narrative therapy 101 - what is narrative therapy, and how can it help me?

Updated: Jan 4

“You were destined for happiness. The kind of happiness that you knew in your early childhood. What happened along the way? Where did it all vanish?”

-Arun Sardana

Imagine, if you will, that from the moment you were born, you were only able to see one color. Let’s say red, for example - everywhere you look, everything you see, it’s a shade of red, from the birds to the trees to even the sky. This would have a huge impact on the way you look at the world, especially if you’ve never known the world could look any other way. One day, you receive a pair of glasses that allow you to see all of the colors you’ve been missing. The sky is now a vibrant blue, the trees alive with shocks of green, the earth itself a deep, warm brown. Your world is transformed into a paradise, no longer filled with monotone hues of red that you believed everything to be entirely made up of.

This is a transformative experience that would forever change the way you perceive the world. What if you could undergo the same thing? Would you put on the glasses?

Narrative therapy is your chance to see things from a whole new perspective. This form of therapy concerns itself with the way you look at yourself and the world. It identifies the stories you’ve been telling yourself since you were born, and helps you to reevaluate them. This practice is essential to finding your happiness, which is why the karuna school of happiness utilizes many of the practices and principles of narrative therapy when guiding our scholars through their transformational karuna journeys. If you’re ready to learn more about what narrative therapy is and how it can change your life for the better, read on.

narrative therapy, unpacked

There are several foundational practices that make narrative therapy what it is. Before we dive into the theoretical foundation behind the practice, though, let’s unpack exactly what it is a little more. Narrative therapy is often known to involve ‘re-authoring’ or ‘re-storying’ conversations.1

The stories that we develop help us to interpret our identities and life experiences, and for a narrative therapist, these stories consist of 4 key concepts:

• events

• linked in sequence

• across time

• according to a plot1

These concepts form our stories, or our understanding of ourselves and our life. We all have a dominant story, although we have many different narratives circulating our heads that tell stories “about ourselves, our abilities, our struggles, our competencies, our actions, our desires, our relationships, our work, our interests, our conquests, our achievements, our failures.”1 The method in which we develop these stories is determined by how we’ve linked certain events together in sequential order, and by the meaning we’ve given them.

the key principles of narrative therapy

The negative identity conclusions we form are caused by many different things beyond our own control, ranging from our families to the cultural context that surrounds our lives. White emphasizes the below core concepts that are integral to the construction of our personal identities: 2

1. our realities are constructed

The essential ideas that lie at the center of western culture and shape our modern-day understanding of life and identity are relatively recent developments in history.

2. we are a product of history and culture

Humanity, and the core concepts that we believe to be true about human nature, are products of history and culture. As White writes, “human nature has not always been what it now is considered to be.”

3. our identities are not fixed

The identities that we feel so tied to, that almost feel like our personal property, have not always been there, and we haven’t always possessed the essential elements that form them.

4. deconstructing these identities helps break them

The act of deconstructing what we perceive to be naturalistic and instinctual accounts of our identities and lives allows us an opportunity to separate ourselves from them. We therefore “don’t have to be so tied to the unquestioned reproduction of them in our lives and in our work with others,” White notes.

While we can reform and reevaluate the identity narrative we’re telling ourselves, White is clear to note that he is not suggesting that we can ever totally free ourselves, or even that we should attempt to avoid, the presence of the above understandings within the construction of our identities. The cultural context of our lives is contemporary western culture, and that is non-negotiable. What is important is that we keep these principles in mind when evaluating the stories that we tell ourselves, most especially when looking at our dominant story.

practicing narrative therapy: core concepts

1. we must learn to become professionals in our own lives

Narrative therapy is first and foremost an approach that emphasizes teaching the patient how to become professionals in their own lives. For this to occur, it’s very important that the individual cooperates with the counselor who is helping to guide them on their journey towards taking back control of their lives.

2. our problems are not our identities

Another key concept to note is that the problems an individual faces must be viewed as separate from that person’s sense of self. In other words, we need to be able to separate our identities from the circumstances we’re surrounded by. Second, but equally important to that concept, is the idea that an individual needs to be able to use their own beliefs, abilities, and values to reevaluate their relation to their problems, and understand the role they play in the formation of their own self-identity.

3. there is no ‘right way’

Finally, the re-storying conversations individuals have with their counselors do not have a set formula, there is no ‘right way’ to conduct a narrative therapy re-storying conversation—it can have several different directions, and there are different ways of having that conversation itself. From art to journaling, the spoken word is not the only way to conduct re-storying conversations. Importantly, narrative therapy also emphasizes the value of inquisitiveness and sincerity as guiding principles for counselors as they take individuals on their journeys towards reassessing the stories they construct their realities and identities through.1

thin conclusions

Narrative therapy began with the writings of two therapists, Michael White and David Epston. One key concept they established was that many people bring negative identity conclusions—such as useless, hopeless, unworthy, inadequate—with them wherever they go.

These negative identity conclusions can become extremely enduring, and, as Michael White writes, when they do endure, “people experience them to be quite capturing of their lives.” These conclusions can serve to be paralyzing when it comes to the problems people face in their lives. They often contribute to the sense that one’s life is being held in suspense, even frozen in time. 2

The identities we’ve formed impact our actions, our perception of the world, and our understanding of ourselves. These negative identity conclusions are referred to by Michael White as ‘thin conclusions,’ and they can quickly form the dominant story that we carry with us that is constantly informing our identity, and impacting our actions and perception of the world.

There are several methods in which narrative therapy begins to break down these thin conclusions, but in order to better understand how many of us have formed these negative identity conclusions in the first place, let’s break down the key principles of narrative therapy a little further.

dominant stories and counterstories

Our dominant story or stories are the highly specific narratives we tell ourselves about our lives and identities. Our dominant story, or master narrative, forms our perspective of the world, and it informs the outcomes we predict when it comes to how future events will unfold. Despite the mental presence of this dominant story or stories, there’s always potential to find alternative viewpoints. These alternative perspectives, also referred to as counterstories, offer different - and more positive - possibilities for looking at our identity and life, and for the coping mechanisms we need to travel through life.

Counterstories don’t just represent a shift in our understanding, as much as they set out to cause that shift themselves.3 The possibility to form counterstories that rework the dominant narrative we’ve been telling ourselves is the true opportunity to try on a pair of those full-spectrum glasses, and see life in full, vibrant color again.

Don’t let your life be guided by narratives that cause you to have a negative outlook on yourself, your life, and your relationships. It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you're ready to rewrite your story of happiness to one of resilience, joy, and inner peace, then come join us in the completely free reimagine happiness™ community. There, you can become part of a vibrant network of karuna warriors and discover the transformational tools and resources we have waiting for you. See you there!

happiness lives here™ welcome home


1 Morgan, Alice. What Is Narrative Therapy?: an Easy-to-Read Introduction. Dulwich, 2000.

2 “Narrative Practice and the Unpacking of Identity Conclusions.” Narrative Practice and Exotic Lives: Resurrecting Diversity in Everyday Life, by Michael White, Dulwich Centre Publications, 2004, pp. 119–147.

3 Lindemann, Hilde. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Cornell University Press, 2001.

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