Narrative therapy

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Narrative therapy
Michael White (pictured) helped develop narrative therapy

Narrative therapy (or narrative practice)[1] is a form of psychotherapy that seeks to help patients identify their values and the skills associated with them. It provides the patient with knowledge of their ability to live these values so they can effectively confront current and future problems. The therapist seeks to help the patient co-author a new narrative about themselves by investigating the history of those values. Narrative therapy is a social justice approach to therapeutic conversations, seeking to challenge dominant discourses that shape people's lives in destructive ways. While narrative work is typically located within the field of family therapy, many authors and practitioners report using these ideas and practices in community work, schools and higher education.[2][3] Narrative therapy has come to be associated with collaborative as well as person-centered therapy.[4][page needed][5][6][7][8]


Narrative therapy was developed during the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Australian social worker Michael White and David Epston of New Zealand,[9][10] and it was influenced by different philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists such as Michel Foucault,[9][11] Jerome Bruner,[12] Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky[13] etc.

Conversation maps[edit]

Re-authoring identity[edit]

The narrative therapist focuses upon assisting people to create stories about themselves, about their identities, that are helpful to them.[14] This work of "re-authoring identity" helps people identify their values and identify the skills and knowledge to live out these values by way of the therapist's skilled use of listening and questioning.[15] Through the process of identifying the history of values in people's lives, the therapist and client are able to co-author a new story about the person.[16]: 24 

The story people tell about themselves and that is told about them is important in this approach, which asserts that the story of a person's identity may determine what they think is possible for themselves. The narrative process allows people to identify what values are important to them and how they might use their own skills and knowledge to live these values.[16]: 36 

This includes a focus on "unique outcomes" (a term of Erving Goffman) or exceptions to the problem that wouldn't be predicted by the problem's narrative or story itself.[citation needed]

Externalizing conversations[edit]

The concept of identity is important in narrative therapy. The approach aims not to conflate people's identities with the problems they may face or the mistakes they have made. Rather, the approach seeks to avoid modernist, essentialist notions of the self that lead people to believe there is a biologically determined "true self" or "true nature". Instead, identity, seen as primarily social, can be changed according to the choices people make.[17][page needed]

To separate people's identities from the problems they face, narrative therapy employs externalizing conversations. The process of externalization allows people to consider their relationships with problems.[9] A person's strengths or positive attributes can also be externalized, allowing people to recognise the stories of how such strength and positive attributes come into the person's life, and engage in the construction and performance of preferred identities.[citation needed]

An externalizing emphasis involves naming a problem so that a person can assess the problem's effects in their life, can analyze how the problem operates or works in their life, and in the end can choose their relationship to the problem.[17]

"Statement of Position Map"[edit]

In a narrative approach, the therapist aims to adopt a collaborative therapeutic posture rather than imposing ideas on people by giving them advice. Michael White developed a conversation map called a "Statement of Position Map" designed to elicit the client's own evaluation of the problems and developments in their lives. Both the therapist and the client are seen as having valuable information relevant to the process and the content of the therapeutic conversation. By adopting a posture of curiosity and collaboration, the therapist aims to give the implicit message to people that they already have knowledge and skills to solve the problems they face. When people develop solutions to their own problems on the basis of their own values, they may become much more committed to implementing these solutions.[18]

Re-membering practice[edit]

Narrative therapy identifies that identities are social achievements and the practice of re-membering draws closer those who support a person's preferred story about themselves and dis-engages those that do not support the person.[clarification needed][citation needed]

Absent but implicit[edit]

Inspired by the work of Jacques Derrida, Michael White became curious about the values implicit in people's pain, their sense of failure, and actions.[citation needed] Often, people only feel pain or failure in when their values are abridged, or when their relationships and lives are not as they should be. Furthermore, there are often stalled initiatives that people take in life that are also guided by implicit values.

Outsider witnesses map[edit]

In this particular narrative practice or conversation, outsider witnesses are invited listeners to a consultation.[citation needed] Often they are friends of the consulting person or past clients of the therapist who have their own knowledge and experience of the problem at hand. During the first interview, between therapist and consulting person, the outsider listens without comment.

Then the therapist interviews them with the instructions not to critique or evaluate or make a proclamation about what they have just heard, but instead to simply say what phrase or image stood out for them, followed by any resonances between their life struggles and those just witnessed. Lastly, the outsider is asked in what ways they may feel a shift in how they experience themselves from when they first entered the room.[19]

Next, in similar fashion, the therapist turns to the consulting person, who has been listening all the while, and interviews them about what images or phrases stood out in the conversation just heard and what resonances have struck a chord within them.

