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Narrative Therapy is a form of psychotherapy using narrative, with an approach to helping people that was developed during (and has evolved since) the 1970s and 1980s, in good part by Australian Michael White and his friend and colleague, David Epston, of New Zealand. Their approach became prevalent in North America with the 1990 publication of their book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.


Narrative therapy finds ways of developing insight into the stories of the client’s life. A therapist using narrative therapy is interested in the history of their client. They are searching for an in depth account of the problems that are affecting the client’s life. Narrative therapy is sometimes identified as having the client “re-authoring” or “re-storying” their experiences. These descriptions emphasize that the stories of people’s lives are pivotal to an understanding of the individual (Morgan, 2000).

The word “narrative” refers to the importance that is placed upon the stories of people’s lives and the differences that can be made through specific telling and retelling of these stories. These stories are examines like literary criticism, in which the story line is deconstructed and the plot, characters, and timeline are individually inspected for importance (Cooper & Lesser, 2005).

Every person experiences create many different stories in their life. These stories may be separate from each other, but often they occur at the same time or even overlap. It is even possible that the same event creates many different stories in a person’s life. No single story can summarize a person’s life, and so many stories and examination of these stories is required to help understand the person telling them (Morgan, 2000).


People are the experts of their own lives. When they examine themselves they view their problems as separate from themselves. Within Narrative therapy, people’s beliefs, skills, principles, and knowledge will assist them in reducing the severity of their problems in their lives.

Therapists can assist their clients in telling their story by acting like an “investigative reporter”. The person who is telling the story is intimately aware of the story they are about to tell to the therapist. The client can readily identify the antagonist of their story, and with minimal effort they are able to identify successes they have achieved to combat this problem (White, 2005, pp 2).

The therapist, as an investigative reporter, has many options for questions in the effort of exposing the successes the client has accomplished against their problems. These questions can open an examination of how the problem has influenced the person’s life and what aspects of the problem keep the client from having a productive day. The investigative reporter can also examine the characters in the client’s story to determine which are helping the protagonist, those who are assisting the problem, and what are their plans in the story (White, 2005, pp 2).

Problems may be prevalent in a client’s life. These problems rarely completely destroy their lives. Therapists, as investigative reporters, have many options for questions that are helpful in discovering successes that the client has achieved.

The therapist can help the client identify the aspects of their life that are unaffected by their current problem and discover why they are safe. The therapist can also look into client’s issues and find what skills and knowledge they currently posses to combat the problem and establish new ways to strengthen these skills. Identifying the client’s desires for a better life can also give insights on successes that has had over their problem, as well as views on how they would like their story to turn out (White, 2005, pp 3).

Examination of Sorrow

Problems happen to every person in this world. On the day we are born, we are taken away from what is comforting and what is certain. As we progress through our lives more problems emerge that we must face, and the causes us sorrow. This sorrow is identified by its bearer, and they remember it as they pass through life. Through the telling of this sorrow, the client and the therapist can identify what the client finds significant within their lives.

The examination of a client’s sorrow can show them the inverse. This can broaden the client’s understandings about their moral convictions and bring to light what beliefs and values they hold dear. This examination may also show them a purpose they have always had in life but failed to recognize it, or important commitments within their lives that they have neglected (White, 2005, pp 19).

Different experiences cause different levels of sorrow of every individual. The strength of this psychological pain can show to what degree they hold such values, morals, or purposes. By identifying the severities of their problems, the therapist and the client can understand what the client finds the most important in their life.

Within the process of therapy, these instances of pain and sorrow are identified and fully explored. Through this exploration, concepts that the client first believed as true, may now be identified as false. This revelation by the client can empower the client to make changes in their lives, improve their current situations, and alleviate their inner turmoil (White, 2005, pp 20).

Outsider Witnesses

Within the narrative practice, outsider witnesses are invited listeners to a therapy conversation. They are a third party, neither the client nor the therapist, who is invited to listen and acknowledge the chosen stories and identifying issues of the client. These witnesses only participate in the therapy process after the client and the therapist has concluded their discussion (Diabetes Counselling, 2006).

When it is time for the outsider witnesses to participate, they do not directly comment on the story told by the client. Instead, the witnesses should focus on parts of the stories that caught their interests or engaging. Although the witness is speaking to the client at this time, it is not an actual conversation as the interaction between the client and witness is limited.

