The Narrative Therapy Approach

By Taylor Roach – MA, Intern  

verified by Psychology Today

Narrative therapy is a way for people to empower themselves and live the life that most aligns with how they want to be.  It empowers the client to take the lead in their own therapy and toward change. The narrative therapy approach is also a helpful tool that takes the harsh ideas of responsibility away from the client’s experience in the process of externalization – narrative theory’s main technique.  A narrative approach focuses also on the powerful cultural and societal forces that impact a person. 

People often have to deal with self-blame, not realizing that distress could lie in external forces – something the narrative approach can help to uncover.  By allowing clients to focus on how they think their own story should be told (or how a couple or family wants their collective story to be told or viewed), their outlooks and feelings toward their story can be heard and validated.  This will help in changing their perspective to be more positive.  By viewing their narrative in a positive light, they are then given the freedom to live in a more positive manner.

Additionally, by talking about the problem as if it were outside of the client experiencing it, a discussion around how they can respond to the now externalized problem can occur.  For example, if a client is experiencing sadness, they can name the experience “Sadness” and personify it as “an unkind relative who can sometimes overstay their welcome”.  Perhaps this client can react to “Sadness” by allowing it to stay only as long as it would be healthy and then walking it out the door as the client goes their separate way for a walk, leaving “Sadness” behind so that it can no longer have the control in the client’s life.  When client(s) are allowed to re-author their story, this gives them the opportunity to tell their story without any outsider opinions imposed onto it and without any judgment.  By doing this, client(s) can begin to live their best lives in a way that they see most ideal and most authentic.

This technique can also provide client(s) the opportunity to take back control of their lives in areas where lack of control or feelings of helplessness have been abundant.  For example, using this approach in therapy may allow their hopes and dreams to no longer be influenced by their parents’ hopes and dreams for them or their children’s hopes and dreams that took precedence over theirs for many years.  This re-authoring is a way to change the narrative (Epston & White, 1990).

Another method can involve deconstructing a problem in order to analyze all of its aspects and influences.  This is called ‘re-membering’, according to Michal White, the originator of narrative therapy.  He writes, “re-membering conversations are not about passive recollection but about purposive reengagements with the history of one’s relationships with significant figures and with the identities of one’s present life and projected future” (White, 2007, p. 129).  In other words, this technique provides client’s the opportunity to reevaluate who and what holds positive purpose to them and their identity both in the present and the future.  If past people or events do not hold positive purpose, it would be best to allow space to let them go.

Narrative therapy allows clients to address their problems and their stories based on their own values rather than those that have been inflicted onto them.  In this, they get to decide what experiences have been most significant to them in their life.  These experiences may have been deemed insignificant from the perspective of others, so giving the client the ownership to decide and re-live experiences can be extremely powerful.

Using scaffolding techniques, the therapist can help the client move away from the known and comfortable and into different decisions and habits and a life that will give them more meaning.  This is helpful if people are having trouble moving on in life. (White, 2007). This is also helpful for clients experiencing a chronic illness and their families (Williams-Reade et al., 2014).  Chronic illnesses can disrupt a person’s personal narrative of who they are and what their life means.  This has implications on how they maintain their role in society and their relationships due to changes in their mood and energy levels.  Using this approach, a therapist is able to help highlight client strengths and promote change in themselves, as well as, tapping into available and potential support resources in order to create a sense of community (Williams-Reade et al., 2014).

By integrating one’s own view of their life story, narrative interventions promote new understandings of their experiences and help clients to become comfortable with their own identity and narrative in order to live an empowered, authentic life.  Narrative therapy seeks to help clients externalize their problems, verbalize a life narrative, and become comfortable and accepting with their own identity.


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