Narrative Therapy was developed in the 1980’s by Michael White, a social worker from Adelaide and David Epston, a social worker and anthropologist from New Zealand. Their approach, which initially had its roots in Systemic Family Therapy, was revolutionary for many reasons but specifically because of the ways in which it invited practitioners to orientate themselves through the lens of the ‘narrative metaphor’ and to approach people in non-pathologising ways.
Narrative therapy practitioners pay attention to the stories people tell about themselves and their lives. The narrative metaphor speaks to the fact that people ascribe meaning to their experiences through stories whilst also acknowledging that people’s sense of self, their relationships and their lives are shaped by the stories that are available to them, in a specific historical, cultural and social context.
When the stories people tell about their lives become saturated by problems, people’s capacity to see a way out of them can be restricted. It is easy to then conflate their identity with these problems and to draw negative conclusions about who they are and their future. By taking seriously the idea that “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”, narrative practitioners seek to understand how the problem is affecting a person and aim to restore their agency in dealing with the problem. They embrace people’s own knowledge of what it is like to live with their challenges and difficulties. Narrative practitioners often invite the people they’re meeting with to critically examine the influence of power inequalities, normative judgements and dominant discourses in society that can serve to discount certain knowledges and silence particular experiences. Narrative therapy seeks to celebrate the diverse ways people shape their lives and create meaning. Space is created to honour the knowledge and skills that people have gained through lived experiences and to value the historical and cultural connections these might have. By bringing to light alternative stories, limiting understandings are challenged and other ways of relating to the problem become visible which can enable people to see options and take action that are in line with their values and hopes. People have described this non-pathologising and non-judgemental approach to significant suffering (including but not limited to experiences of hearing voices, grief, domestic violence, suicidal thoughts and trauma) as deeply respectful and empowering.
Both Michael White and David Epston continuously researched their therapeutic practice in collaboration with the people they were meeting with and have published extensively. While they were invited to teach their therapeutic approach internationally they inspired practitioners to culturally adapt narrative ideas in their local contexts. Its multicultural applications have been widely recognised. In Australia, narrative therapy has known a large uptake among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners and the narrative practice framework is recommended by the Australian government as best practice for First Nations people. Heavily influenced by feminist thought, narrative practice has historically turned to those subjected to oppression and as such developed strong ethical commitments to attend to issues of marginalisation, to include processes of accountability and to develop partnerships. Communities across the world, from First Nations people in Australia to survivors of genocide in Rwanda, have found strong resonance in narrative practices to heal, connect and make meaning.