I am completely drawn to an approach in therapeutic counselling situations, known as Narrative Therapy. I love this style of therapy for four reasons: it adopts a non-pathologising approach, it seeks to understand the context of people’s problems, it centres people as the experts of their own lives, and it enables people to re-author their own stories. (dulwichcentre.com.au)
In Narrative therapy, the narrative is used as a metaphor for the way in which people give meaning to their life experiences, by weaving them into a storyline. It draws from a post- modern approach because it seeks to understand how reality is constructed by our belief systems and conveyed through our language.
Narrative Therapy - A non-pathologising approach
A pathologising approach to counselling will quickly point out that something is inherently wrong with you, whereas Narrative Therapy understands that your problems are separate from you. Within this practice, a conversation which helps someone to externalise his or her problem, is encouraged. For example, ‘I have low self-esteem’ is an internal perspective, where a problem is associated with one’s identity. When reconstructed, in order to view the problem of self-esteem externally, a helper may ask, “Tell me about the low self-esteem.”
Externalising problems is central to Narrative Therapy because the narratives we use to describe our problems can have a crushing influence over us. ‘I’m a useless father,’ ‘this is my impulsive personality,’ ‘I’m an anxious student,’ are internalising perspectives that risk perpetuating self-blame. Essentially, Narrative practice helps you to understand that you are not the problem - the problem is the problem!
Narrative Therapy - There is a broader context to your problem
Narrative therapy helps individuals to realise that they are not defined by a problem because they are not the problem.
Unlike some therapeutic approaches, which may disregard the social influences upon personal problems, Narrative Therapy seeks to centre people’s problems within a context. For example, culture, gender, class and race are key contextual factors, which influence the stories of people’s lives. For the woman who expresses: ‘I’m a struggling single mother’, it may be helpful to see how broader societal factors influence upon this ‘struggle’ of being a single parent. As such, Narrative Therapy may explore the function that gender has played in shaping women’s roles and social norms in society. This shifts any blame away from the mother’s ability to parent and links her ‘struggle’ with broader societal causes.
Narrative Therapy - You are the expert of your life
Narrative Therapy centres you as the expert of your own life. This is the element that I respect most about this practice because it honours your own lived experience. This means the helper refrains from giving advice in order to collaborate with individuals in an egalitarian partnership. Rather than being an expert, with that unnerving medical gaze, the helper will adopt a stance of curiosity. The goal is not to ‘fix’ someone but to assist individuals to change how they relate to their problems, in order to discover new possibilities for growth. This occurs through a strengths-based approach by drawing from the depth of people’s experiences and abilities. In exploring the single mother’s dominant story of ‘struggle,’ attention may be provided to her alternate stories of resilience and strength.
Narrative Therapy - Re-author your own story
Finding alternative stories that open up new conversations for a more satisfying future is integral to this practice.
A few nights ago I was listening to a song on the radio titled ‘Calling Out’. Melbourne Hip-hop artist Pez chants out the following line: “…You can struggle through life or take your story and then turn it into something you like...”
These words prompted me to consider my own narrative about struggling with depression. Recently, I was sharing with someone about the depression I have felt during periods of my life, particularly when I haven’t had ongoing, meaningful employment. I am able to view the depression as separate from myself and I understand that my situation is influenced by a broader societal context related to un/employment. However, it is still very easy for me to get stuck in my dominant problematic story: “I’m struggling with depression again...”
Yet, just as the singer reminds me, I can re-author my story by ‘turning it into something that I like.’ Re-authoring is a process, which encourages individuals to find alternate and more helpful narratives. So when chatting with my friend, she helped me to find a new narrative in relation to my ‘depression story.’ She saw that I was an intelligent woman who becomes invigorated when engaged in meaningful tasks and connected with like-minded people. Wow! This new story line is true for me because the depression (my externalised problem) does not hang around under those circumstances. I’m not suggesting this is a quick fix; I know it doesn’t solve my problems but it does open up new ways of thinking. It prompts me to take action and seek out the circumstances when depression disappears into the background.
This new narrative helps me to move away from my usual story of depression. It is simple but powerful. I can re-author my story of depression another way: “Sometimes I feel depressed but when I am invigorated by an activity and with the right people, I feel so much better.” Well, that’s my new storyline and I am sticking to it…
When people are struggling to work through their personal problems, there needs to be a nurturing space that can be entered into with an empathetic helper. There are so many therapeutic models which all offer hope and healing. Narrative Therapy is one such model, which respectfully and caringly seeks to unearth new and hopeful storylines. It is a conversation worth having.
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
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