I’m sitting in Toronto Pearson airport waiting for my return flight to the UK, having just spent a week completing a level 1 course at the Narrative Therapy Centre here in Canada.
I came across some mention of Narrative Therapy (NT) whilst studying my diploma in Careers Education, Information and Guidance, and writing my book I now spend the whole time listening to people’s stories. This encouraged me to find out more, and when I saw that this course was taking place I had a striking feeling that I should book my spot, buy some flight tickets and start learning.
So what is NT and how does it work? Whichever culture we come from and whichever time period we’ve lived our lives in, stories are a really important part of us, whether that’s myth and legend, fairy tales, family stories, gossip or soap operas. Even the most banal of reality TV shows are edited in such a way that a story line emerges. Humans are meaning-making creatures and we constantly scour our experience for patterns and events that fall into some kind of sequence that we can understand. When really horrible things happen,we often describe them as ‘senseless’, outraged that something could happen in our lives that has no logical explanation or purpose. Unable to make sense of our experience we flounder, feeling like the ground is falling away from our feet.
So we have stories that we tell about ourselves, and sometimes the story might be a problematic one. For example ‘I’m hopeless at speaking with people I don’t know’. As we look for evidence to support our story, it becomes ‘thicker’. We think about all of the examples of times we felt awkward in social situations and new workplaces and become more and more certain of our failings. We disregard examples of occasions when we did strike up a friendly or meaningful conversation as these don’t fit with the story. They must somehow be outliers.
NT knows that there is never just one story – we are multi-storied beings. Alongside the story of being hopeless at speaking to people I don’t know might be stories of me having close and ensuring friendships, being a great listener, an excellent judge of character and a mindful speaker. The role of the therapist as I understand it is to explore and thicken these alternative stories. This work may not be the to contradict the original story – to do so might be disrespectful or trite – but to help people to consider themselves more broadly and to move away from a single label. This in turn, might open up new possibilities. For example, labelling myself as being hopeless at speaking to new people might mean that any career working face to face with strangers would be disregarded. However if I explore my stories about being an excellent listener and speaking in a considered way, then I might in fact discover that there are a range of career possibilities available to me that weren’t before.
NT also works to separate the person and the problem. I loved how the trainer described someone “whose life was interrupted by anxiety” rather than “an anxious person”. Anxiety then became an external thing, something more akin to an unwelcome guest at a dinner party, and the person might turn to their other stories to see how they might best deal with it.
Because of its gentle and respectful nature, NT can be used to work with people who have suffered from trauma, including children and young people. On the course we witnessed NT being helpful for survivors of sexual abuse, offenders, young children and couples. In each case, the problem was externalised and examined as something separate from the person. I
Being at the very beginning of my NT journey, my knowledge is small and I’ve probably not done the best job at properly defining this lovely experience. For further reading, see http://dulwichcentre.com.au