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Life is complex; on this journey, there are ups and downs, achievements, and disappointments. During this process, each of us formulates different narratives that we carry with us based on many factors, such as our perceptions, upbringing or society, which can inform our identities and ways of interacting in the world. Unfortunately, when these narratives focus on our problems, they can lead us towards feelings of hopelessness and even factor into disease states.
Specifically, when it comes to addiction, there are often many unhealthy stories rooted in loneliness, depression, anxiety, shame, trauma, and the like, which are a part of the lives of those who use substances. Fortunately, addiction is a treatable condition that is helped by a combination of approaches, including medication and therapy. Narrative therapy is one such therapy that focuses on empowering individuals by assisting them in rewriting their stories.
By nature, humans are beings who seek meaning and connection. We derive meaning from the stories we create based on the various aspects of our lives.
A narrative is formed by linking certain events, assigning meaning, and selecting aspects that fit in with the overall story, or what is sometimes referred to as the dominant story. This process does not occur in isolation. Other factors affect the development of these dominant stories, such as racial, gender, class, sexual identity, and cultural influences.
These different narratives affect our present and future behavior. At times the narratives we create may be opposing, causing the need for mediation between these different types of stories.
If an individual has a dominant narrative that says, ‘I am worthless,’ they most likely have not only selected the stories (or examples) from their life that appear to validate this narrative but there are doubtless other factors that have contributed to the development of this narrative, as indicated above.
It is evident that narratives are a powerful force in the lives of individuals. So, how can this knowledge be applied in a therapeutic context?
Narrative therapy was developed by therapists Michael White and David Epston, in the 1980s. Believing most traditional therapies’ reliance on problem-solving and pathology to be misguided, White and Epston sought to come up with a more patient-empowering approach that viewed the individual as separate from his problems.
The narrative therapeutic modality shares a philosophical basis with interactionist and constructivist orientations and is grounded in social science research and other theoretical perspectives. Chiefly, the constructivist model highlights strategies that facilitate the generation of alternative stories for the individual, which is central to narrative therapy.
Narrative therapy is a technique that draws on the impact that ‘stories’ has on an individual’s life. As previously mentioned, we all have varying narratives, some may be helpful, but others may not be so beneficial to our well-being.
The process of narrative therapy begins with helping a person to gain self-awareness regarding the narratives they have created to ‘re-author’ their story in healthier ways that increase positive functioning. This transformation is achieved with the therapist through different methods, such as reframing and questioning, ultimately changing how the individual relates to their problems.
The goals of narrative therapy are essential to helping the individual to effectuate change. With the overarching goal of the approach being to promote greater wellness, narrative therapy seeks to:
Individuals and therapists work together to realize the goals of narrative therapy, where the client is the teller of their story, and the therapist acts as a guide.
As the ‘expert,’ the client is encouraged to tell and retell their stories, and the therapist listens and uses various techniques to help the client address problem stories. Through this exchange, the client’s understanding and interpretation of their story evolves, and suppressed stories that contain the individual’s hopes and dreams are brought to the forefront.
The different kinds of stories that therapists encounter are an inherent part of the therapy process. Thin descriptions and thin conclusions describe the meaning attached to many of these stories.
A thin description is a label usually given by others; it is one-dimensional, incomplete, and lacks agency. An example of a thin description might be that due to someone’s behavior, they are seen as ‘being emotional.’ Other people might characterize the person in this way, but the individual might also see themselves this way. This description can affect how others relate to the individual and how the individual interacts with others.
A thin conclusion can serve to cement a thin description. As in the previous example, the person seen as ‘being emotional’ now has their identity tied to this description. This conclusion only further distorts the problem narrative, suppressing any competencies the individual has.
For their part, the therapist seeks to help the client forge alternative stories and thick descriptions.
These are stories created with the therapist but authored by the client. Through conversations, the therapist draws out the client’s preferred stories, which counteract the thin descriptions and conclusions.
Key to minimizing problematic stories is the individual’s ability to ascribe great detail to their alternative stories. These thick descriptions further foster the person’s ability to engage more fully in these new stories.
The therapist will help the client progress through therapy using various techniques. As mentioned, these techniques assist the client by allowing them to explore and reframe their stories, separate themselves from their problems, challenge faulty assumptions, and empower them to act. Some of the methods used are:
The evidence supporting the effectiveness of narrative therapy suggests that by helping individuals to externalize their problems, this modality delivers positive outcomes in how individuals communicate and relate to their problems.
Narrative therapy is useful for many disorders, especially those suffering from unhelpful thought patterns, as is prevalent in depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Specifically, for those struggling with addiction, who are often plagued by feelings of hopelessness, research has shown that narrative therapy offers a range of benefits, including:
Navigating life can be hard enough on its own. However, when dealing with an addiction, it can seem like hope will never be on the horizon.
If you or someone you love needs addiction treatment, SoCal Sunrise offers extensive addiction services for many common substances. Our holistic approach encompasses many options, including individual and group therapy, yoga, fitness, medication management, meditation, and more. And if narrative therapy sounds interesting to you, contact us to discuss how we can help you break free from old stories and find new meaning and a better quality of life.