How To Rewrite The Bad Stories You Tell Yourself

Chris Nufer, a late-life depression therapist and family counselor in Virgina, discusses how an increasingly popular form of therapy takes special advantage of our natural tendency to organize how we live using stories.

When people have problems, Narrative Therapy simply asks you to tell a story about your problem. Sounds easy. Stories are how we live. They pour out of us almost without thinking. Just listen to someone who has been pulled over by the police or a student who was late for an exam.

The narrative therapist’s job is to listen to a client’s story, explore what the client has said and in the process help find the internal or external resources necessary to overcome the obstacles they face.

One way to do this is to help clients externalize their problems. This occurs when the therapist helps the clients describe a problem as though it were a character or event in their lives. Once this story has been told, the therapist and client take the opportunity to question certain plot twists, options and outcomes. In the process, the therapist helps clients work with their story lines to rewrite the causes and the outcomes of their problems.

When I’m with a client, I’m listening to the story but, because of my REBT training, I’m listening for clues about how rigid or resilient they are. I’m asking them to flesh out their thinking about a problem in a way they wouldn’t normally. I’m actively challenging them to imagine possibilities and not to think the stories they are telling themselves are written in stone.

The final component of the narrative therapy engagement is the story the therapist writes back to the clients. This is the part I love about this approach. Michael White and David Epston, the fathers of the current person-centered approach to narrative therapy, established the need to document the engagement—much the way a story documents or at least represents events, emotions or personal actions in our lives. For White and Epston, documentation takes the form of a letter. It is in these letters that the real magic of this therapeutic approach takes place.

The final letter may be the story of the mistakes they discovered together and also about the progress they made. It may tell the story of decisions the client may be thinking about making or things they feel are missing in their lives. Whatever the plot twists, the letter is a story about them. And, more than that, it is also a story about them finding the tools and the confidence to get their story straight.