In narrative therapy, the belief is that people are the experts in their own lives and problems are separate from people. As narrative therapists like to say: “The problem is the problem.” The word ‘narrative’ means that the emphasis in narrative therapy is upon the stories of people’s lives and the differences that can be made through particular telling and retellings of those stories.
In many ways, life is the story we tell ourselves. And whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have a story we tell about our lives. A story is like a script. A script tells us what to say and how to act. The script is like a telepromter for our lives. Over time, the script we’ve been living is probably pretty straight-forward: we know the lines, we’ve been through every scene a million times, we know exactly what to expect. By now the script has become second-nature: it’s just who we are.
Because this script tells us who we are, what we’re capable of, and what we can became, for many people, the story we tell to ourselves about ourselves has made it difficult for us to lead the life we would like to lead.
But where do these scripts come from? How do they get written? And are we to blame for a faulty script?
Absolutely not. In fact, oftentimes, the scripts we live out our not even truly our own, but are a product of the programming and conditioning of the people around us, especially in cases of abuse. For many people, especially those who experience early life or developmental trauma, the script that got written was the script that they needed to survive impossible circumstances or events too painful or treacherous for memory. In this way, the script was adaptive. A creative way to survive the untenable – like an invisible shield made out of the human imagination.
This is what we mean in narrative therapy when we say the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem. We have many stories and many ways to tell those stories, but sometimes, for very good reasons, we can’t allow ourselves to see all of them.
In studies done by the gerontologist William Randall on the role personal narrative plays in healthy aging, he found that people who are able to “have a certain distance on things”, and were able to consider numerous perspectives and interpretations of the events in their lives, experienced the greatest sense of well-being and happiness in later life. In other words, by seeing their stories within a broader context, people were less inclined to draw a single, definite conclusion from them.
By being less anchored to single interpretations, especially negative ones, we are less burdened by outcomes. We are less inclined to view traumatic events and personal crisis as grand indictments against ourselves, more able to attach levity and humor to what, in the moment, may be extremely difficult and challenging circumstances. By being less invested in one particular storyline or script, it allows us – or creates the space for us – to be able to remain open to new story lines, new narrative threads, and most importantly, new life experiences.
Gaining the ability to see our lives as a broad spectrum of experiences, instead of feeling limited or restricted, or somehow fated or doomed by our stories, we find ourselves more resilient in times of crisis and hardship, more open and available to whatever comes next. And that is the goal of narrative therapy.