imagine it “outside themselves” rather than as an internalized aspect of their personality. Once the problem becomes external and less personal, the therapist can start asking about times when “the problem” didn’t seem so bad, and in some instances wasn’t even a problem. In a situation like Connie’s, the reality of her life is that she has enough to eat, a comfortable home to sleep in, a car to drive and is able to pay her bills. What she hadn’t been able to do was get ahead in a way she hoped—and that had triggered in her a story of her own poverty.
I particularly like that most Narrative Therapists will also emphasize that stories are all relational. When we tell a problematic story, it is usually in relation to not having or getting what we think we want, need or deserve. And yes, that often has to do with the other people in our lives as well. At the same time the Therapist approaches each client’s story with respect and without blame, assuming that the client is an expert in their own healing. I also appreciate that one of the intentions of the Therapist is to guide the client into imagining and then utilizing other choices instead of the one that led to the problem story in the first place.
In Connie’s case, she repeatedly included in her story that the other people in her life had more money than she did, even though she worked hard or even harder, than they did. It wasn’t fair! So even if her story seemed to have little or nothing to do with others, except in Connie’s head, it was making her miserable. Unless she can rewrite her story and start seeing that her relationship to money and other people are only a small part of her life narrative, she will likely continue feeling depressed and desperate about money. And in many cases it will only serve to alienate her from the support and concern of others.
Of course I don’t intend to go around telling others that their stories are problematic or what they should do about them. Instead, when I learn and then write about something I think can be valuable, it is with the hope that I can develop better skills for myself and the creation of my own life. If I start telling myself stories that are problematic and unhelpful, I now have a few more tools in my toolbox that enable me to depersonalize, externalize and then shrink them to a manageable size. Once I can minimize the “problem themes” in my mind and mix them up with a variety of richer, more complex and more beneficial stories, I can move forward and keep everything in better perspective.
I know I’ve written about it before but I don’t think most of us consciously remember on a regular basis that we are making up the stories of our lives every single minute. So, learning about Narrative Therapy reminds me that I am the author of my life and the stories I tell myself about myself—and so is everyone else. I agree that it is fun telling positive stories when we remember them, but perhaps it is SMARTer to pause and remember if or when those stories are problematic, and then do something about them to create a better life.