Narrative Therapy

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If someone pointed a gun to my head and forced me to admit what my preferred counseling method was, I could not say I was a reflective eclectic. That would get me shot. It’s not really an answer. I would have to confess that I have a soft spot for narrative therapy. I might get shot anyway because few know what that is.

Narrative therapy is based on the fact that, when clients come in, all I have to work with are their stories. I can’t give them a pill or operate on their organs. I can’t lay my hands directly on their addiction, or their depression, or their tendency to hurt the people they love. I can teach them skills, give them advice, and point out things they’ve never noticed; but, I won’t know anything about them if I don’t listen to their stories. Therefore, I work with their stories. If they’ve never told their stories, they tell them. If their stories are making them sick, we see about concocting a remedy.

You might be surprised how many people can’t tell a story. Sometimes, because there’s never been anyone who’d listen, they never cultivated the capability. Sometimes, all they have are disjointed fragments of a story. That’s often what I find when there’s trauma. The person shares flashes of images of their trauma, but can’t stay with it long enough to construct a narrative. Other times, they lack the ability to talk about their feelings, so you get an account of what happened, but they have no awareness of the motivation behind their own actions. Then there are the ones who present other people in their stories as stereotypical characters that lack depth. This reveals a dangerous lack of understanding of the people in their lives.

Stories are how humans store and transmit knowledge. They link the present to the past, provide us with direction and meaning. They organize information. They’re both how we remember things and, paradoxically, how we can let go. Once you have completed the story, you can close the book on it and turn to something else.

If you have trouble telling your story, I’ll draw out information you wouldn’t have otherwise shared. I’ll press you for details. I’ll help you enrich your story by having you tell it from different perspectives: through your wife’s eyes or through the eyes of your enemy.  We’ll try to place it in context, set it inside the overall societal narrative; anything to give it more body and signification.

Others have stories they tell about themselves, but they’re not the authors. They’ve uncritically accepted what other people say about them and present themselves as stupid, flawed, diseased, or even evil. For this client, I help her find her voice. When she becomes the author of her life story, she becomes the author of her life.

Then there are those who you might think are great storytellers; but, they have only one genre and can’t tell a story of another kind. We see this with people whose big thing is that they’re victims. Everything is all about how oppressed they are. Often these people really are oppressed in some way, so there’s a core of truth to the story; but, not everything fits neatly into the plot of an oppression story. Because they have so much practice at their genre, they get really good at telling an oppression story, so they never try another kind. It’s as if Stephen King tried to write a romance novel. He’d have a hard time doing it. No sooner would his heroine find the guy of her dreams, then you’d expect something horrible to happen.

Telling your story in the wrong genre can make you sick. It can cause you to look at yourself, and the things that happen to you in the wrong way. If everything is a romance, you won’t know you’re dating an axe murderer till it’s too late. If all you can tell are horror stories, then you’ll never know you have the man of your dreams.

All stories, especially the most powerful, are intentionally simplified. They collect a limited number of facts into a plot and disregard the rest. They can seriously distort reality. Powerful stories take over the imagination so that no other thoughts can exist. Toxic stories inject self-depreciation, self-consciousness, or an over-weening presumptiveness that grows like a cancer.

I can cut a powerful story down to size by un-telling it, a therapeutic technique known as deconstruction. I take the story apart with you and we see how it’s made. We’ll want to understand how the story was formed and how that narrative influences your feelings, behaviors and communication. What does the story miss? What parts were cut? Where does it fail to fit? Deconstructing a story is like explaining a joke. When you explain a joke, it’s no longer funny; when you deconstruct a story, it loses its ability to control you.

I’m naturally drawn to narrative therapy techniques because I’m a big storyteller and never met a metaphor I didn’t like. However, when I’m employing narrative therapy, I’m not telling stories; I’m using my skills as a storyteller to help you tell your story. When I do tell stories, they’re either to illustrate a particular point or to illustrate the all-important point that there are many stories to tell about any one point.

Even though I have a soft spot in my heart for narrative therapy, I’m still a reflective eclectic. That is to say, I don’t think narrative therapy works in every case, even though, in every case, the thing I have to work with are stories.

In true blue narrative therapy, the client is empowered to discard the stories others have told about him and develop his own story. This authorization to be the author is the heart of narrative therapy; but, there are situations where that’s not possible. Sometimes, the client is so inarticulate, so fragmentary, so limited in his understanding of himself and others, that I end up telling his story to him, based on the things he tells me. It’s like I’m a ghost writer. This is less than fully empowering; but, when I get it right, at least he feels heard.

In other cases, we just don’t have time to perform narrative therapy the right way. When narrative therapy is done right, it’s like making a dress yourself out of a bolt of material and some thread, without any pattern to guide your cutting and stitching. Then you can say it’s all your creation and it fits you perfectly. But, if you’re coming into my office feeling naked and need to figure things out quickly, a long and uncertain project like making a dress from scratch is too much. In that case, there are many stories we can take off the rack, ready to wear.

One such ready to wear garment is the addiction story. Whether your presenting problem is anger or letting people walk all over you; shopping or gambling, exercising too much or eating too little, having sex with everyone you meet or persisting in a soured relationship long after it’s turned; or, of course, drugs or alcohol; you can tell it as an addiction story. You can talk about how you started do something that seemed perfectly innocent, only to see it take over your life and cause you to become someone you don’t even recognize. You didn’t want to believe it at first when people told you it was happening to you. It stopped working for you, even as you were unable to stop.

When I hold the addiction story up to people and they see how it fits, then everything makes sense to them and they know where things will end if they don’t do anything about their problem. The compulsive shopper, for example, finds commonality with the compulsive gambler and they both learn something from the heroin addict shooting up in the alleyway. Nothing motivates people better than when they believe they are living in an addiction story because they don’t want to end up like the heroin addict shooting up in the alleyway.

Unfortunately, the addiction story, by itself, is just a story about oppression, degradation, and decay. It’s like a horror story. The point of it is that you have no escape. For the addiction story to help you find a way out, it must take a turn and become a story of recovery.

The recovery story is another sturdy, multipurpose narrative, a ready-to-wear dress that can be tailored for anyone. Listen to this version of the recovery story.

“I admitted I was powerless over [insert the thing you are addicted to here] and my life had become unmanageable. I decided I needed help, so I found it, and did what they said. They made me take a good look at myself and get real. I had to go to back and try to fix the things I broke. Of course, I couldn’t change the past, but, the more I did these things, the more the lights went on. Now I show other people the way and I have to follow my own advice because I have others who are counting on me to help them.”

The advantage of using these prepared narratives, over the custom-made variety that comes out of true narrative therapy, is that you have a story in common with others. There are entire groups, libraries of books, and thousands of people devoted to teaching and telling recovery stories to one another. Making your story a recovery story is like starting a new school, finding that everyone is wearing the school colors, and wearing them, yourself. It solves a lot of problems.

However, if the school colors clash with your complexion, or if the ready-made stories don’t fit, or if you want to stand out and develop into the unique individual you could be, then there’s nothing like true blue narrative therapy.

If you’re interested in narrative therapy, click here to see the book that started it, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, by White and Epstein.