What is narrative therapy?
Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the stories – or narratives – that individuals, families, and even entire cultures tell themselves.
The theory of narrative therapy rests on the idea that people’s challenges and identities do not come solely from within themselves and their personal experiences; rather, they come from the many contexts surrounding people and the stories that people learn to tell about themselves, their relationships, and their roles in the world.
Narrative therapy seeks to help you understand and reshape these stories and, by gaining perspective on them, claim the role of authorship in your own life.
Narrative therapy views clients as the experts on their own lives, with the therapist serving as a guide and partner rather than an authority figure. It also assumes that individuals are separate from their problems, with sessions generally emphasizing curiosity, exploration, and the potential to create more positive stories to reshape current challenges.
The course of narrative therapy can vary from only a few sessions to a longer, ongoing process. It can also be used in conjunction with other forms of psychotherapy such as psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
What narrative therapy can help with
Narrative therapy can be a helpful strategy for just about anyone, since it focused on the near-universal human impulse to tell stories and make meaning out of the events of our lives.
It may be particularly helpful for couples or families seeking therapy, since it emphasizes the unique value of each person’s perspective and interpretation of reality. Additionally, it’s one of the few therapeutic modalities that specifically uses a social justice lens, through its emphasis on the strength of societal narratives and the need to understand the impact they can have on marginalized populations. Accordingly, narrative therapy may be especially appealing for individuals with marginalized racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender identities.
Effectiveness of narrative therapy
The quantitative evidence base for narrative therapy is relatively small, but some qualitative studies have found that clients report positive outcomes after treatment with narrative therapy. 
Additionally, quantitative studies have found significant improvements after using narrative therapy for a variety of issues, suggesting that it may be effective in a range of circumstances that have not yet been documented. For example, one study found that narrative therapy helped improve young children’s social skills, while another indicated that narrative therapy can helpful for adults struggling with depression.
How narrative therapy works
Accordingly to the core concepts of narrative therapy, there is no objective reality that everyone shares; rather, reality is actively constructed by the stories that individuals and societies tell. By recognizing this reality, individuals can learn to examine what kinds of stories are defining their realities and explore how to retell them for more positive outcomes.
Because storytelling is a natural human tendency, narrative therapy taps into this inclination and uses basic storytelling concepts such as plot, timelines, key events, and characterization to help individuals gain distance from their personal experiences and find opportunities for desired change. Narrative therapy also assumes that individuals are living many stories simultaneously, some of which are shaped by societal forces that they cannot control.
For example, an individual struggling to advocate for herself at work might work with a narrative therapist to uncover the hidden story of her self-perception as a polite, helpful woman. This process could include identifying key events and people from her past that constitute the plot points and characters in that story, and it could also involve identifying societal narratives that relate to her challenges – for example, the mainstream narrative, reinforced by media and lived experience, that nice women are the ones who succeed. By seeing her personal struggles as the product of these intersecting stories, the woman in this example may be able to discard aspects of the stories that she no longer believes and choose instead to build an alternative narrative that includes a new role for herself.
Viewing oneself as a character shaped by external events can also increase self-compassion and help reduce harsh, critical self-talk.
Structure of narrative therapy sessions
As in most forms of psychotherapy, you’ll likely spend your first session or two building rapport with your therapist and identifying the issues you’d like to focus on in therapy.
From there, you’ll continue to lead a discussion of these issues, with your therapist helping you to find opportunities to bring a narrative lens to the process. This might include piecing together the various stories that you’ve built about yourself over time, as well as working together to analyze the larger family, community, or societal stories that relate to your current situation.
Narrative therapists generally do not offer advice or judgment; rather, they will encourage you to view yourself as an expert on your life and help you identify the tools, skills, and knowledge already at your disposal.
What happens in a typical narrative therapy session
The specific activities of narrative therapy can vary widely, but some common exercises that you might undertake with your therapist include:
- Listing the dominant narratives that are most meaningful to your self-concept, then examining how these stories came to be.
- Looking for alternative narratives within the events and experiences of your life. Where are there exceptions to your dominant narratives, and what kinds of stories might these exceptions suggest?
- Analyzing your narratives for themes, symbolism, and other recurring ideas that might be influencing your interpretation of your life.
- Externalizing problems by practicing viewing them as separate from yourself. For example, you might think of yourself as an essentially incompetent person and locate this problem within yourself, when really your problem is that you’ve been making mistakes at work recently and need strategies to change this behavior. A narrative therapist can help you make this distinction between internal flaws and external problems.
What to look for in a narrative therapist
All narrative therapists should have an advanced degree in mental health treatment and a current license to practice, as well as additional training and education specifically in narrative treatment.
Narrative therapists may come from a variety of fields including social work, psychology, and psychiatry. Some narrative therapists also have certifications from training institutes such as the Dulwich Centre, which was founded by the early developers of narrative therapy.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.