Have you ever seen TikToks or memes that talk about “being the main character?” Sometimes they poke fun at different genres of movies, and sometimes they poke fun at ourselves. Other types of content encourage people to treat themselves as the main character of their own story.
These ideas aren’t just jokes or memes. They are found in a specific type of therapy that can help people process trauma, understand their feelings, and approach difficult situations in a more objective and realistic manner: narrative therapy.
What Is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy is an approach that aims to empower people. In this approach, patients tell their story as if they were the protagonist in a book or a movie. Through this retelling, the patient goes through the typical “hero’s journey” and personal development that is found in narratives.
Who Created Narrative Therapy?
Narrative therapy was developed in the 1980s by two therapists based in New Zealand, Michael White and David Epston.
Who Is Narrative Therapy Good For?
Although anyone can use narrative therapy as their main form of treatment, certain therapists may recommend it for some clients over others. Reddit user CurveoftheUniverse said, “While I was in grad school, I had a professor whose main schtick was narrative therapy. It didn’t really grab me then, but now I find myself wishing I could have taken advantage of his knowledge. I find it really useful for adolescents since we start developing autobiographical memory around age 12.”
Conscious-Section-55 said “Hi, my clinical supervisor used it as her go-to jam. I’ve used it a little but, more important, I often incorporate narrative interventions (most notably externalizing the problem) into my own integrative approach.”
You can read the whole conversation about the benefits of narrative therapy here.
How Narrative Therapy Works
What feels more empowering than being a protagonist? Protagonists in movies, books, and television shows face obstacles and trauma, but always manage to rise up to the occasion and win in the end. If you can see yourself on that journey, you may find yourself seeing setbacks and trauma in a new light.
It’s not enough to just tell yourself that you are the main character of your story. You might already feel like the main character, but have just been telling yourself a story that isn’t helping you achieve your goals. There are an infinite amount of ways to tell a story. The “truth” of what happened to Goldilocks and the Three Bears probably looks different when you consider the story from the perspective of Goldilocks, Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, the bear’s neighbors, etc. By using the following techniques, you and your therapist can find the story that helps you feel the most empowered.
Techniques Used in Narrative Therapy
Writing the Narrative
The first piece of narrative therapy is writing your narrative. This is not something that everyone consciously does. When you first meet with a narrative therapist, you may find yourself collecting events, judgements, and behaviors that form this story. Your therapist will pick up on common themes. This is the base material for the upcoming techniques.
Often, people find themselves telling one story based on a “thin description.” Thin descriptions may have no basis in objective reality, but have made their way into being the dominant story of our lives.
Example of Narrative Therapy
Here’s an example. A patient experienced their father walking out on their family as a young child. They were left to take care of their mother, who blamed the child for their father’s actions. This one incident told the child to things: they had to take care of others, and they were unlovable.
As a child or young adult, a “thin” description like this can control your entire life. Whenever the child experiences rejection, they tell themselves they are unlovable. As they grow up and seek out romantic relationships, they tell themselves that the only way to keep their partner around is to take care of all of their needs. If they try to ask for any support or do anything from themselves, the partner will leave. The patient will see this as further evidence that they are unlovable.
Thin descriptions are the key to understanding why a person may make certain decisions or display certain behaviors. Once these descriptions are unlocked and the current narrative is created, the therapist and patient will move on to view the narrative from a more objective standpoint.
If you grow up telling yourself that you are unlovable, you are going to unconsciously stick to that story. But think about this. What if your best friend were to tell you that they were unlovable? What if your parent told you that? What if a random person in a Starbucks told you that? You’d probably think they were being ridiculous!
Now put yourself in your best friend, parent, or random person in Starbucks’ shoes. If you came up to them and said you were unlovable, despite the story you have been telling yourself for decades, they would also think that you were being ridiculous.
Therapists help patients create narratives so they can step out of their story and view it from an outsider’s perspective. This technique is called externalising.
When you see a friend, stranger, or main character in a book struggling, you are more likely to cheer them on. Why can’t you do the same with yourself? As you externalize and see your problems from an outsider’s perspective, you will be able to see other solutions and have confidence that you can overcome anything that is thrown at you.
This journey that we are each on can feel overwhelming. Your story is your entire life. The feelings that someone may have of being unlovable, or being required to sacrifice themselves for others, that is their whole life. In order to put someone’s personal story into perspective, a therapist may ask their patient to deconstruct the story. Looking at individual incidents show just how “thin” some descriptions are.
A therapist may, for example, look at the incident that appeared to “start it all.” They may talk to their patient specifically about the moment when their dad left them. A child may not have the capacity to understand why a parent may leave their family. They turn the blame on themselves, because a child is at the center of their entire world. The child grows up to believe the story that they told themself as a child because they know no other story.
We are not given many opportunities to revisit these moments and deconstruct them. In therapy, patients may find themselves talking about incidents for the first time in years, or ever. During the deconstruction process, they see the incident in a new light. They might come to the realization that their father leaving them was not about them at all. Their father’s actions may have been caused by the father’s immaturity, their mother’s inability to be a good partner for their father, or a larger reason that has nothing to do with the mother and father at all. The “real” reason” doesn’t matter because in narrative therapy, patients and therapists must acknowledge that there is no “objective reality” or absolute truth. Our reality is created by the stories that we tell ourselves.
This process is easier said than done, but it creates a path for people to see their problems and tell their story in a new light.
When you meet a character in a movie or book who is just unlovable, and does nothing to change their ways throughout the story, you don’t have high hopes for them, do you? The same thing happens when we let one dominant story take over our life. If you were to only tell yourself that you were unlovable, you are not going to have hope that everything will turn around for you one day. You have no “proof” that you will reach that outcome.
Why Is Narrative Therapy Effective?
The beautiful thing about narrative therapy is that through writing the narrative, externalization, and destruction, you will start to see different outcomes for yourself. You will see that you are capable of growth and change. Breaking down a “thin” description prevents it from steering you onto one path. The end goal of this approach is to show you the many possibilities that you have for your future.
Did Sansa Stark let the woman she was in the past, and the beliefs she had, hold her back? No. Did Steve Harrington let his previous jock persona prevent him from becoming a protector to the kids in Stranger Things? No. Are you going to let the person you were in the past, or the incidents that happened outside of your control, right your story? No. Through narrative therapy, you can learn to write your own unique outcomes based on the person that you want to be and the goals you want to achieve.
How to Implement Narrative Therapy Into Your Life
Narrative therapy is a respectful approach that allows patients to look at their life without carrying blame or guilt for setbacks that they have faced. Through this practice, many patients have found a sense of self-compassion that they did not have before. If this approach to therapy interests you, I recommend looking for a therapist that has been trained in narrative therapy. You do not just have to be the main character of your life, going through setbacks and obstacles without any control over the ending to your story. Narrative therapy shows you that you can be the main character and the narrator and the author. The resolution to conflict is up to you. Your “happily ever after” is within your reach. Using this form of therapy, you can finally enjoy the story that you want to live.