Narrative Therapy: How the Power of Storytelling Can Save Your Life

Narrative therapy is a psychotherapy that helps people by recasting the stories we tell ourselves that give our life meaning. Narrative therapy helps people recognize their values, as well as the resources available to help live those values. This is primarily done by examining how our personal histories and stories are contributing to our present-day problems. In a constructive dialogue, individuals and their therapists attempt to “co-author” a new narrative that honors our past while enabling us to move forward in a more constructive way. The approach was originally developed during the 1970s and 1980s by social workers Michael White and David Epston. It is not a dominant therapeutic philosophy, but it is popular as one method within holistic/eclectic/client-centered approaches to psychotherapy.


Common Applications for Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is most common for family therapy and post-traumatic counseling. In typical conflict resolution, narrative therapy may be component of family systems therapy in which families examine the stories and relations that have locked themselves into a destructive pattern. One of the most common therapy goals following an assault or abuse is recognizing that the trauma was something that happened to the person, not the result of anything the person did.

Narrative therapy can be a very effective approach for secondary events that threaten to re-traumatize the person. Here’s an all-too-common story in itself: Someone who has experienced assault or other abuse comes forward to tell their story. Making serious allegations against a community leader or public figure will inevitably create additional stressors. But, if in reporting the events, the person isn’t taken seriously and/or the response from our social institutions isn’t horribly inadequate, then the person can feel re-traumatized all over again.

And yet, time and time again, hearing other people’s stories is the catalyst for others to come forward and begin to deal with their own past traumas. Thus, while it’s all too easy to feel powerless in these moments, by more closely examining the narrative we’ve been telling ourselves, we can find a much more empowering version of our own stories.


The Difference between Narrative Therapy and Storytelling

That said, rewriting the stories we’ve been using to interpret our lives isn’t about simple wish fulfillment and fantasy. It’s not about avoiding our problems by telling ourselves a pleasant, but obvious, lie. Narrative therapy never asks you to believe something you don’t believe. Instead, it’s about understanding that everybody’s life is full of competing narratives—some more true than others, some more important and central to our identities than others. By examining these various narratives, we can better see which ones we’ve given too much weight to and which ones are more disruptive to our lives than they need to be.


Additional Resources

If you’re looking to learn about narrative therapy in a more formal, long-form context, you can find a book on the subject at the American Psychological Association.