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What Is Narrative Therapy?

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

A narrative is a story. Each of our lives could be viewed as a very long story. The narrative approach focuses on this model, and the idea that the more we realize that we are the authors of our life stories, the more power we have to affect the plot, the characters, the settings, and the mood, to create the life stories we want to have.

Almost all of our thoughts and relationships are comprised of words. Most of us think and speak similarly to the way we perform other instinctual functions- mostly automatically. We inhale and exhale because that is what our respiratory systems are programmed to do. We smile when we're happy (or friendly) and we cry when we're sad or touched. And we tend to generally think and say the words that pop into our heads in given situations and conversations. 

Sometimes this instinctive narrating works perfectly well. We kind of rely on our ability to think and speak on autopilot, or "flow", because if we didn't, we would be constantly analyzing and obsessing about our thoughts and words. We are homo sapiens- which means we think a lot. But sometimes thinking, like speaking, is productive, and at other times it can get us into trouble. This is where the narrative approach comes in.

Whether we're working on our own internal dialogue, or communication within a relationship, even preschoolers know that often "it's not only what you say, but how you say it." By learning to attend to the words in our minds and interpersonal connections, we open up endless possibility to edit those words to our advantage.

Narrative therapy is the process by which we use words as tools to effect meaningful change. There are many fascinating and powerful ways that narrative therapists use language to enhance quality of life and relationships, and I hope to explore them in subsequent articles.

Here is a simple example; a tool I call "inverting the but statement":

Sharon gets very down on herself because she feels she is not a good homemaker. This is rough, because at the moment, she is a full time mother of young children. She tells me: "I love my kids so much, we have a great time time together- reading, playing, baking. But then I put them to bed, and I look around the house, and I think: I am such a slob- my house looks like a disaster zone. I would be mortified for someone to see it like this- even my own husband!"

There is a lot of negativity in Sharon's example of self-talk, and much we could do to edit it. But we choose the main idea for now, and we paraphrase:

"So, you feel that you're a loving and creative mom, but the house is messy and unpresentable."

She agrees.

We then invert the sentence:

"The house is often messy and unpresentable, but the kids are having a wonderful childhood."

The only real difference between the two compound sentences is the order of the segments around the word "but". This seemingly subtle syntactic shift alters the feeling of the sentence. Instead of minimizing the great job Sharon is doing as a mom, and focusing on the sorry state of the house, we moved to mentioning the messy house as a passing detail, but focusing on her quality parenting. Sharon has a tendency to be hard on herself in this way, discounting her strengths and successes, and dwelling on her insecurities and flaws. So we discussed trying to be aware, and noting when she finds herself thinking or speaking this way, and then consciously editing. She decided to try journaling other examples where she would practice reversing the "but" in her thoughts and self-expression.

Here is another example she shared the following week:

"I was watching my husband sleep, and thinking that I wished we'd made more time to talk that night. I found myself thinking:  'We really care so deeply for one another, but often we let days go by without any substantial sharing.' It made me sad, and I started to feel guilty about not investing enough in my marriage. But I caught myself, and changed it to: 'Life can be so full and busy, that sometimes days go by without us having a chance to really sit down and talk, and yet, we both know with all our hearts how deeply we care for one another.'"

Sharon was able to move her focus away from deficiency and toward the more favorable feature of their reality. She found that when she did this mindfully, she was able to feel the difference in the way the new sentence made her feel.

We did discuss a legitimate question she had which was:

"But what if I want to work on keeping the house cleaner, or making an effort to spend more time talking with my husband? I don't know if I want to just dismiss or gloss over problems. Isn't it worthwhile to try and improve these things?"

I agreed with her; it's not helpful to ignore deficiencies. But we noticed that in the past, when she would think in this critical way about them, it didn't move her to improve; it moved her to wallow. By acknowledging deficiencies as minor, external glitches in the framework of a generally favorable context, she could then move towards addressing the problems for a more empowered, solution-oriented perspective, such as the following:

"I'd like to invest some time and effort into learning how to run my home more efficiently, but while I do, at least I know my children are enjoying a rich childhood full of love and play."

"My husband and I have a special connection, but we have busy schedules, so I'd like to be more proactive about scheduling time to sit down together and catch up regularly."

Notice that in these cases:

1. She transformed even the negative thought into a constructive goal.

2. Since both thoughts are productive, the order of the sentences wouldn't matter so much. 

This is the narrative approach: We are the author of our lives. The words that our minds select to narrate our impressions, our expressions, our observations, assessments, goals - those words will influence the way we feel, the way we speak, the way we act. They will generate a sense of helplessness or empowerment, despair or hope, stuntedness or creativity. While we can't control everything that happens outside our minds and hearts, we can assume ownership of our thoughts, our words, our choices. And we can do this one word at a time. So that our life story becomes a purposeful one of transcendence, insight, and personal growth.

You can learn more about how to do this using a technique I call: the Horizon of Healthy Thinking

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