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How Narrative Psychotherapy Helps Us Retell The Stories of Our Lives

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), psychodynamic therapy… Over the past few years, I’ve been exposed to many different types of therapies. I’ve experienced snippets of several therapeutic methods and acquired a certain fondness for concepts inspired by sensorimotor and trauma intervention therapies, respectively.

As an avid reader and aspiring writer, however, I was excited to discover the field of “narrative psychotherapy,” originally created by Australian social worker Michael White and New Zealand therapist David Epston. I was pleased to learn about how narrative therapy focuses on helping individuals feel empowered by assisting them in creating narratives in which they are able to reclaim their agency.

After surveying the existing literature, I came across a book entitled “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience,” written by David Denborough. The introductory chapter, A Life of Stories, begins with the following quote:

“Who we are and what we do are influenced by the stories that we tell about ourselves. While we can’t always change the stories that others have about us, we can influence the stories we tell about ourselves and those we care about. And we can, with care, rework or rewrite storylines of identity.”

Needless to say, the first few lines caught my interest, and the rest of the book ended up being a fascinating as well as satisfying read. Perhaps what I loved most about the book was this idea that in our lives, each one of us has “storytelling rights.” Each individual has the right to define their experiences, and to create a personal narrative they have chosen and written. How we view ourselves — and how others view us — can affect our core identity. Therefore, we have the right to generate “preferred stories” that ring true to us and the experiences we have been through.

Like Denborough suggests, “In all of our lives, there will be events that make us cringe, those that bring heartache, those that bring sorrow, those that bring shame. If those moments are all linked together into a storyline, we can feel truly hopeless about life. But in all of our lives, there will also be events or small moments of beauty, or kindness, or respite, or escape, or defiance. When these events are linked together to tell a story about us, then life becomes easier to live.”

The second concept that stuck with me was this notion that people are not the problem. You are not the problem. Instead, the problem is the problem. “When it comes to retelling and rewriting the stories of our lives, it makes a real difference how we talk about the problems in our lives. If we come to believe that we are the problem and that there is something wrong with us, then it becomes very difficult to take action. All we can do is take action against ourselves.” The idea of “externalizing problems” was quite appealing to me. For example, going from the mindset of “I am depressed” versus “I have depression” was a huge game changer for me. Instead of feeling like my mental illness consumed the entirety of my identity, I was able to stop blaming myself for being ill and felt empowered to solve my issues.

Moving on, I particularly enjoyed the section: “changing our relationship to the problem,” where the author lists action verbs to help you decide how you want to change the problem. For example, you might decide to “go on strike” against or “disempower” the problem. You might choose to “reclaim the territory of your life” against the problem, “decline invitations to cooperate” with the problem, or “steal your life back” from the problem. For me personally, I chose to educate and reduce the influence of my mental illness by writing a heartfelt letter to depression and anxiety, letting them know gently but firmly that they are no longer welcome in my life.

Lastly, the author introduces the concept of “re-grading rituals.” The idea is that sometimes in life, we go through rituals that make us feel small, abused or disempowered, rituals that are otherwise considered “degrading.” In return though, we can engage in significant alternative “re-grading” rituals. For example, I enjoyed the story of a woman who chose to burn her rehab files to celebrate her recovery and her being free of addiction. She even planted trees — in honor of all the paper wasted during her case. In short, we can use rituals to mark the ending of bad times, and we can also engage in rituals to mark the beginning of hopefully better times.

If there’s one thing I’ll always remember about narrative therapy, it’s that your story, and your voice, matters. The story I choose to tell today is very different from the one I would have chosen to tell a few months ago. Instead of feeling trapped by my illness and feeling hopeless about the future, I am now able to embrace and appreciate some of the “by-products” of my illness. Because of my mood episodes, I have learned to appreciate the little things, I have cut toxic people out of my life and I have formed meaningful friendships. I am more grateful for my health, more loving towards those who care about me, and more open to facing my fears. I live my life at times afraid, at times fearless, but always one day at a time, one baby step after another.

Let’s end this piece with a quote:

“Many of us have lived lives outside the ordinary. While some of our different experiences have been very difficult, we have also come to embrace some aspects of this difference. We have questioned a lot about life and have come to some interesting conclusions. We have come to value certain things that once we may not have valued. We have different aspirations these days, different ideas about what is a successful life.”

What is your definition of living a successful life, a life worth living?

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Getty Images photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: January 18, 2018
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