In the end, an outsider witness conversation is often rewarding for witnesses. But for the consulting person the outcomes are remarkable: they learn they are not the only one with this problem, and they acquire new images and knowledge about it and their chosen alternate direction in life. The main aim of the narrative therapy is to engage in people's problems by providing the alternative best solution.[citation needed]

Therapeutic documents[edit]

Narrative therapy embodies a strong appreciation for the creation and use of documents, as when a person and a counsellor co-author "A Graduation from the Blues Certificate", for example.[20] In some instances, case notes are created collaboratively with clients to provide documentation as well as markers of progress.

Social-political therapeutic approach[edit]

A strong awareness of the impact of power relations in therapeutic conversations, with a commitment to checking back with the client about the effects of therapeutic styles in order to mitigate the possible negative effect of invisible assumptions or preferences held by the therapist.[21] There is also an awareness of how social narratives such as femininity and masculinity can be corrupted and negatively influence peoples identities.[16]: 23–38 

Eating disorders[edit]

Narrative therapy has made numerous contributions to the field of eating disorders. David Epston, Stephen Madigan and Catrina Brown have made the most significant contribution to bringing a depathologizing approach to this issue.[16][page needed]

Men and domestic violence[edit]

Narrative therapy has also been applied to work with men who abuse their female partners. Alan Jenkins and Tod Augusta-Scott have been the most prolific in this field. They integrated a social-political analysis of the violence, while at the same time engaging men in a respectful, collaborative manner.[16][page needed][22][page needed]

Community work[edit]

Narrative therapy has also been used in a variety of community settings. In particular, an exercise called "Tree of Life" has been used to mobilize communities to act according to their own values.[23]


There have been several formal criticisms of narrative therapy over what are viewed as its theoretical and methodological inconsistencies, among various other concerns.[24][25][26]

  • Narrative therapy has been criticised as holding to a social constructionist belief that there are no absolute truths, but only socially sanctioned points of view, and that Narrative therapists simply privilege their client's concerns over and above "dominating" cultural narratives.[25][27]
  • Several critics have posed concerns that narrative therapy has made gurus of its leaders, particularly in the light that its leading proponents tend to be overly harsh about most other kinds of therapy.[25][27]
  • Narrative therapy is also criticized for the lack of clinical and empirical studies to validate its many claims.[28] Etchison & Kleist (2000) stated that narrative therapy's focus on qualitative outcomes is not congruent with larger quantitative research and findings which the majority of respected empirical studies employ today. This has led to a lack of research material which can support its claims of efficacy.[28]

See also[edit]

