Narrative therapy is a postmodern approach developed in the 1980s by Michael White and David Epston. This theory purports that individuals are influenced by the dominant narratives co-constructed by the individual and the society in which they live. The norms of their society are known as cultural or social narratives. These narratives give the baseline for how individuals understand the world in which they live. Narratives also serve as guidelines for the manner that individual narratives are expected to take form according to the culture or society from which they live.
Each individual operates based on a dominant narrative. This is whatever stories and meanings they have co-constructed and view as representative of themselves and their experiences. This dominant narrative is generally also what individuals seek to confirm in their experiences and becomes the lens through which every experience is seen and colors the meaning they make of each new experience the have or story they hear as they continue through their journey of collecting and interpreting stories into narratives.
A big part of the idea of co-constructed narratives includes the influence of others in the individual’s life. The stories that individuals hear about themselves from family, friends, authority figures, etc. are part of what will eventually become that individual’s narrative. Generally, individuals begin forming a narrative by holding onto certain stories. It is then believed that individuals naturally take in narratives that are similar to, compliment, or support those stories they have already begun to internalize as representative of their own ways of being. In so doing, they may overlook narratives that contradict or provide an alternate version of themselves. These overlooked narratives are known as alternate narratives.
Narrative therapy is not a therapy that ascribes to the idea of pathology. Narrative theorists look at individuals as having problem stories that they have developed for themselves and have become stuck in. In other words, they have formed a narrative based on the narratives about themselves that they have been exposed to and held on to which has led to a version of their narrative that manifests itself in the presenting problem. Individuals often have difficulty separating themselves from these problem narratives and therefore see the problem as an inescapable part of themselves. This leads to the individual feeling like they are stuck and cannot be any other way. Narrative therapists view the existing diagnostic paradigm of pathological conceptualization and diagnosis as perpetuating the problem of this stuckness. When individuals are told that there is a pathology within themselves that may be labeled and categorized, it becomes harder for them to view that problem as something outside of themselves or something that can be changed. The diagnostic label then becomes a narrative in itself and is viewed as something that defines the individual. In a way, the individual becomes attached to the diagnosis and the pathology as the only way to view themselves. This in turn creates more problem narratives and increases the individual’s idea that these narratives are rigid and cannot be changed.
Therapy from this perspective aims to understand an individual and the problem stories they have developed and then collaboratively explore and discover what alternate narratives the individual may utilize. This is generally done through questions asked from a not knowing stance. This is essentially a stance from which the therapist adopts a demeanor of curiosity, seeking to better understand the mysteries of the individual’s understanding of their narratives. This understanding is something that only the individual can reveal. Narrative therapists do not give advice or prescribe alternative narratives. Their role is simply that nonjudgmental curiosity as they embark on the journey of self-exploration with their client. In fact, Madigan stated that he only asks questions in the process of conducting therapy.
The main goal of narrative therapy is to engage with the client in re-authoring conversations, which simply allow “clients to help flush out some of the more neglected areas and events of their lives (often covered over by the problem story being told)” (Madigan, 2011, pp. 81). Essentially, by exploring alternative narratives and shining light on other possibilities, the client may rewrite their own narrative, or re-author it according to the terminology of narrative therapists. This often combined with the intervention of externalizing the problem or distancing the individual from their problem story or the aspects of that problem story that trouble them. This could be seen in a narrative asking a client how they relate to anorexia or how they feel when cutting comes into the room rather than identifying the client as a cutter or an anorexic. In this way, the narrative therapist encourages the client to view themselves as separate from the problem story.
In short, Narrative therapy works collaboratively to help individuals separate themselves from their problems and then utilize existing skills and coping abilities to find an alternate approach to their presenting concerns.
Many theorists within both Narrative and Adlerian theories have written about the similarities and parallels between the theories. White and Epston did not mention Alfred Adler as a source of inspiration during the development of their theory. This may mean that they arrived at their conclusions independently of any knowledge of Adlerian psychology. Given that Adlerian theory preceded Narrative theory by about a century, another perspective may be that because Adlerian theory has influenced so many theories (including Narrative) both directly and indirectly, these theories may be seen as existing in response to the concepts and philosophies pioneered by Alfred Adler. Such theories have come to be labeled as Neo-Adlerian. The purpose of this entry is to identify the ways in which Adlerian theory is consistent with the theoretical frame of Narrative therapy. The basis of comparison will utilize the 14 core features of Adlerian psychology outlined by Maniacci, Carlson, and Sackett-Maniacci (2017): social embeddedness, positive psychology, holism, teleology, creativity, subjective perception of phenomenology, soft determinism, social field theory, motivation as striving, idiographic orientation, psychology of use, acting as if, self-fulfilling prophecy, and optimism. Narrative therapy appears to be in line with 9 of these 14 features.
- Narrative therapy sees individuals as being socially embedded and all behaviors and beliefs may be seen as influenced by relationships (social embeddedness).
- Dominant social narratives and environmental/contextual factors also contribute to the manner in which individuals develop their stories and beliefs (social field theory).
- Narrative therapy sees reality as a sense of self as a co-creation based on the stories the individual hears from others and those they tell themselves (creativity)
- This co-creation leads to a highly subjective and individual interpretation of reality (subjective perception of phenomenology).
- Once an individual selects a narrative based on a portion of their experiences, they interpret events and often even end up following narratives that are in accordance with or confirmation of the original problem narrative (self-fulfilling prophecy).
- Individuals tend to live as though their problem narrative were the truest representation of themselves and their experiences (acting as if).
- Individuals seek treatment when they feel stuck in their current problems story. Narrative therapists see all clients as capable of finding a more useful alternative narrative in order to overcome the present problem (evidence of optimism).
- As therapy progresses, an individual’s strengths and abilities are emphasized so alternative narratives and unique exceptions may be found as evidence that the individual has been capable of moving past obstacles in the past (reminiscent of positive psychology).
- Finally, although narrative theory notes social norms as relevant dominant narratives, therapy focuses on the unique exceptions within the individual’s personal stories and the narratives available to them (making this an idiographic orientation).
There are several areas in which these theories do not overlap.
- Narrative theory is a nondeterministic theory that focuses more on the individual’s interpretation in the present moment than looking for trends or probabilities in human behavior (contrasting soft determinism).
- Additionally, the goal-oriented purposeful movement emphasized by Adlerian theorists is not found in Narrative practice, which focuses more on meaning-making and acceptance (differing from teleological focus).
- Narrative theorists do not look at the use clients have for symptoms or behaviors (leaving out the element for a psychology of use).
- They also do not see clients them as striving to move from a felt minus to a perceived plus. This sense of movement is seen more in the ways in which individuals create stories and narratives to understand themselves, their world, and those around them (a deviation from the Adlerian concept of striving).
In sum, there appear to me more similarities than differences between these theories. Given that 9 of the 14 core features of Adlerian theory were found to be congruent with narrative approaches, those of the Neo-Adlerian persuasion might identify this theory as being 64% Adlerian. An expanded version of this discussion may be found in the paper entitled “Narrative and Adlerian Approaches: Do they Jive in the Neo-Adlerian Fashion?”
Disque, J. G. & Bitter J. R. (1998). Integrating Narrative therapy with Adlerian lifestyle assessment: A case study. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 54(4), 431–450.
Madigan, S. (2011). Narrative therapy. Washington DC: APA Books.
Maniacci, M., Carlson, J., & Sackett-Maniacci, L. (2017). Neo-Adlerian approaches to psychotherapy. Journal of Individual Psychology, In Press.
White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). A Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W. W. Norton & Company