The stories we tell shape our world. That’s the idea behind narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy based on the understanding that people have several narratives they constantly tell themselves. It focuses on how storytelling and language shape people’s realities and become their internal dialogue. The therapy was created by Australian family therapist Michael White and New Zealand therapist David Epston in the 1980s.

“Narrative therapy encourages patients to tell their story; it’s a strategy that’s characteristic of a lot of different therapies,” says Jeffrey L. Binder, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Argosy University in Atlanta. “The basic idea is that everybody’s life is an unfolding story with a lot of subplots. The therapy would identify the subplot that is relative to what patient is coming for and help the patient identify patterns or triggers.”

By diving into what influences a person’s stories—from culture and media to religion and relationships—the therapist can unravel and sort these influences. The therapist then helps a patient reinterpret and change their life narratives in a positive way.

How Narrative Therapy Works

With narrative therapy, the patient shares personal stories centered on a problem that requires treatment, such as depression. Rather than seeing depression as something that lies within the patient, the therapist ties the origins of the patient’s depression to external influences, such as society or culture. These elements have framed the patient’s viewpoint and become part of their internal dialogue over time.

In narrative therapy, the person isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem. The therapist acts as a facilitator, an ally, and a good listener as the patient goes on a journey of self-evaluation and self-discovery. The therapy focuses on deconstructing the external negative influences so that they lose their power. The therapy then reinterprets (also called “re-storying” or “re-authoring”) how the patient perceives their life’s story.

Through the storytelling process, the therapist helps guide the patient to uncover alternative, more positive narratives, namely, empowering stories that reflect the patient's abilities, competence, and confidence. Insurance may cover some of the sessions, which are offered as individual or group therapy.

Other Disorders Treated by Narrative Therapy

In addition to depression, patients experiencing the following disorders or problems also seek treatment with narrative therapy:

  • anxiety and phobias
  • stress
  • self-esteem issues
  • eating disorders
  • interpersonal relationship or family problems
  • unhappiness in work, home, or love life

What the Expert Says

“You’re helping someone tell a cohesive story so that what’s going on with them makes sense,” says Jaine L. Darwin, Psy.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Mass. “Memory changes over time, so there is no absolute truth. You may only see the worse parts and not see the good parts. With narrative therapy, you can put things in context and make it more understandable.”