The Narrative Metaphor

In this chapter we examine how stories are an important frame through which we make meaning of our lives. In each reading and video provided we invite you to be on the lookout for the multi-stories of people’s lives rather than a single story.

Photo: Shaun Tan: Eric (with permission)

 

This dot exercise from Jill Freedman and Gene Combs was animated by Will Sherwin to help you visualise the Narrative Therapy concept of ‘multi-storied lives’.

 

For more from Jill and Gene you can go to narrativetherapychicago.com.

For more from Will Sherwin and Bay Area Narrative Therapy Resource, trainings and radio shows you can go to sfbantr.org.

 


 

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. In ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ she speaks about how our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories.

 


 

We have included here an extract from Alice Morgan’s influential and highly popular text in which she provides a brief introduction to the narrative metaphor

What is Narrative Therapy – An Easy to Read Introduction | Alice Morgan

 


 

In this short extract Michael White’s speaks about the possibilities that the narrative metaphor opened up in his therapeutic work, what attracted him to the narrative metaphor and offers an example of how the narrative metaphor shapes therapeutic conversations.

The narrative metaphor in family therapy | an interview with Michael White


 

What is the narrative of our lives – and can we influence the way our story is told? Michael White and Barbara Brooks, a memoir writer, join producer Gretchen Miller in conversation on ABC Radio National and online. Michael and Barbara joined Gretchen Miller to talk about the grand narratives of our lives and how much influence we have over the way our story unfolds

The Power of Storytelling

 


This (draft) Charter proposes a framework for considering storytelling rights. We hope it will spark discussions about the rights of people who have experienced trauma/social suffering in relation to how their stories are told and received.

Narrative Therapy (Draft) Charter of Story-Telling Rights by David Denborough

Article 1  Everyone has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.

Article 2  Everyone has the right for their life to be understood in the context of what they have been through and in the context of their relationships with others.

Article 3  Everyone has the right to invite others who are important to them to be involved in the process of reclaiming their life from the effects of trauma.

Article 4 Everyone has the right to be free from having problems caused by trauma and injustice located inside them, internally, as if there is some deficit in them. The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.

Article 5 Everyone has the right for their responses to trauma to be acknowledged. No one is a passive recipient of trauma. People always respond. People always protest injustice.

Article 6  Everyone has the right to have their skills and knowledges of survival respected, honoured and acknowledged.

Article 7  Everyone has the right to know and experience that what they have learnt through hardship can make a contribution to others in similar situations.

 


 

Photo: Shaun Tan: Eric

For Reflection 

 

How would you describe the narrative metaphor?

 

What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?

 


 

Please now share your thoughts & reflections below and then continue to the next chapter! Please include where you are writing from (City and Country). Thanks! 

This Post Has 885 Comments

  1. Avatar

    doolgunna

    A very good way of looking at trauma through a trauma informed practice. The multifaceted way of approaching narrative therapy and the multiple layers of stories and looking for secondary stories and ways of thinking and providing alternative stories.

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    Michel Gantous

    Hello from Mexico City!

    I find it fascinating how narratives can be so powerful in directing our lives and often times without us being aware of the fact that it’s happening. In this way narrative therapy seems to be a great anti-deterministic tool that can help us unentangle some of the ways in which we don’t notice our own immersion in ideological structures. I also wonder how narrative practices can be of use in helping us bring forth the complexity of narratives which are not solely about our own lives, but about larger social issues such as gender, sexuality, race, etc.

    And a question: might narrative complexity ever become more of an epistemological frame with which, say a therapist (or anyone) would automatically look at the world rather than a tool one has to remember to use each time it’s needed? If so, how does would the function of story telling shift within one’s subjectivity?

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    christopher.sullivan

    As meaning making machines, we’re quick to create narratives that reinforce our experiences, be them positive or negative. The exploration of multiple storylines as a means to diverge from a singular path brings so much opportunity for all of us to reflect on how dynamic, complex, and multilayered we are both in our past and in our present. Subsequently we’re then laying the groundwork for a finely woven future blanket that consists of many threads combining to inform our continued existence.

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    areynolds

    First chapter complete and I am feeling more informed already. There is so much power in the stories that people tell themselves, how they define themselves based on a linear conclusion of their lived experiences. Life is much more complex than a straight and narrow story. Narrative Practice opens doors for us to explore how we define ourselves, and understand those around us both internally and externally.
    My favourite take away from this chapter is the quote that “the person is not the problem, the *problem is the problem and the solution is not only personal”.

