How to Use Narrative Therapy to Help Clients Locate Alternate Stories By Phil Lane, LCSW on 4/2/24 - 8:49 AM

As a practicing psychotherapist, I hear a lot of stories. These stories are, without fail, complex, nuanced, and multidimensional. But, often, clients come to therapy with a singular focus on only one element of their larger story. In narrative therapy, the term is “problem-saturated” story. Part of my work as a therapist is to guide clients to widen their lens beyond this problem story and recognize that many of their stories are actually a story within a story (within a story). The act of locating these missing story parts and creating an alternate narrative is a way to alter the problem-saturated story and to clear the way for a new, more accurate, and helpful story to emerge.

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I enjoy little more than when a therapeutic opportunity presents itself — it feels like a gift. So, when John, a 76-year-old gay man, shared his story with me, it came with a giant bow on it: here was a perfect opportunity for a narrative therapy approach. John’s story began like this. It felt as if he had spent his entire life being “sneaky,” and feeling remorseful for what he described as his “untrustworthy ways.” As he began to share his life story, however, a very different story presented itself.

A Secreted Life

Born in the late 1940’s, John grew up in a small rural town where conservative and traditional values around relationships and marriage prevailed. His parents, both uneducated immigrants, neither understood nor accept homosexuality. When John, in his teens, shared his preference for men, his parents agreed that he should not be permitted to remain in their home. Though they apologized years later and expressed regret for rejecting him, John had difficulty letting go of their implicit message that being gay was something to be ashamed of and, therefore, secreted.

The telling of this “thin version” of the story, as narrative therapists call it, seemed to offer multiple therapeutic opportunities. First, we could explore where this story originated. In this case, demographics, social norms of the time, and institutionalized beliefs were what Stephen Madigan might term the “undergrowth” of John’s narrative. Next, we could investigate if this was, in fact, John’s narrative or someone else’s.

Parenthetically, clients often “inherit” or are burdened with others’ stories which they take on as their own. In this sense, they become colonized. Getting back, it was, without question, a story his parents had told and not necessarily a story John believed, though he had introjected and accepted it. This is, in essence, what narrative therapy is about; an honest investigation of the stories we tell ourselves. Once clients have investigated these narratives, they are free to begin challenging them, updating them, and cultivating new, more compassionate self-stories.

A Therapeutic Path Forward

I saw my role as guiding the investigation into John’s story. In one therapy session, I asked him to tell me about life as a gay man in the mid-1960s, when he was in his twenties. He replied, “well, we had to be careful.”

“Even sneaky?” I asked. He smirked, understanding where I was going with the question.

“Well, yes, sometimes we had to be sneaky,” he conceded. We began to discuss how that behavior that John had so automatically viewed as “bad” was, actually, a product of the times, the geographical area, and the social climate. John went on to describe how he found community with other gay men and with straight people who were accepting of his lifestyle. Missing story parts were coming to the surface and alternate story was emerging.

John’s “problem story,” for a long time, had been: “I was sneaky. That was bad and therefore, I was bad.” It was now morphing to sound more like this: “I had to behave a certain way at a certain time for reasons that were out of my control.” This is the way uncovering alternate stories works. The more he started telling and revising his story, the more he began to recognize that there was far more to his tale than the theme of ‘badness.’ Musing aloud, John drew a conclusion: “so I guess I wasn’t really sneaky. I was just finding a way to live my life.”

“The life that was right for you,” I added. Be clear that in this session, John and his story did the bulk of the work, not me. I merely guided the conversation using a narrative questioning approach.

Armed with a new story, John slowly shed his previous negative self-label. More than that, he began to view himself as an asset to humanity rather than as a stain on it. He explained that he had discovered a new fondness for sharing his story with younger generations so that they could understand how his generation’s struggles had helped pave the way for the greater level of inclusion that LGBTQIA+ people experience today. The alternate story ended up being much for helpful to John and to those he shared it with than had been the long-standing problem-saturated story.

When clients tell me they are “just rambling” or “going off on a tangent,” I often explain that it is necessary for me to understand their story — and all of its elements. What they may see as rambling, I see as vital to my comprehension of their story. The same way I would struggle to understand a novel if I read only a few pages, I would not fully comprehend a client’s life story if I was given only a few facts.

Narrative therapy, for me, is an exercise in wholeness; it encourages clients to stand back and look at their lives from an expansive, panoramic vantage point. From a higher plateau, clients begin to identify story parts that had been obscured and to cultivate a more complete telling of their lives. Part of the honor I experience as a psychotherapist is that I am often welcomed into a client’s story. I can give back by helping my clients to see their stories as important, valuable, beautiful, and are they.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections