Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy (NT) refers to a variety of approaches that focus on the role of language, particularly stories, in counseling. The central thesis of narrative therapy is that clients tell stories in therapy and these stories are useful in assessing and helping clients. Narrative therapy’s broad explanatory power and useful therapeutic techniques have generated considerable interest among contemporary counseling psychologists.

Purposes of Narratives

Narrative therapists maintain that people use stories to make sense of their life experiences. Stories form informal theories or maps of personal experiences and history. Narratives allow storage of large amounts of information, particularly information relevant to personal goals; they facilitate quick decision making; and they organize information about social interactions and experiences.

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Narratives provide important information about the speaker’s worldview, as illustrated by the following examples. One writer might say “Language is the data of counseling” to explain the importance of narratives in counseling. By that the writer means that much of the important information communicated between counselor and client takes the form of the connotations and denotations of spoken language. But that description also reveals something important about the writer; that is, that the writer tends to view his or her professional world through the role of a researcher who seeks to obtain and understand data related to counseling.

A more behaviorally oriented writer might say “Language is the behavior of counseling,” while a theatrical writer might say “Language is the script of counseling.” These descriptions convey different aspects of the potential role of language in counseling, but all are valid and all reveal something of the speaker’s roles and worldview.

Narrative Use in Different Counseling Approaches

All therapies pay attention to language to some degree. For example, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) practitioners listen for clients’ use of words, such as must and should, because those words often indicate irrational beliefs (i.e., untrue thoughts) that lead to distress for the individual. For example, a client might say “I must get an A on this test!” An REBT counselor would challenge that statement and explore with the client what would happen if he or she did not receive an A on that particular test. Another example: A father might report “I’m frustrated because my children always disobey me,” when in fact, most disobedience occurs when the children are physically tired. A solutions-focused counselor might help this client recognize this more complete description so that the client could begin to perceive his children differently.

Narrative Use to Help Clients Change

Narrative therapists and their clients extract meaning from client stories, with the goals of helping clients understand themselves and change some aspect of their lives. Deconstruction is the process in which therapists help clients become aware of the dominant story that guides their lives and to question its elements so that the story becomes just one possible view of the self. Other life events become more fully incorporated into the story and the client is placed as a more active protagonist in the story. For example, the student who reports that she “must get an A on a particular test” may also tell stories of other tests and courses in which she feels pressure to perform extremely well. However, she is also likely to be able to recall situations in which she did not perform extremely well and no catastrophic consequences occurred. The client may also relate instances when she felt relaxed while performing. Narrative therapists explore events such as these in an attempt to integrate an expanded account into the client’s dominant plot.

Because of the potential importance of emotion-related themes, many narrative therapists also pay particular attention to the affect described in client stories. Emotions are the glue that holds the story together. Some narrative therapists describe this work as similar to a corrective emotional experience in which clients reenact events in their stories. Research with single cases suggests that clients’ disclosures of emotionally charged personal narratives lay the foundation for subsequent change in counseling.

Considerable empirical support exists to support the benefits of finding meaning in narratives. Creating and finding meaning through exploration of personal narratives appears to regulate emotion as well as maintain and repair relationships. For example, in one investigation, college students wrote a description of a vivid memory and completed measures of personality adjustment and coping. The researchers examined the written narratives for the presence of statements that indicated the creation of meaning (e.g., those with beginnings such as “I learned that . . .” or “This experience taught me . . .”). The researchers found that moderate self-restraint, but not low or high self-restraint, was associated with greater numbers of memories related to insight and learning.

The Counseling Process in Narrative Therapy

Exactly how this process of creating meaning and affective expression should proceed in counseling is less clear. The narrative counseling process often appears relatively unique to the particular client and counselor working together. With each client the counselor finds the best method to overcome obstacles and facilitate client progress. For example, many clients tend to stay in storytelling while therapists attempt to focus them on internal states. With such clients the counseling process often involves weaving between talking about emotional personal narratives and efforts to find meaning in those narratives.

Other narrative therapists describe the counseling process as helping clients stay with and articulate their feelings. This permits key narrative elements to fully emerge and constrains previous habitual interpretations. More emotion is typically present in the beginning of storytelling and clients should not attempt to interpret their stories but just allow them to flow out. Finding meaning in narratives occurs later in the process. Thus, it appears that a successful counseling process involves the client fully exploring and experiencing a personal narrative and later making sense of (or drawing lessons from) the narrative’s events.

A similar pattern occurs when the change process involves written narratives. Investigations of the effects of writing about personal traumas typically involve a person writing about his or her deepest thoughts and feelings regarding a trauma for 15 to 30 minutes a day for 3 to 5 days. This procedure requires participants to create a written narrative of some incident, and the evidence suggests that it induces affect and meaning in ways that are very similar to traditional counseling.

Researcher Joshua M. Smyth’s recent meta-analysis (i.e., a statistical analysis of published research data) of 13 studies compared the written narrative procedure with some type of control group (typically another writing task, such as “Write about your plans for the day”). Writers in the narrative procedure typically reported an increase in short-term distress before later improvements became evident. The amount of short-term distress was unrelated to subsequent change. Analyses of word use patterns indicate that persons were more likely to benefit if their writing contained more positive emotion words, a moderate number of negative emotion words, and an increase in the number of causal and insight words from the beginning to the end of the narrative. These findings suggest that coping depends heavily on construction of a meaningful narrative about traumatic events and that successful therapy requires individuals to move from a focus on emotions and self to drawing lessons and meanings from the event(s).

Future Directions

An approach to counseling that focuses on language appears to arrive, and eventually fade away, every few decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was a popular therapy that heavily utilized storytelling and metaphors. However, many of its tenets did not receive research support or were not evaluated from a research perspective. Given the relatedness of NLP and contemporary approaches to narrative therapy, this is cause for skepticism about the efficacy of narrative therapy. The concern about the efficacy of narrative therapy is heightened by the fact that some contemporary narrative therapists appear disinterested in or openly antagonistic to research evaluations of their work. Nevertheless, process and outcome assessments of client narratives, such as the trauma writing-procedure research described above, appear to be potentially fruitful grounds for further investigation.


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  7. Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174—184.
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