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About Narrative Therapy


by Stephen Gaddis


Narrative Therapy is premised on the Narrative Worldview that stories are the primary means that humans have invented to interpret or make meaning out of their lived experiences, including understandings about themselves, their relationships, and “reality” in general. A narrative worldview orients us to the primacy of meaning-making in our lives. Without language organized through narrative structures, we would not know how to make sense of lived experiences in the ways we do. So, if we accept that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are shaped by our relationships with the stories available to us to know something, then the importance of thinking about power from a constitutive perspective becomes critical. 


Constitutive understandings of power have to do with thinking about how power creates, which is distinct from understandings about how power destroys. Stories can be understood as quite powerful in that they help create or constitute reality. However, this then raises questions about how certain stories become dominant and others are subjugated. One answer is that  stories emerge through histories of negotiations and contests between people, where some people have their stories privileged and some people have their stories disqualified.


From this worldview, people and problems are understood as separate, captured in the Narrative Therapy maxim “Problems are Problems, and People are People.” Problems are understood to result from the effects that emerge in the relationships between people and stories. In modern Western culture, where “self” and individualist world views dominate, thinking about problems in this way is unfamiliar. Thus, it is not typically the case that the life support systems for problems are linked to cultural narratives that have attained truth status for meaning-making. Inevitably, this truth status elevates these stories to a taken-for-granted height. This frequently leaves individuals with little sense of their own participation in the relationship with these stories, becoming what Michele Foucualt referred to as “docile bodies.” 


Through developing skills of listening, curiosity, collaboration, and accountability, therapists can work to to counteract these internalizing practices by engaging in externalizing conversations. Externalizing conversations can help re-position people so they re-claim their rights to authorship in the storying of their lives and relationships, which inevitably leads to new possibilities for action that fit better with their hopes and dreams.


A significant explorer and developer of the possible implications a Narrative Worldview can offer helping professionals was Michael White from Adelaide, Australia. In 1990, he co-wrote a seminal book, titled Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, with David Epston. Since that time, a significant narrative therapy literature has grown that expands these possibilities for every imaginable problem affecting people’s lives and relationships. Michael and many more who’ve written about Narrative Therapy have offered me a virtual community of support for the development of preferred stories about who I am working to become as a helpful person.


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