It might seem too simple, even foolish, to think of solving problems like an eating disorder, depression or domestic violence by writing a new story of your own life. But therapists who work with Narrative Therapy often combine the rewriting of a life story with other strategies to help a person get on a positive track.
Narrative Therapy is not making up a completely fictional life story. It’s more like revising the negative stories people often repeat to themselves, for instance, “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t deserve love” or “I just look at food and gain weight“ or ”Other people have it easier and I have bad luck.”
Changing negative thinking patterns, which is part of many types of therapy, might start with writing your way to new patterns in your life. It focuses on looking at your own life from a bit of a different, and perhaps a more positive, perspective.
Narrative Therapy takes the important view that the person is the expert in his own life. The client is removed from the problem a bit and can look at it as one part of a longer life story. That gives the individual a more neutral perspective. Instead of blame, there’s a sense of control over choosing what is most important, and perhaps most hopeful, in one’s own life story.
The two founders of Narrative Therapy, Michael White and Davis Epston, began working together in the late 1970s. White was well-established in Australia and was editor of the Australian Family Therapy Journal. Epston was a family therapist working mainly in New Zealand. As their collaboration moved into the 1980s, they shared best practices and discoveries for helping families communicate better and heal relationships. They also incorporated evolving social views on gender, race, class and culture.
Stories in Narrative Therapy are made of up events that have occurred during a person’s lifetime, linked by a theme. An important element is that the person is the focus and most important element, while the therapist serves as a “collaborator,” someone who poses questions about the importance of life events. That questioning allows the individual to decide which events should be chosen as most important to the personal life story.
Some people may describe a “problem-saturated” life story, for example, “I’ve always been a depressed person.” A young person who may have been in trouble at times may take on the identity of “troublemaker” or the feeling of “I’m hopeless” or “I’ll never amount to anything.”
The therapist listens carefully and finds clues to a more positive story line, for instance, times when the person was not depressed, and perhaps was satisfied with life, even joyful. With the young person who sometimes got in trouble, the therapist may find times in the teenager’s life when there were positive events, perhaps in sports or helping people in the family or community.
Those positive events may involve relationships, hopes and dreams and be incorporated into a revised life story. The events haven’t changed, but the emphasis on the positive events allows the individual to see a more promising life path based on successes and accomplishments, wherever and whenever they occurred.
Psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia has been studying how small changes in a person’s memories and life story can have a positive effect on emotional health. Wilson is the author of the book Redirect and calls his work with Narrative Therapy “story editing.”
Wilson first saw the potential in Narrative Therapy when he was working with a group of college students who were struggling academically. One of the repeated phrases he heard from many of them was, “I’m bad at school.”
He offered them a new line in their personal story: “Everyone fails at first.” Then he had the students read accounts of other students who struggled when they first were adapting to the changes required when you enter college, and how later the grades of those struggling students improved.
What Wilson found was that the students who edited their story into one where initial struggle is common and improvements are also common had better grades and were the ones most likely to stay in college. Those who didn’t take part in the rewriting were more likely to drop out.
“As you write about the troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually you begin to make sense of it,” said Wilson. That makes it easier to put the negative memories and thoughts behind you.
Other studies have shown Narrative Therapy effective in a wide variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, grief and ADHD. Some studies have shown Narrative Therapy to be helpful in helping parents stop abusing their children and in assisting young men in urban Toronto schools how to view alternatives to violence,
Narrative Therapy is one way for a person to get a new perspective on life, clarify values, skills, talents and accomplishments and to create a more hopeful and positive path toward the future.
Miller, Lulu, “Editing Your Life’s Stories Can Create Happier Endings,” All Things Considered, NPR, Jan. 1, 2014
Parker-Pope, Tara, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2015
Cook, Gareth, “How to Improve Your Life with Story Editing,” Scientific American, Sept. 13, 2011