This is a little bit of an explanation about Narrative Therapy, which is the main model of therapy used by this counselling service in working with people. It can be a very useful way of viewing our lives and dealing with any problems we might face.
Narrative Therapy is sometimes known as “re-authoring” or “re-storying” coversations. For Narrative Therapists, stories consist of events, linked in sequence, across time, according to a plot. A narrative is like a thread that weaves the events in our lives together, forming a story.
Narrative ways of working with people in counselling are based on the idea that people’s lives and relationships are shaped by the “stories” which individuals and communities of people develop in order to give meaning to their experiences. The idea is that these “narratives” (or stories) of meaning do not just reflect or represent our lives, they actually shape and make up our lives.
For example, all of us have “family stories”, stories about the time we did so and such….., community and societal stories. These are the ways in which we define who we are.
There are many stories in all of our lives, all happening along side each other. Often we focus on one. Sometimes this can be a problem story – one in which problems dominate, or take over, leaving other stories about the person and their lives hidden, forgotten, or missed.
In Narrative Therapy the aim is to bring those “other” stories to the foreground, so that they can become more noticed and to richly describe and look at them, to make them stronger and thicker. This can allow a person to “step across” to a more preferred story of their lives, one in which they can move forwards, away from the problems. Richly describing the other stories in their life, along with connecting to understandings about what the person gives value to and what is important to them in their life, allows a move from the “known and familiar” to what is possible.
When people experience some sort of hardship or problem in their lives, there are lots of “invitations” for them to see themselves as the problem, as being deificient in some way, and to take on a “dominant story” about themselves as a “failure” or “being to blame”. Our culture encourages people to think of problems as “purely personal”, things that we as individuals are solely responsible for and so when a person experiences a problem, it is often seen as a negative reflection about their character, nature and value as a person. The “person” and the “problem” become seen as the same thing. This can result in people feeling helpless to take action or can make them only take actions that reinforce the problem. If you see yourself as the problem, there is not much you can do except maybe act against yourself.
Narrative techniques use what are called “externalising conversations” which aim to separate the person from the problem. By identifying and naming the problem as separate from the person, it creates space for the person to see themselves as separate from the problems which are affecting their lives. The person is then in a position to take a new action. They can resist or protest the problem and/or renegotiate the relationship with the problem in other ways.
Narrative therapy is a non blaming, respectful approach which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It believes that people have many skills, understandings, values, experiences and beliefs that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives. We all have our own answers and none of us can truly know what it is like for each other, or how to “fix” things. This approach does not take away responsibility to make changes. In fact it gives the person space to gather “personal agency” or power, to make changes.
It sits the person back in the driver’s seat of their lives.
As an example, let’s look at a person who tells us they can not manage diabetes because they are just “useless” and “hopeless”, that they never manage anything.
This view of themselves as “useless” or “hopeless” will be based on events that have happened over time and will probably have been reinforced by other people, such as a parent, teacher, partner, or boss. This might include the time when they lost their job, broke up with their partner, failed an exam and so on……In telling us about how “useless” and “hopeless” they are, the person might tell me all the examples of events that support this view.
In conversations with the person however, they might also briefly mention a time where they have acted in a way that challenges this view, perhaps the fact that they have remarried, have joined a group in their community, or have been caring for their children.
Narrative therapy would aim to separate “the uselessness and hopelessness” from the person by talking about the history and effects of these problems. It would also pick up on initiatives the person described, or actions they had taken, that do not fit with this story of uselessness and hopelessness and make enquriy about these initiatives. This would then start a process of “thickening” or richly describing these preferred or alternative stories about their lives.
Narrative Therapy is not about “looking at the positives” and “ignoring the negatives” which does not recognise the real impact problems have in people’s lives. In fact, acknowledging and respecting the experiences and problems people have had is an important step. It is not about saying “just get over it, look at these other things, you should be happy” – it is about looking at the whole picture, picking up on stories that have been missed or lost and bringing them to the forefront. This might include looking at how a person has been able to hold onto what is important to them, their wishes and desires for their life, despite facing significant crisis such as diagnosis of diabetes.
Another aspect that is relevant in diabetes is when dealing with the diagnosis of diabetes. This experience can be like a “journey” or a “rite of passage”. It is a little bit like moving to a totally alien country when you didn’t even want to move! One minute you are going along in your life and all of a sudden diabetes comes along. This is a “crisis” point, a time where you have to “separate” from what was familiar and move into unknown territory.
There then follows a period of being in the “unknown” or a time of being “between” what you knew and where you will end up. During this time there will be ups and downs and often the downs bring experience of things like despair, sadness, grief and fear.
Eventually the downs become shorter in duration and happen less often as the person moves towards incorporating diabetes into their life. Like any separation or forced change, you can feel like running back towards what you knew, therefore preferring not to move forwards with diabetes, but ultimately people do move on.
The challenge is to build the idea of diabetes into your life, to spend the time you need getting used to it all and while still holding onto what is important to you, taking on this new part of your life. Eventually most people do arrive at a place where they can experience a “fit” that gives a sense of being “at home” with themselves and their lives again. People once again feel that they have skills and knowledge in “matters of living”.
There are many tools, maps and ideas used in Narrative Therapy and this is just an introduction to this therapy. If you are interested in learning more about Narrative Therapy, you can look at this website.
“What is Narrative Therapy?”
by Alice Morgan
Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, Australia
“Reflections on Narrative Practice: Essays and Interviews”
by Michael White
Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, Australia