If you were asked to tell someone your entire life story, what would you say? Would you try to give a balanced account of the events of your life? Or would you focus on one or two defining moments? Would you tell only the good parts, or only the bad?
How we think and talk about our own life story, our narrative, has a big impact on how happy we are, how we approach new challenges and our quality of life overall.
Every life has its ups and downs. If you think back on your life as being one disaster after another, you’ll spend your time living in fear of the next big catastrophe. But if you think of your life in terms of meeting challenges and overcoming adversity, you’ll feel much more confident and ready to face the next situation when it arises.
For people whose life stories have become dark and unhappy, narrative therapy is a powerful form of treatment to consider. It helps people reevaluate their life story and craft a new narrative of their experiences that feels empowering and positive.
What Is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy capitalises on the question, “what is your story?” It helps people identify the story they are telling themselves and evaluate whether it is helpful to view themselves in this way or not. Narrative therapy uses various techniques to help people explore other ways of defining their lives. By guiding a format of conversation where a story is told, narrative therapy aims to separate the individual from the problem situations or problem behaviour, allowing the individual to better understand them. This externalises issues into third-party situations rather than allowing them to be internalised, changing the way you relate to painful emotions and experiences in the present.
The stories we believe about ourselves and the meaning we give to important events can continue to affect us long after the events themselves have faded into memory.
Imagine you go through a traumatic experience early in life, such as abuse, bereavement or the breakup of a relationship. What meaning would you give to those events? You might start to believe that they happened because the world is an unfair place, or because you are a bad person and you deserve bad things.
This meaning would then be carried with you into every new situation you encounter. Seeing your life through this lens would cause you to think and act in a very fearful and pessimistic way. You might start to enjoy life less and struggle to meet the challenges you face as a result.
Key Techniques in Narrative Therapy
Putting your story together
Our lives tend to be long, complicated and often quite messy. As such, it’s hard to hold your entire life in a single coherent narrative. Helping a client find the words and concepts to tell their story is, therefore, one of the first and most important parts of narrative therapy.
Through conversation with the therapist, a client can start to formulate all of their life events into one continuous narrative. Having a clear view of the big picture like this can be very useful for making connections between different events. Looking at difficult times in the context of your whole life can also offer new insights and perspectives.
Narrative therapy teaches clients to view their problems as being external rather than seeing them as core parts of their story and who they are. This is a subtle difference, but a powerful one when it comes to making positive life changes.
A client who struggles a lot with anxiety, for example, might hold the belief that they are fundamentally a cowardly, weak person. Changing a core part of yourself is very hard, and so this mindset leaves the person without much of a way forward.
Instead, they could try to hold the view that they are a fundamentally good person, but they sometimes overreact to certain triggers and situations. This would allow them to work on finding new ways to react and develop better strategies to cope with anxiety.
Just like a book can switch between multiple different characters and points of view; there are always different ways of interpreting events in your life.
For some clients, the narrative of their life is so firmly entrenched that it causes them to get “stuck” and leaves them unable to move on from past hurts. Rather than trying to fix this unhelpful narrative, sometimes it is more useful to create a new story from scratch.
Imagine a client who had gone through a series of abusive relationships that all ended badly. The narrative they hold from themselves may be one of repetition- they see themselves as falling into the same pitfalls over and over, and as unable to break free. But there could be other ways of viewing this.
A therapist could help the client see themselves not as a victim but as a survivor- someone who has endured extreme hardship but has emerged unbroken at the end of it. This is a far more healthy mindset and one that will lead to the client feeling empowered rather than trapped.
If you see your life as a very bleak or unhappy story, it becomes easy to overgeneralise one negative event into something catastrophic. You may have heard people say, “it’s the story of my life,” when something bad happens to them, meaning that they believe bad things always happen to them.
This mentality can lead to blowing things out of proportion and feeling helpless in the face of adversity. Often the solution is to focus on solving the specific problem at hand rather than letting it tarnish your view of your life as a whole.
Specific problems such as loneliness, anxious thoughts or communication difficulties are much easier to tackle than trying to fix your whole life all at once. Working on these specific issues can also give clients hope that their story and their future can change if they’re willing to put in the work.
Existentialism is a philosophical theory that states that life and everything we experience has no inherent meaning. This might sound like a rather bleak way of viewing the world, but it can be quite refreshing for some individuals.
If the world has no fixed meaning, then we are free to create whatever meaning and purpose in life we choose. If you have been living with very negative beliefs about the world, and your place within it, learning about existentialism can help you see that this isn’t the only way of viewing things. In narrative therapy, clients can decide what kind of meaning they want to give to the events that make up their life story rather than feeling bound to see life in a certain way.
Who Can Benefit From Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy is a relatively new form of treatment, developed in the 1980s by the New Zealand-based psychologists Michael White and David Epston. Even so, there is evidence to suggest that it can be very effective in treating conditions such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorders
Since narrative therapy doesn’t focus on individual conditions or diagnoses, it can help people make sense of their lives and develop new insights regardless of any specific condition they may be experiencing.
Learning to see your challenges in the context of your whole life story can also help individuals currently going through difficult times. For example, one study showed that narrative therapy can help improve well-being and reduce burnout in women with skin cancer, while another found that developing positive narratives can help instil hope in children with cancer and their families.
Narrative therapy can also be useful for helping couples to resolve conflicts and improve how they relate to each other. For example, one study of 30 Australian women found that their happiness with their marriage significantly improved after narrative therapy.
Telling Your Story
Narrative therapy is an alternative to traditional forms of treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). While research into its effectiveness is still ongoing, current evidence points to it being an effective way to both reduce symptoms of distress and increase your ability to cope with future challenges.
None of us can control the events that make up our life story. But we can change the meaning we assign to those events: the lessons we learn and the beliefs we carry forward. If you’ve ever felt like your story isn’t heading in the direction you want it to, and you want to learn how to redefine the way you see yourself, narrative therapy could be the form of treatment for you.