The Influence of Story in Therapy

Almost without thinking of it, we tell stories about ourselves. We tell stories about what “kind” of person we are. We tell stories about the experiences that shaped us. We tell stories about how we imagine our life will unfold. These stories of our past, our identity and our future help to “make us up.”I gravitated to the story metaphor in my work during the mid-1990s when I began to study Narrative Therapy, a practice developed by Michael White and David Epston.

Narrative Therapy differed from a more traditional focus on emotions, cognitions and behaviors.  Narrative therapists spoke of “plots,” actions, intentions and the creation of meaning.  It highlighted the way identities are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories others tell about us.

One of the first things that drew me to Narrative Therapy had little to do with technique—it was the exquisite attentiveness to power. I noticed Narrative therapists attending closely to the dis-empowering contexts that often support problems, as well as to the importance of negotiating power in the therapy room itself. I perceived a distinct difference from therapy as “treatment,” to therapy as a collaborative act where client and therapist evolved knowledge together about addressing the problem.  This approach may best be described as “co-research.”  Therapists bring expertise to the inquiry, but clients contribute the wealth of what they’ve lived.

Early on I encountered a sort of mantra in Narrative Therapy, “the person is not the problem.”  This externalizing approach (rather than an internalizing one) approach invites clients to reflect on the problem “at a distance”—both upon the ways it has impacted them, as well as on the degree of influence they have over the problem.  When it came to problems, I also appreciated a certain expansiveness in Narrative Therapy (and in the work of feminist and social constructionist therapists).  The therapy conversation grew beyond the stories of an individual or family to include the broader range of cultural narratives that influence everything from gender, race, class and sexual orientation, to what constitutes success or failure in life.

Operating from the assumption that we are multiply storied rather than single-storied, Narrative Therapy  conversations don’t simply focus on problems, but also on “anti-problem” accounts that may be rarely told, but vital to live by.  These contrasting accounts may begin as fleeting moments when a person feels somewhat freer from a problem’s effects. They may arise from a remembered moment in the past that seems at odds with the problem story. Often these moments are disregarded or viewed as not worthy of attention. However these moments may also be “rescued” by documenting in detail what clients are doing to bring them about. These disconnected moments take on stature as they are linked through time to a counter-story, defined by Hilde Lindemann Nelson as “a story that resists an oppressive identity and attempts to replace it with one that commands respect.”

In a concrete way, this interest in narrative has me doing a number of things as a therapist. One is listening for an “experience-near” description of a problem, usually in the words of my clients. I find that a vivid, evocative description is usually more helpful than one that is distant or clinical. Second, I believe the impact of the problem needs attention. Over the years I’ve learned it can feel dismissive to go too rapidly past the very real effects significant problems on lives. In residential centres, they often offer counselling as part of a rehab programme. Third, I am attentive to the ways clients resist the influence of problems, and how these acts of resistance begin to shape identity in ways that are preferred. Last, but certainly not least, each story has its unique contours, and although I’ve done this work for many years, I continue to learn from the people I see.