What is Narrative Therapy and What Is It Used For?

Through narrative therapy, the therapist and patient construct alternative meanings to a single explanation of the problems.
What is Narrative Therapy and What Is It Used For?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 17 January, 2023

Narrative therapy is a style of psychotherapy that aims to “empower” people to rewrite their narrative in a more compassionate way. It consists of becoming aware of how the stories told throughout life influence well-being and self-perception.

In general, every experience and interaction is given a meaning that influences how someone sees themselves and the world. Based on this, this therapeutic model proposes to create stories that can strengthen your self-esteem and improve your professional life, relationships, and skills. Do you want to know more about it?

What is narrative therapy?

Narrative therapy is the brainchild of Michael White and David Epston. Its development is close to the evolution that occurred in the field of family and systemic therapy in the 80s and 90s. One of the strongest ideas has to do with the idea that the person is not alone, but always exists in relation to a context.

White and Epston were very interested in the way we tell ourselves our life stories and explain our identity. They believed that we are not only describing our life through such stories but also constructing it.

Hence the importance of knowing the meanings, values, and beliefs behind such stories. Meanings that have not only an individual anchorage but are strongly determined by the context and the social environemnt.

Narrative therapy is a conversational treatment characterized by the joint work of the therapist and the person (co-author) in the construction of new stories -from a collaborative approach- oriented toward what is to be achieved.

It’s based on the idea that the person has the resources and skills to do so, while the therapist’s role is to accompany or guide the person on the path to knowledge.

It has a strong basis in social constructionism. It postulates that beliefs, ideas, values, norms, practices, and discourses are not always there, but are constructions from which we position ourselves to interpret the world.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: Life Cycle Integration Therapy to Heal Your Inner Child

The basic principles of narrative therapy

For the construction of new or alternative narratives, narrative therapy is based on different principles and tools. We’ll highlight the main ones below.

Narrative metaphors

narrative therapy
It’s important to structure stories as openly and transparently as possible for the therapy to be helpful.

The stories we tell are a selection of sequenced events, which are connected over time. These narratives give us a sense of ourselves and our surroundings, and also serve as references for future actions.

However, a story is just one way of telling things. That’s why, through narrative therapy, we’re invited to create alternative narratives that include aspects or details that had been previously omitted.

Naming the problem

In the first sessions, the narrative is usually presented in a more disordered way, as if it were a cataract of episodes. However, as the person expresses him/herself, this flow becomes more orderly.

At this point, the therapist tries to get the patient to give a name to what ails him/her or defines him/her. This can be done through a word or a short phrase. In this way, the aim is to “externalize the problem”, another of the principles.

When naming it, it’s necessary to take care of several aspects in relation to language. It’s essential that the patient chooses the words that best describe the situation (that these words are not imposed) and that these words do not reinforce the situation that sustains the problem. Likewise, the therapist should then use the language of the patient.

Externalizing the problem

This strategy seeks to make the problem more concrete and manageable. The aim is to depathologize the patient from being anchored to a diagnosis or a label.

Externalization is used as a technique so that people can distance themselves from the conflict and not recognize it as inherent to their personality. Thus, by putting the problem outside, one begins to weaken the idea of oneself as “weak,” “broken,” or “useless.”

Consider the context and circumstances

Problems and stories do not occur in a vacuum, but in a given social and historical context, in which different power relations are present.

Taking these circumstances into account, making them explicit, and sharing them with the person helps to understand that many situations are directly related to them. In turn, this helps to alleviate the weight of their guilt.

For example, the obsession with slim and slender bodies has as a background a culture that constantly reinforces these ideas. The therapist guides the patient in order to help him or her to understand the importance of these ideas.

Asking about the effects of the problem

The therapist then guides the patient to identify how the problem has influenced his or her life. For instance, what were the “tricks” or “voices” by which the problem has been established, its beginnings, and the context in which it appears?

However, the person is also encouraged to explore his or her problem and identify what his or her role has been in maintaining the problem. These are what are known as “reciprocal influence questions”.

Identity is social

Narrative therapy is based on a constructivist or post-structuralist view. It considers that identity is not something we have to discover within ourselves. It is not a “finding” or something fixed, but on the contrary, White stated that it’s relational and contextual.

This opens up a range of possibilities, in which the person has the capacity to construct their “intentional identity” focusing on their desires, motivations, beliefs, etc.

Like this article? You may also like to read: What is Drama Therapy and What Are its Benefits?

What is narrative therapy used for?

narrative therapy
If you are looking for personal growth, self-knowledge, and mental stability, it’s a good idea to try narrative therapy.

Narrative therapy can be used in individual, family, couple, and community work. Although a working framework is established and confidentiality is respected, there is some flexibility that is agreed upon with the person.

It’s possible to invite significant people who have been affected by or participated in the patient’s discomfort to the sessions.

Through “deconstructive listening” the therapist uses those gaps or ambiguities in the story to bring to light those aspects that have been little explored or ignored and that can facilitate a new version of the story.

In this way, this therapy helps to undo the dominant discourses that are postulated as unique and unalterable truths and invites patients to construct a version of the story more in line with their goals and desires.

What are the benefits of narrative therapy?

Among its many benefits, narrative therapy allows the construction of an alternative story, opening other paths and possibilities that are more functional and healthy.

On the other hand, as a result of externalization, people can separate themselves from the problem and focus on their resources and abilities, and on what they can do to produce a change in the situation that afflicts them.

By focusing on the problem in relation to its context, it enables them to construct a new view of it. Likewise, self-knowledge is reinforced and the person becomes empowered in his or her life.

The problem is the problem: The person is not the problem.

This is one of the key principles on which narrative therapy is based. Hence, it works on externalization to eliminate the stigmatizing effect of certain labels.

This model of psychotherapy understands that the meaning of an event is not a “product of the mind”, but a construction. From there, change takes place.

In itself, it broadens the versions of the same event and allows each person to recover a proactive and protagonist role in the different decisions of his or her life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wallis, J., Burns, J., & Capdevila, R. (2010). What is narrative therapy and what is it not? The usefulness of Q methodology to explore accounts of White and Epston’s (1990) approach to narrative therapy. In Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy (Vol. 18, Issue 6, pp. 486–497). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.723
  • Hutto, D. D., & Gallagher, S. (2017). Re-Authoring narrative therapy: Improving our selfmanagement tools. In Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology (Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 157–167). Project Muse. https://doi.org/10.1353/ppp.2017.0020
  • López De Martín, Silvia Roxana (2011). Terapias breves: la propuesta de Michael White y David Epston. III Congreso Internacional de Investigación y Práctica Profesional en Psicología XVIII Jornadas de Investigación Séptimo Encuentro de Investigadores en Psicología del MERCOSUR. Facultad de Psicología – Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.
  • Moreno, A. (2014). Terapia narrativa. En A. Moreno: Manual de terapia sistémica. Principios y herramientas de intervención. Bilbao: Desclèe De Brouwer. Págs. 468-69.
  • Payne, Martín (2002) Terapia Narrativa. Una introducción para profesionales. Buenos Aires. Paidos.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.