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    TamaraAspell

    Hello from The Okanagan Syilx unceded, ancestral territory in BC Canada!
    The learning to be had from all the amazing responses so far – I love this platform & am humbled to participate & learn alongside all of you!! :O)
    I believe the narrative metaphor offers a rich, deeper glimpse into the back-story of one’s life, how we were shaped, what has contributed to making us who we are. The stories bring more color (a mosaic if you will!), that lead to compassion, self & other understanding, increasing value & investment in the relationships that we have in our lives. Other perspectives and narratives add layers to how we view our selves, what we have lived through, thus contributing to resilience of the human spirit.
    thank you for reading!!
    respectfully submitted,
    tamara aspell

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    Melinda

    Writing from Gurumbillbarra Country on the northern east coast of Australia.
    Narrative Metaphor
    We are made up of stories. Stories we have been told, stories we remember, stories we kind of remember, stories we piece together from memories or other stories. The loudest and or the most often told to us stories, are the ones that form our identity.

    Thinking about stories in this way might make it possible for me to support others to expand their stories. Question their stories and connect their stories.

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    Helen Edwards

    Thank you for this wonderful resource. I am coming back to narrative practice after a number of years working in other areas. I studied with Michael, Shona and Maggie in the early 2000s. I was inspired by this first module and it got me thinking about all sorts of ways to incorporate stories and storytelling into my new practice. As an author and writer, as well as a social worker, stories are at the centre of my daily life. I wrote this piece in response to the material here in relation to the responsibility and opportunity for writers to create multi-stranded stories https://www.helenedwardswrites.com/seeing-the-world-as-multi-storied/

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    Sameen

    Hi
    I am writing from Australia and I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, Elders, past, present and emerging.
    The narrative metaphor that I read here highlights how an individual relates to the world outside and inside of their lives. The life experiences make a persons personality and it is very important to know their experiences and stories and understand them.

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    Natalia Ivanova

    Dear authors of this course, thank you so much for this opportunity to start journey into narrative practice. This note is coming from Moscow, Russia.

    For now I would describe the narrative metaphor as a basement for conversation. This conversation will help to understand the persons’ attitude to life, experience, relationships, present, future and past, as well as will give information about the values and beliefs. Narrative is a story that each of us telling, this story has a plot that consists of events organised and linked in sequence; the way we interpret the events affects our self perception. The collaboration between the storyteller and the therapist can lead to finding new events that were out of sight. While strengthening and developing these missed storylines the author can change the attitude to him/her self and come up with new conclusions about life, which in turn will influence the quality of life.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for me?
    I started to analyze my own life experience in the context of multystory. The changes I went through can definitely be described as a decision to choose another storyline and an attempt to build another image of self. I feel that at first I need to find the way to facilitate my own challenges. In that case I will be able to help others effectively.

    One more time thank you for this course. Looking forward to going deeper in the materials.

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    Robert

    Narrative metaphor love the connection you get from telling your story in many ways shines the light on the good and the bad in many walks of life

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    phil.caro68

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    It seems that we build a picture of who we are through the stories and language that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Our families, caregivers, and even the media define us with certain language. When we here this language often enough it becomes our truth. Thin conclusions become identies we cling to. When a therapist is able draw alternate stories from us that represents more accurately who we are, then the re-authoring can begin and our world is view is expanded. When we are able to see that the story is the problem not the person, then we create space for shift of consciousness.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    I think that recognising the power our stories can have over us presents great opportunity for growth. It can open up a whole world of possibilities moving from thin descriptions to rich description. Healing, forgiveness, acceptance, understanding etc will all lead towards improved relationship with self and others.
    Hamilton, New Zealand

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    Holly Mak

    This first chapter of the course has given a wonderful overview of the underpinnings and ethics behind Narrative Therapy. I find the values that sit at the core of NT to be resonant with my own, e.g. egalitarian, decentered approaches to connecting with oneself and others — hopefully ones that open up more humane and vulnerable ways of making meaning. A line from a podcast I listened to last year, in which modern poet and activist Alok shares their views on the power structures behind gender binaries, strikes me here: “multiplicity of truths is healing.”

    These materials have given cause to reflect on the trauma I’ve repressed over the years from harbouring thin stories, largely as the result of being brought up in post-colonial Hong Kong — a context that has necessitated an often confusing navigation of conventional Chinese values and the white oppressor’s gaze. After hearing David Denborough speak about the Charter of Storytelling Rights, I can’t help but wonder how these could operate within the Hong Kong context, both within community spaces and therapy as a field. Specifically: how can local knowledge and definitions of identity be prioritised when the dominant narrative increasingly threatens to erase neglected ones? Are the hidden stories of specific communities’ and individuals’ experiences only possible outside of the original locale, given the oppression that continues within?

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    Jakob Jakobsen

    Denborough mentions that there might be a problem in conceptualizing the charter’s story telling rights as individual rights. But what’s the alternative? From what position would it be possible to tell the story of en entire group? I guess that, ultimately, we would have to conceptualize story telling rights as individual rights so as to protect the least powerful or marginalized individuals within an imagined/claimed group. Collective story telling rights would seem to pose a risk of becoming the story telling of the most powerful individuals within an imagined/claimed group. As such, the charter’s current individual perspective is good, I think.