Other related concepts


  1. ^ Re-Authoring (2015-08-18). "What is narrative practice?". Re-Authoring Teaching. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  2. ^ Winslade, John; Monk, Gerald (2000). Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0787941921. OCLC 42598442.
  3. ^ Nylund, David; Tilsen, Julie (December 2006). "Pedagogy and praxis: postmodern spirit in the classroom". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 25 (4): 21–31. doi:10.1521/jsyt.2006.25.4.21.
  4. ^ Malinen, Tapio; Cooper, Scot J.; Thomas, Frank N., eds. (2012). Masters of Narrative and Collaborative Therapies: The Voices of Andersen, Anderson, and White. New York: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203806999. ISBN 9780789038258. OCLC 703208854.
  5. ^ Chow, Esther OW (2014-08-20). "Narrative therapy an evaluated intervention to improve stroke survivors' social and emotional adaptation". Clinical Rehabilitation. 29 (4). SAGE Publications: 315–326. doi:10.1177/0269215514544039. ISSN 0269-2155. PMID 25142279. S2CID 33230523. In narrative therapy, people construct their life stories to make sense of their lives. However, in view of illness narrative, these stories are regularly constrictive and blaming. ...narrative therapists believe that multiple realities can serve as a means to help people reconstruct their lives from a more positive and appreciative perspective.
  6. ^ Grossoehme, Daniel H. (2013). "Chaplaincy and Narrative Theory: A Response to Risk's Case Study". Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. 19 (3). Informa UK Limited: 99–111. doi:10.1080/08854726.2013.806119. ISSN 0885-4726. PMC 4609436. PMID 23844843. While both narrative therapy and narrative theory focus on storytelling and constructed meaning, they are different; narrative therapy resisting the "expert" knowledge (which means power) that is inherently claimed by someone who classifies or labels a narrative as a particular type. Power lies not as a quality internal to people who exercise it over others, but instead power resides in the jointly constructed meaning that people give to the problem in their lives.
  7. ^ Cashin, Andrew (2008). "Narrative Therapy: A Psychotherapeutic Approach in the Treatment of Adolescents With Asperger's Disorder". Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 21 (1). Wiley: 48–56. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6171.2008.00128.x. ISSN 1073-6077. PMID 18269411. Narrative therapy specifically involves working with a person to examine and edit the stories the person tells himself or herself about the world to promote social adaptation while working on specific problems of living. These complex stories include those related to who they are as a person and their interpretation of events that signal to them where they fit into the world. It is very much about re-ordering parts or in some cases the whole of the personal in head filing cabinet.
  8. ^ STRAND, PAUL S. (1997). "Toward a Developmentally Informed Narrative Therapy". Family Process. 36 (4). Wiley: 325–339. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1997.00325.x. ISSN 0014-7370. PMID 9543655. ...defocusing on pathology while verbally elucidating the hidden strengths and resources of families (4), and generating questions such that important family narratives are re-authored to provide greater possibilities for developing solutions to present problems. ...narrative approaches are designed to free families from their difficulties by helping them verbally construct new mental frameworks that deemphasize problems and/or open opportunities for their solutions.
  9. ^ a b c White, Michael; Epston, David (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393700984. OCLC 20828023.
  10. ^ Payne, Martin (2015). "Narrative therapy". In Nelson-Jones, Richard (ed.). Nelson-Jones' Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy (6th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications. pp. 360–382. ISBN 9781446295564. OCLC 897445861.
  11. ^ Combs, Gene; Freedman, Jill (October 2012). "Narrative, poststructuralism, and social justice: current practices in narrative therapy". The Counseling Psychologist. 40 (7): 1033–1060. doi:10.1177/0011000012460662. ISSN 0011-0000. S2CID 145432322.
  12. ^ White, Michael (2016). Narrative therapy classics. Adelaide, South Australia. ISBN 978-0-9752180-8-2. OCLC 961218406.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ Kingsley), White, Michael (Michael (2006). Narrative therapy with children and their families. Dulwich Centre Publications. ISBN 0-9752180-2-6. OCLC 70782282.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Angus, Lynne E.; McLeod, John (2004). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy : practice, theory, and research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. p. 60. ISBN 0-7619-2684-4. OCLC 52766323. The socially authored plots adapted to the local circumstances of individuals are termed dominant stories. Overcoming the dominant story: therapist works with the person to deconstruct his or her dominant plot. The first step in overcoming an internalized, culturally imposed self-story is to bring the story to awareness.
  15. ^ Bavelas, Janet B.; Coates, Linda; Johnson, Trudy (December 2000). "Listeners as co-narrators". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79 (6): 941–952. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.941. PMID 11138763. S2CID 39770808.
  16. ^ a b c d e Brown, Catrina; Augusta-Scott, Tod, eds. (2007). Narrative Therapy: Making Meaning, Making Lives. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1412909877. OCLC 64688794.
  17. ^ a b White, Michael (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 139. ISBN 9780393705164. OCLC 76792066.
  18. ^ White, Michael (1995). Re-Authoring Lives: Interviews & Essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications. p. 39. ISBN 9780646227351. OCLC 34403483.
  19. ^ White, Michael (2004). Narrative Practice and Exotic Lives: Resurrecting Diversity in Everyday Life. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications. p. 15. ISBN 9780957792999. OCLC 60583048.
  20. ^ Payne, Martin (2006). Narrative Therapy: An Introduction for Counsellors (2nd ed.). London; Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. p. 106. doi:10.4135/9781446213322. ISBN 9781412920124. OCLC 62178252.
  21. ^ Madigan, Stephen (2019). Narrative Therapy. Theories of Psychotherapy Series (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. p. 81. doi:10.1037/0000131-000. ISBN 9781433829864. OCLC 1056201760. S2CID 150822712.
  22. ^ Augusta-Scott, Tod; Scott, Katreena; Tutty, Leslie M., eds. (2017). Innovations in Interventions to Address Intimate Partner Violence: Research and Practice. New York: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315532776. ISBN 9781138692268. OCLC 948558557.
  23. ^ Denborough, David (2014). Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 11–21. ISBN 9780393708158. OCLC 855507198.
  24. ^ Fish, Vincent (July 1993). "Poststructuralism in family therapy: interrogating the narrative/conversatinal mode". Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 19 (3): 221–232. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.1993.tb00983.x.
  25. ^ a b c Minuchin, Salvador (October 1998). "Where is the family in narrative family therapy?". Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 24 (4): 397–403. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.1998.tb01094.x. PMID 9801999.
  26. ^ Madigan, Stephen (March 1996). "The politics of identity: considering community discourse in the externalizing of internalized problem conversations". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 15 (1): 47–62. doi:10.1521/jsyt.1996.15.1.47.
  27. ^ a b Doan, Robert E. (Fall 1998). "The king is dead; long live the king: narrative therapy and practicing what we preach". Family Process. 37 (3): 379–385. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1998.00379.x. PMID 9879006.
  28. ^ a b Etchison, Mary; Kleist, David M. (January 2000). "Review of narrative therapy: research and utility". The Family Journal. 8 (1): 61–66. doi:10.1177/1066480700081009. S2CID 143708204.

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