Narrative Therapy

What is Postmodernism???

As I begin wrapping up my review of counseling theories for an NCE exam in April, I’m reviewing two final counseling theories discussed in Rosenthal’s (2005), review: Narrative Therapy & Solution-Focused Therapy.  In two key online resources I’ve used for this review, is a discussion of postmodernism.  Apparently, all theories discussed thus far have held a modernist philosophical viewpoint, whereas narrative therapy and solution-focused therapy, hold a postmodernist perspective.  What the hell does this mean anyway?

“Modernists believe in objective reality that can be observed and systematically known through the scientific method. They further believe reality exists independent of any attempt to observe it. Modernists believe people seek therapy for a problem when they have deviated too far from some objective norm…Postmodernists, in contrast, believe that realities do not exist indepen- dent of observational processes…To social constructionists, reality is based on the use of language and is largely a function of the situations in which people live. Realities are socially constructed. A problem exists when people agree there is a problem that needs to be addressed, (Corey, 2015, p. 376).”
Modernists believe there is an objective reality.
Postmodernists believe reality is a matter of perception
Modernists attempt to systematically understand reality via scientific method.
Postmodernists attempt to understand reality as a social construction.
Modernists define client problems as a deviation from an objective norm.
Postmodernists feel a problem exists when people agree that it needs to be addressed.
Modernists act as experts, scientifically assessing the problem in order to determine a diagnosis.
Postmodernists explore the client’s frame of reference and how this perception defines reality.

Narrative and solution-focused therapy are examples of postmodernist social-construction approaches.  These perspectives both “attend to the client’s way of viewing problems. Neither therapy brings in its own theory of development or personality. (Scarf, 2015, p. 453).”

Narrative Therapy Defined

7772794404_055c289f79_oDeveloped by Michael White & David Epston, narrative therapy focuses on the stories we create out of our life experiences.  These life experiences become like scenes in a plot as they become temporally connected and infused with meaning.  We utilize a constructed meaning in life as an objective truth.  This constructed meaning reflects internalized messages from society.  It acts as a filter through which we edit our life experiences.  Many are edited from our plot-line because they contradict our preferred meaning system. This occurs because of a process of selective attention. Changing the language we use to describe our experiences can lead to the creation of new systems of meaning (Metcalf, 2011). Oftentimes the problem is a matter of a constricted storyline that predefines the outcome of life experiencing. By attend to unique events or subordinate story we produce meaningful change (Metcalf, 2011).  Narrative therapy is aimed at the “re-establishment of personal agency from the oppression of external problems and the dominant stories of larger systems, (Corey, 2015 p. 388).”   The narrative therapist helps clients resolve problems by utilizing the narrative metaphor to examine how our perceptions and interactions create life experiences, (Metcalf, 2011).

Key Concepts


What are Stories?

We live our lives as a constructed story with a constructed plot line that provides meaning.  Stories provide us a way of imbuing our lives with meaning (Metcalf, 2011).  They are created within a social construct and reflect our perceptions.  In this respect, stories do not reflect objective reality as much as they do our preconceived system of meaning.   The events that are included in our storyline support our system of meaning.  Those that contradicted it are edited out through selective attending.   In this respect, stories shape our reality, providing a social and cultural context.

The Setting

The setting describes where and when our life story takes place.  It acts as a background against which the characters develop and  the plot unfolds.   “The story can occur in an indoor or outdoor setting, or be an actual experience, an image or dream….it can be described in great detail or with broad brushstrokes.  It can take seconds or years, (Sharf, 2015, p. 466).”  It encompasses the sociocultural environment in which we live.

The Characters

“The people (actors) in our story are characters…..the client is the protagonist or central character.  There are also antagonists (the people in conflict with the protagonist)….the personality and motive of the characters can be described by the…narrator (Sharf, 2015, p. 466).”

The Plot

The sequence of events in a story, involve the action of characters in a particular setting.  Understanding the plot involves listening the client’s description of events.  Oftentimes, with each story retelling, new plots develop in a person’s life story and new systems of meaning evolve.

Underlying Themes

“The reasons things happen in the story are referred to as themes…the client’s understanding of the story, (Sharf, 2015, p. 467).”  In other words, when you examine plots and stories in your life, are there any common threads underlying them?  These are the systems of meaning woven through your life.  Here’s an excellent example from my own blog of a theme.

Overview of Therapy Process

6410917039_714c365517_zThe narrative therapy process is based on a collaborative relationship that starts with an examination of the problem.  Examining the components of a client’s life story and examining it from different perspectives, provides a useful opportunity to examine alternate systems of meaning.  Describing stories through a process of externalizing, examining historical evidence and speculating about a new future can allow us to develop support for a new storyline.

Goals of Therapy

“A general goal of narrative therapy is to invite people to describe their experience in new and fresh language (Corey, 2015 p. 390).”  Seeing our life story from a “positive rather than problem saturated (Sharf, 2015, p. 469), is the end goal of therapy.  This happens as clients learn how their meaning system shapes the characters, setting, and plot within their life story.


