LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Narrative Therapy ft. David Newman

When you’re asked questions like “What’s your story?”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Today let’s take time to realise the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and others, while talking about our lives.

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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

We’re in conversation with Narrative Therapist, David Newman. He has an independent counselling practice through Sydney Narrative Therapy, works at a psychiatric unit for young people, and is a faculty member of the Adelaide based Dulwich centre, one of the homes of narrative therapy and community work.

Hey, David!

David – Hi, Valerie. It’s nice to be here.

Valerie – Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Let’s start with you telling us what narrative therapy is and how it relates to and aids our mental health.

David –Well, in short Narrative Therapy is an approach to therapy and community work. It’s something that social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses will do in their work, when they’re doing counselling work or therapeutic work. But if I just go back just a tiny little bit, Narrative Therapy found some of its understandings through the cognitive revolution and the idea that we are meaning-making and thinking people, the human race, and that one of the ways that we make sense of things or make meaning is through the lens of a narrative, that in order to be able to make sense of things, we need to have the lens and it’s through the lens of a narrative. So that’s where some of the ideas and the impetus of Narrative Therapy came from and these go back in time to probably about the 1950s in terms of what was happening in psychological theory at the time. 

Now Narrative Therapy is an idea that you might say comes from a post-structuralist understanding that is about the plurality of life and about the inconsistencies and the contradictions in life and in identity and one way that that’s taken up in narrative practice is to say that life is always multi-storied, so as a narrative practitioner, we’d always be assuming that someone is not just the problem story, they’re not just a bundle of despair or anxiety or panic, but there’s also other glimpses of life that are outside of those stories and the narrative practitioner is wanting to breathe life into those glimpses, when people aren’t being able to cope or take action in life. 

Life is multi-storied but Narrative Therapy also contextualizes it. Identity is seen as a contextual and social achievement. In other words, we are really interested in looking at what happens around people so you might call it a sociological approach or analysis to the shaping of stories. What that means in terms of Narrative Therapy practices is that broadly speaking, the first thing you might say about Narrative Therapy is that it looks at the context of people’s lives and not the problem with people, so it does what we call “externalizing the problem”. Externalizing the problem is imagining and speaking or writing or drawing, or whatever it might be, as if the problem stories are separate from people. So people are in a relationship to despair, people are in a relationship to a suicidal experience, people are in a  relationship to addiction or conflict, or whatever the problem might be. That’s called externalizing and that’s a big part of the conversation. 

The second thing to say about Narrative Therapy practice would be that when we find an aspect of life outside of the externalised problem story, we really want to ask a lot of questions and be very curious and listen out for stories that can be built on, like stories of coping, stories of skills of living.

Valerie – That’s really interesting. You look at it from a perspective of knowing that life is multi-storied and that you don’t just look at the problems but you try to look at it in context to your life and then try to work around that.

David – Yeah, that’s right.

Valerie –  Personally, what is it that got you interested in narrative therapy?

David – So Narrative Therapy, for me, is not just critique. Narrative Therapy is certainly critique and is responding to some of the politics of psychology and counselling and therapy and community work at the time, in the 80s and late 80s but it wasn’t just critique, it was also practice. So seeing in these ideas a strong engagement with power, a strong engagement with issues of culture and a non-pathologizing stance but there were full of very very elegant practices. Very elegant and very effective practices. So it was both a critique mixed with practice and I was really drawn to that.

The other thing that drew me to Narrative Therapy was that it is very non-individualistic. It was about connecting people and joining people around similar experiences including joining people with their own communities. So therapy or community work wasn’t sort of cut off from life so much, the world of the person was brought into therapeutic process much more than I’d seen in other approaches.

Finally, I was really drawn to the way that Narrative Therapy engaged with personal story, the personal story of the therapist. Around the time in the 70s and 80s, there was quite a lot of pathologizing of what was considered sometimes problematic motive for why people would get engaged with therapy – that they had something often that would be spoken of as an unmet need and in Narrative Therapy, there was an engagement with personal story that would be acknowledging and honoring a personal story as shaping of purposes that you brought to the work – that because you know something about how hard life can get as a therapist, you want to bring that kind of purpose to the work because maybe if you know a little but about what it’s like to have a parent who has an alcohol problem, you’ll bring that determination to do something about it and have skills around what you can do around those experiences, that you can bring to the work. So it’s engaging with their personal story in a way that was acknowledging and honoring, rather than pathologizing and dismissing.

Valerie –  It’s beautiful that would help somebody with their personal problems and personal story in a way that you engage with them as opposed to stigmatizing it, and then you help them through that in a way that you’re also concerned because you can connect it to something from your own personal life.

David – Yeah. So for instance, one practice of Narrative Therapy would be to let people know, let couples or families or individuals know that you have been taken somewhere else in your life as a result of the conversation, you have other ideas for your life as a result of the conversation or as a result of the work. You know that as a result of hearing how determined this person is to listen better to their child, that you will take that with you too in your parenting or something like that. So yes, there are particular practices where we let people know how we’ve been moved somewhere else as a result of the conversation. Typically in Narrative Therapy, this is an aspect of re-telling someone’s story, it’s honoring or acknowledging re-telling a story when we tell them how someone’s story has taken us.

