We tend to talk about therapy in a very general sense — “I’m in therapy, I’m starting therapy” — so you might not realize how many types there actually are. Are you undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic therapy? Have you considered music therapy or nature therapy? I’ve been seeing a therapist for a few months, but I didn’t realize that some of our sessions included narrative therapy until, well, I started doing research for this article.
It’s narrative therapy for you, though: it may seem quite subtle. “As humans, we are naturally storytellers,” says psychotherapist Gabriela Arroyo-Grynbal, MA, AMFT. We are constantly consuming narratives, both external (movies, TV, books) and internal (when we tell ourselves stories about what is happening in our own lives). Narrative therapy taps into this habit to help you think deeply about your life and work through difficulties, says Arroyo-Grynbal. It’s about changing your perspective, externalizing your problems, and even finding strengths you didn’t know you had. And yes, you become the main character.
What is Narrative Therapy?
Created in the 1980s, narrative therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses our natural inclination to tell stories about our lives, such as our identity (“I’m a strong person” or “I’m a nervous person”) and the events of life (“I didn’t get the job because I wasn’t good enough”). As human beings, we are constantly constructing stories about ourselves, the things we do, and the things that happen to us. We often accept these stories as the truth, but in reality, they are heavily skewed by our subjective perspectives and opinions. Narrative therapy helps you differentiate, make new connections, and look at yourself and your life, in a more objective light. Essentially, it “seeks to separate the problem from the person,” says Arroyo-Grynbal, creating more space to explore and find nuance.
Compared to other types of therapy, narrative therapy is less behavior-based and more “introspective,” says Arroyo-Grynbal. The idea is that “you become the hero of your own story”. Narrative therapy can help you identify strengths you didn’t know you had while separating your issues from your identity. For example, if you have negative stories or beliefs that you constantly tell yourself, such as “I always procrastinate until the last minute,” narrative therapy can help you reframe them (e.g., “I work well under pressure and with tight deadlines”). .
“It’s about taking this story and finding its nuances and strengths and positives, and telling the story in a new way that might be more helpful than hurtful,” Arroyo-Grynbal said. Depending on your approach, there may also be a creative component, such as writing or drawing. She notes that the process is “really fluid, so you can choose different parts of your life to explore” – whether it’s elements of your past or your present or even a projection into the future.
Narrative therapy techniques
“Each narrative therapy session can be different, depending on what you need and your style,” says Arroyo-Grynbal. “There are so many different ways to tell a story.” Some people might find it helpful to write their story in a journal or tell it verbally to a therapist, but she says drawing, art, or even thoughtful movement can also work. If you undergo narrative therapy with a therapist, you will notice many open-ended questions that will prompt you to look at your life or your assumptions about your life in new ways, such as “How is this issue affecting your life?” “Why do you think this problem affects you in this way? and “How would you prefer things to be?”
One writing technique Arroyo-Grynbal likes is to create chapters for life events or issues you’re working on — with beginnings, endings, and titles. “You can really see the experiences from an outside lens,” she explains. “You externalize things rather than internalize them.” And while you can try narrative therapy techniques on your own, Arroyo-Grynbal notes that working with a therapist in this modality can offer its own benefits. “They can witness the story you’re telling and help connect the dots or add new perspectives that you, the storyteller, might not see.”
No two therapy experiences are the same, and some types of therapy may be more effective for you than others. But if the self-reflective and nurturing nature of narrative therapy appeals to you, Arroyo-Grynbal recommends giving it a shot. It’s a common technique used in therapy, but you may not always realize it. You can always ask your therapist if you are unsure or want help trying narrative therapy. “With people really wanting to do that self-reflection or add something more creative, more interactive, I think it would be very beneficial for them,” she says.