There are many aspects of the client’s voicing of the story that the outsider witnesses may comment on. A witness may respond on how the stories provided by the client reminded them of people, events, or feelings that happened in their own lives. They may also report on the language and the feelings that the client invoked within them and how it affected them personally. A witness can also voice to the client how the telling of their story has changed them as a person due to the client’s narrative (White, 2005, pp 15).

Once the outsider witnesses have given their account of the client’s story, the client has the opportunity to respond to their comments. The client can respond in any fashion that they desire. This feedback, although possible gratifying to the witnesses helps reinforce successes and knowledge acquired throughout the therapy, and also shows steps that the client is making to reach their goals.


Briefly, the concepts that constitute narrative approaches are premised on the notion that people organize their lives into stories, thus the use of the narrative or text metaphor. Identity conclusions and performances that are problematic for individuals or groups signify the dominance of a problem-saturated story. Problem-saturated stories gain their dominance at the expense of preferred, alternative stories that often are located in marginalized discourses. These marginalized knowledges and identity performances are disqualified or invisibilized by discourses that have gained hegemonic prominence through their acceptance as guiding cultural narratives. Examples of these subjugating narratives include: capitalism; psychiatry/psychology; patriarchy; heteronormativity; and Eurocentricity. Furthermore, binaries such as healthy/unhealthy; normal/abnormal; and functional/dysfunctional ignore both the complexities of peoples’ lived experiences as well as the personal and cultural meanings that may be ascribed to their experiences in context. By conceptualizing a non-essentialized identity, narrative practices separate persons from qualities or attributes that are taken-for-granted essentialisms within modernist and structuralist paradigms. This process of externalization (White & Epston, 1990) allows people to consider their relationships with problems, thus the narrative motto: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” So-called strengths or positive attributes are also externalized, allowing people to engage in the construction and performance of preferred identities. Operationally, narrative involves a process of deconstruction and meaning making achieved through questioning and collaboration with the clients. While narrative work is typically located within the field of family therapy, many authors and practitioners report using these ideas and practices in community work (Dulwich Centre, 1997, 2000), schools (Winslade & Monk, 1999; Lewis & Chesire, 1998), and higher education (Nylund and Tilsen, in press).

The term "Narrative Therapy" has a specific meaning and is not the same as Narrative psychology, or any other therapy that uses stories. Narrative Therapy refers to the ideas and practices of David Epston, Michael White and other practitioners who have built upon this work. The Narrative Therapy focus upon narrative and situated concepts is the therapy. The Narrative Therapist is a collaborator with the client in the process of discovering richer ("thicker" or "richer") narratives that emerge from disparate descriptions of experience, thus destabilizing the hold of negative ("thin") narratives upon the client.

Although different Narrative Therapists work somewhat differently (for example, Epston uses letters and other documents with his clients, though this particular practice is not essential to narrative therapy), there are several common elements that might lead one to decide that a therapist is working "narratively" with clients.

Common elements

  • An understanding of textual practices and, in particular, narrative as constitutive of reality, as when a client's presenting concerns are described as the "dominant narrative" in the client's life;
  • An appreciation for the power of texts, especially in therapy, as when a client is given "A Graduation from Depression Certificate";
  • An "externalizing" emphasis, such as by naming problems as if they were alive and separate from the client, as in "What does Depression want your life to look like?";
  • A focus on "unique outcomes" (a term of Erving Goffman): experiences that wouldn't be predicted by the plot line of the problematic story.

Theoretical foundations

See also



  • Cooper, M. & Lesser, J. (2005). Clinical Social Work Practice: An Integrated Approach (2nd ed.) (pp. 162). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Epston, David & White, Michael(1992). "Experience, Contradiction, Narrative & Imagination: Selected papers of David Epston & Michael White 1989-1991" , Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications)
  • Freedman, J & Combs, G (1996), "Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities" New York: W.W. Norton & Co.)
  • Gerald Monk, John Winslade, Kathie Crocket, David Epston, (1997), "Narrative Therapy in Practice, The Archaeology of Hope" edited by San Francisco: Jossey-Bass)
  • Payne, Martin (2000),"Narrative Therapy, An Introduction for Counsellors" London: Sage Publications)
  • Weingarten, K (1998). The Small and the Ordinary: The Daily Practice of a Postmodern Narrative Therapy.Family Process 37:3-15, 1998
  • White, M & Epston, D (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends New York: W.W. Norton & Co.)
  • White, M (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice.


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interpretation of narrative: Theory and practice (pp. 45–66). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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psychotherapy: The fruits of a new observational unit. Psychotherapy Research, 2, 277–290.

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& M. J. Mahoney (Eds.), Constructivism in Psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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