Narrative therapy does not prescribe to a diagnostic perspective.  Instead narrative therapists focus on listening how the client’s life story develops and how they act as the creator and narrator.  Writing down the plot line, and mapping out the sequence of events can allows the cline to recognize underlying themes.  The assessment process simply stats with a determination of the client’s goal for therapy.  Narrowing in on the problematic storyline and its influence throughout an individual’s life, is the initial step in narrative  therapy.

The Therapist’s Role

“Narrative therapists are active facilitators….the not-knowing position…allows therapists to follow, affirm, and be guided by the stories of their clients, (Corey, 2015, p. 469).”  Utilizing a respectful curiosity, the therapist begins by attempting to understand the impact of a problematic storyline.  The end goal is to assist the client in constructing a preferred story line.  This begins when the client can understand how they have identified with the problematic storyline through externalizing conversation.  Detaching and deconstructing the problem story line, can uncover the system of meaning as the core issue.  This process occurs without a strict adherence to traditional diagnosis or specific interventions.  The relationship is collaborative, optimistic, and respectful (Sharf, 2015).

Common Techniques….

While narrative therapy is generally opposed to a technique-driven process, what follows is a list of common approaches utilized in narrative therapy.

Asking Questions

“Narrative therapists use questions as a way to generate experience rather than to gather information, (Corey, 2015, p. 392).”   From a not-knowing perspective, therapists present questions that can aim at reconstructing their life story from an externalized viewpoint.  Deconstructing their problematic life story is the ultimate goal.

Externalizing Conversations

Underlying the concept of externalizing conversations is the notion that: “the person is not the problem. The problem is the problem” (Metcalf, 2011, p317). In other words, Narrative Therapy appears to be mindful of the issue of blame attribution when discussing the underlying problems. Externalizing conversations means discussing the issues from the standpoint that the problem isn’t attributed to a person. Instead it is conceived of as an evil villain, or separate entity altogether (Metcalf, 2011). For example, in such conversations you would not say, “(you/I/they) did this or that thing”. Instead, you might say, “I’ve noticed an underlying interactional dynamic that is developing a life of its own in the family, do you.”  Utilizing techniques such as these can prevent any potential misreading of blame attribution in this discussion.

Mapping the Influence

This involves examining the problem’s influence over one’s life in a systematic fashion.  “When mapping is done carefully, it lays the foundation for co-authoring a new story line for the client,” (Corey, 2015, p. 393).”  Tracing the problem as a thread of meaning woven throughout one’s life, can allow us to understand current problems in a historical context.   It also allows clients to understand the problem’s scope as well as the underlying cause.

Unique Outcomes

“When narrative therapists listen to a story that is full of problems, they look for exceptions to the stories….that are seen as sparkling moments or unique outcomes, (Sharf, 2015, p. 470).”  Since these unique outcomes are not predicted based on our current problematic story line, they are useful in rewriting our life narrative.

Alternative Narratives

An exploration of strengths or unacknowledged aspirations edited out of one’s life can provide evidence of an alternate narrative (Corey, 2015).   Constructing new stories in this manner requires a simultaneously deconstruction process of problematic narratives, (Sharf, 2015).  Reauthoring our life story happens as we examine alternate narratives and examine unique outcomes.

Documenting the Evidence

“New stories take hold only when there is an audience to appreciate and support them, (Corey, 2015, p. 395).”  The sources I used for this post describe letters written by therapists between sessions as useful in documenting the client’s progress (Corey 2015; Sharf, 2015).  Support groups and participation of significant others in the therapy process are also useful in providing evidence to support a new narrative.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall, I really enjoyed this theory. It forces us to engage in how we perceive and take in our life experiences and make meaning of them.   What interests me about the application of this theory in Marriage & Family Therapy is the fact that meaning systems in this context are more cultural than perceptual. In other words, the meaning systems that create family plotlines are shared systems of meanings (i.e. culture). From this perspective, Narrative Therapy is especially useful.

One weakness of this theory is related to an insight from an assigned article on bad couples therapy (Doherty, 2002). This article mentions briefly that another beginners mistake in couples therapy is failing to provide a plan for change (Doherty, 2002). Underlying this mistake is a belief that insight alone is adequate in producing change. Doherty, (2002) asserts that sine all empirically supported forms of couples therapy include an active intervention excluding this is a disservice to clients. While this therapy method does have a few activities to produce change, it is heavier on the insight.

Images: 1, 2, 3


Corey, G. (2015). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Retrieved from:
Doherty, W. (2002). Bad couples therapy: Getting past the myth of therapist neutrality. Washington: Psychotherapy Networker, Inc.
Metcalf, L, (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice oriented approach. NewYork: Springer Publishing Company
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Sharf, R. S. (2015). Theories of psychotherapy & counseling: Concepts and cases. Cengage Learning.

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