What is Narrative Therapy?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2019
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Narrative therapy is a psychotherapy technique created by therapists David Epston and Michael White. It uses some postmodern ideas about how stories can be complexly interpreted and how the meanings or readings of them can shift to help people arrive at a more authentic self through exploration of personal narratives. In other words, people tend to tell themselves stories about their lives, but the interpretations can be severely limited over time, leading to quite negative or incomplete ideas about the self. By exploring these stories through the lens of what people wish to be rather than through limited interpretations, or by opening up these stories for much more scrutiny, the way people feel about themselves and their lives can shift in a positive direction.

One of the key concepts in narrative therapy is that a person’s collection and interpretation of his or her stories is analogous with that person’s identity. How people interpret their narratives directly affects how they see themselves. Story and identity are intertwined, and in order to change the identity, the way the story is read or evaluated must change too.


Most people have what are termed problem-saturated stories, and these usually most shape the identity and become preeminent in the person’s mind. These types of stories tend to be so big that they supersede or ignore other parts of a person’s narrative that could tell a different story or change the interpretation of life and self. They also tend to give people a black and white view of the self instead of allowing for the idea that multiple contradictory interpretations exist at the same time.

A very simple explanation of the goals of narrative therapy, then, is to find these problem-saturated stories and begin to test them while looking for other narratives that might be contradictory but have been by the problem-saturated stories. This can be accomplished through therapist/client conversations, or in other ways, as by involving a third party to sit in on a session about a specific story of which he or she has personal knowledge. This technique is not always employed, but third parties may lend different perspectives to the client’s view of a specific event or series of events that make up a narrative and self-interpretation.

Narrative therapy is called postmodern because it continually posits that there are complex and multiple readings of a story. Narratives get people into trouble when folks form narrow readings that limit the self. As interpretations become more open, the self is freed from the bondage of limited either/or views. A multi-perspective view helps people to author new stories about themselves that are much more authentic and truer to the narrative of a whole life.

Depending on location, people may be able to find a few narrative therapy practitioners nearby. Since the therapy began in Australia and New Zealand in the late 20th century, interest in it has spread to many areas. Still, this form of therapy is not practiced extensively in many regions.


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