We tend to talk about therapy in a very general sense — "I'm in therapy, I'm starting therapy" — so you might not realize how many different types there actually are. Are you doing cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic therapy? Have you thought about music therapy or wilderness therapy? I've been seeing a therapist for a few months, but I didn't realize that some of our sessions included narrative therapy until, well, I started doing research for this article.
That's narrative therapy for you, though: it can feel quite subtle. "As humans, we're naturally storytellers," psychotherapist Gabriela Arroyo-Grynbal, MA, AMFT, says. We're constantly consuming narratives, both externally (movies, TV, books) and internally (when we tell ourselves stories about what's happening in our own lives). Narrative therapy taps into that habit to help you think deeply about your life and work through struggles, Arroyo-Grynbal says. It's about shifting your perspective, externalizing your problems, and even finding strengths you didn't know you had. And yes, you get to be the main character.
What Is Narrative Therapy?
Created in the 1980s, narrative therapy is a therapeutic technique that utilizes our natural inclination to tell stories about our lives, such as about our identity ("I am a strong person" or "I am a nervous person") and life events ("I didn't get the job because I wasn't good enough"). As humans, we're constantly building stories about ourselves, the things we do, and the things that happen to us. We often accept those stories as the truth, but in reality, they're heavily skewed by our subjective perspectives and opinions. Narrative therapy helps you tease out the difference, make new connections, and look at yourself and your life in a more objective light. Essentially, it "seeks to separate the problem from the person," Arroyo-Grynbal says, creating more space to explore and find nuance.
Compared to other types of therapy, narrative therapy is less behavior-based and more "self-reflective," Arroyo-Grynbal says. The idea is that "you get to be the hero of your own story." Narrative therapy can help you identify strengths you didn't know you had while separating your problems from your identity. For example, if you have negative stories or beliefs that you constantly tell yourself, such as "I always procrastinate until the last minute," narrative therapy can help you reframe them (e.g., "I work well under pressure and with tight deadlines").
"It's taking that story and finding the nuances, the strengths, and the positive parts of it, and retelling the story in a new way that might be more helpful than hurtful," Arroyo-Grynbal says. Depending on your approach, there can also be a creative component, like writing or drawing. She notes that the process is "really fluid, so you can pick and choose different parts of your life to explore" — whether that's elements of your past or present or even projecting forward into your future.
"Every narrative-therapy session can look different, depending on what you're needing and what your style is," Arroyo-Grynbal says. "There are so many different ways of telling a story." Some people might find it helpful to write their story in a journal or relate it verbally to a therapist, but she says that drawing, art, or even thoughtful movement can also work. If you're doing narrative therapy with a therapist, you'll notice lots of open-ended questions that prompt you to look at your life or your assumptions about your life in a new way, such as "How does this issue affect your life?" "Why do you think this issue is affecting you this way?" and "How would you prefer things to be?"
One written technique Arroyo-Grynbal likes is creating chapters for life events or problems that you're working through — complete with beginnings, endings, and titles. "You can really see the experiences from an outside lens," she explains. "You're externalizing things rather than internalizing them." And while you can try narrative-therapy techniques out on your own, Arroyo-Grynbal notes that working with a therapist in this modality can offer its own benefits. "They can witness the story you're telling and help connect the dots or add new perspectives that you, the storyteller, might not see."
No two experiences are the same when it comes to therapy, and some types of therapy might work better for you than others. But if the self-reflective and empowering nature of narrative therapy appeals to you, Arroyo-Grynbal recommends giving it a shot. It's a commonly used technique in therapy, but you might not always realize you're doing it. You can always ask your therapist if you're not sure or if you want them to help you try narrative therapy. "With people who really want to do that self-reflection or add something more creative, more interactive, I think it would benefit them a lot," she says.