Valerie –  Yes. David, what age groups have you found narrative therapy impact the most and what are the different ways through which people can tell their stories? 

David – I would say that because Narrative Therapy really engages with meaning-making, that’s what it’s interested in and the meaning-making lens as I said earlier, that is privileged in narrative practices is storytelling, I would say anybody at any age can take part in these conversations and in this work. I would say for children who are very young, there might be some limitations in terms of language but I would say even from as young as 3 or 4, I think, children can use language to describe their experience in ways that we can shape a therapeutic conversation of sorts. I think the limitations to the age is not so much the age of someone, it’s the limitations of the workup and the extent to which they’re bringing particular practices and ways of talking that are resonant for the person, they’re a part of the person’s culture, they’re a part of the person’s way of doing things, or style. 

In terms of how stories can be told, I think it can be not just about the spoken word, and quite often therapists will ask people to draw a picture of their worries or a picture of depression. That’s a way that we can engage with meaning-making or some sort of communication. There’s also ways that therapists have been exploring music, and that’s another option. There has been a huge explosion of using metaphors as well in Narrative Therapy, so we bring a metaphor that might be resonant, often the metaphor of the tree of life and how people might use a tree as a metaphor to speak about their lives – the roots are where you’ve come from, etc. and that’s another way that we can tell stories. This is another more recent development over the last ten years of how metaphors are being richly engaged in telling stories as it has lots of advantages including that people can speak indirectly about experiences which can help enormously when people have had a traumatic experience and it’s very hard to speak about it directly.

Valerie – David, can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Narrative Therapy session? How does a narrative therapist understand people and help them through their problems?

David – I think something that’s reasonably common to many approaches to therapy and community work is that the narrative therapist is really interested in the experience of someone. They really want to get a rich sense of the experience of someone. Narrative Therapy is very interested in using and reflecting back the language that someone uses. In fact, Narrative Therapy would take a position against re-wording what someone says and representing it through a professional expert kind of language or psychiatric language. It would be about trying to use the language that people bring. Someone might speak about way out thoughts or dire thoughts as opposed to for instance the psychiatric term that gets imposed sometimes as “suicidal ideation”. 

A Narrative Therapist is listening out for a problem story and how they are being described, and the effects of the problem story. So if someone did speak about dire thoughts, we would be asking about the effects of the dire thoughts, what the dire thoughts might be saying, what gives the dire thoughts power,  the context through which the dire thoughts might be getting a lot of power but we understand, because life is multi-storied, we understand that there are always glimpses of life, often they’re in the shadows of the problem story but there are always glimpses of life outside of the problem story and the narrative therapist is always listening out for those glimpses and trying to take note of them, listening carefully for them. 

So we’re listening for the problem story and we’re listening for glimpses outside of the problem story, which in Narrative Therapy, we call alternative stories or preferred stories, sometimes they’re also referred to as second storis or subjugated stories, and we want to breathe life into those other stories and help them come out of the shadows of the problem story.

Valerie –  Is it possible for people to find their stories through the stories of others’ lives, or while playing a role in someone else’s life?

David – I have been very interested in the idea of people finding their stories through the stories of others’. For the last eight or so years, I’ve been working part time at a psychiatric unit for young people in Sydney, and I do many many groups. In these groups, one thing I’ve noticed is that people will often find their own language and their own experience, when they hear someone else’s experience. I might be doing a round in a group and the opening question might be “What’s something that’s rough for you?”. Someone might say “I really don’t know” and then we’ll go through a few people answering what they think is rough for them and then all of a sudden someone who didn’t know how to describe just how rough things are and how to describe the turmoil will find words for it. They’ll find words because they realise that there’s an overlap of an experience or story with someone else, or the opposite – they’ll know that that story or experience does not speak to them, and in that sense, they’ve got a sense of what does speak to them. They have a sense of a little bit of what their story is

This concept of people finding their stories from the stories of others’, I’ve found incredibly helpful in work because it means I put much less pressure on people to speak because they’ll speak once they hear something either of their own experiences reflected in others or not reflected in others. I also use this very much with the written word. These alternative or preferred stories, in Narrative Therapy, there’s a long tradition of writing down these stories so people can have them when they go, or that they can donate these stories to other people who are going down a similar path. We share these stories later or documents in the group so that people get a sense of their own stories through the stories that have been written down. So that’s one thing that I’ve found very very helpful.

Valerie – David, thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy. There is so much that we got to learn from you today, getting a better insight into what Narrative Therapy is. We learnt that it’s about meaning making and making sense of things through the lens of a narrative. We learnt that life is always multi-storied and you look at the glimpses of life outside your problems. That is such a beautiful thing, that you connect with experiences, you connect people with experiences and you can also relate to other people’s experiences to form your own narrative and find your story through that. Thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy today.

David – My pleasure, Valerie. I hope it was of use.

Valerie – Thank you.

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