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      Toby

      I think that the main issue is that Denborough is too vague on this point, and his offer to post some references to the literature is not met. However, to be charitable to him, we could notice the two main philosophical issues that are at play here. The first is that individual rights (think humanistic individual liberty), often marginalises those groups that do not clearly fit under the heading. By seeing groups as “less than human,” their human rights are denied (for example, the papal bull of 1537 found that Native American people could not be enslaved, although African peoples could on account of their being non-human [understood in those times as being without a soul]). So, individual human rights have a long history of exclusion (this is, in part, why the theories of new humanism have come about). This is one reason to be wary of individualism. The second is that the metaphysical worldview that encompasses individualism is very much a western concoction. Many Indigenous cultures and non-western cultures operate on relational, non-individualistic ontologies. These worldviews do not necessarily see people as individuals in the western sense. Individualism, in the metaphysical sense, thus also poses an issue for human rights because it is quintessentially western. Using this lens to view other cultures is problematic. These, I take it, are the “hazards” in human rights and political theory that Denborough pays lip service to but does not explain or provide references for. You’re completely right to say we need to give individuals their rights, it’s just that Denborough is pointing to some philosophical issues with individualism that pose problems for a sound theory of human rights (he just doesn’t explain it to clearly, I think).

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        David Denborough

        Hi Jakob and Toby,

        I offered references and further links re the ‘draft’ Charter here: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/narrative-therapy-charter-of-story-telling-rights-by-david-denborough/

        Specifically re limitations of human rights discourse, I suggest:

        Gustavo Esteva & Madhu Suri Prakah (1998) Grassroots Post-Modernism: remaking the soil of cultures. London: Zed Books.

        There’s also a really interesting book that traces the histories of the concepts of human rights, especially the non-western histories … but I can’t quite put my finger on it now … i will keep looking …

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    Catherine

    Thanks for making this training so accessible! Coming to you from Melbourne, on Wurundjeri country. The narrative metaphor offers a way of making sense of the world that is not problem/ deficit focused, but rather, invites us to be reflective and curious about our stories. I love that it values all types of knowledge, and allows for multiple truths at once. I am a counsellor at a university, and hope to take the narrative approach more intentionally into my work with students. I can see this being a really accessible and rewarding approach for students who may be questioning their identity and place in the world.

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    Melanie

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    The narrative metaphor allows the storyteller to take ownership of their experience/s and look at how they (but us all) connect with and shape these and ongoing experiences. As noted in the interview, it influences therapeutic conversations and allows for broader thinking whilst not being focused on particular themes that can result in closed and / or directed patterns of therapy and potentially missing vital pieces of information along the way.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    Ensuring that we are effectively engaging the storyteller in conversation and acknowledging them as the expert. Considerations are also given to the impact of family / carers / significant others as well as the potential conflict that these people can also bring.

    Also how amazing was Chimamanda Adichie TED talk!!!
    Riverland, South Australia

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    Te

    The narrative metaphor invites us to consider & reconsider the themes & conclusions we & others have told about our lives. It encourages an enquiry into the various contexts that have, & continue to shape who we are becoming.

    I see the possibility of stories connecting us across time & space & particularly appreciate Michael & Barbara’s insights into the “Power of Storytelling.” Authorship is dynamically creative & I am interested in the concept of “scaffolding” in support of reclaiming, justice seeking, respecting, honouring & acknowledging protest, skills, & knowledge,

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    pra.cas

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    The narrative metaphor connects our life experiences to arguably the most understood and effective communication and meaning-making tool used across generations and cultures: Story. To use another metaphor, it transforms the view that our lives and the lives of others are thin, tidy, and permanent straight lines and instead vast, varying, and workable webs.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    As a psychologist, using story is a more accessible way to work with children, families and education staff to make sense of life, to explore different perspectives, to draw on the wisdom of their ancestors, role-models and others they admire, and support them to live in a way that is meaningful and empowering to them. Story can also be used not only to explore and enhance individual identity, but collective identity (e.g. the story of a school, family or community).

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    vital

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    The narrative metaphor allows us to step back from the dominant story of ourselves that we or our family has been telling for so long that it seems like it is Truth itself. It allows us to take any point in that story and focus on something else that was happening at the time that provides a different perspective and may assist us to find explanations, strengths and skills that have been omitted from the dominant story.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    In my practice, I can ask curious questions that seek out the path less travelled and journey with my clients on tangents that are filled with discovery of habits, experiences, understandings, confidences, secrets, celebrations, knowledge and wisdom that is overlooked in everyday life living the dominant story.

    City: Tweed NSW Country: Australia

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    ani.dyakowa

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    The lens through which we see the world and other people, the choices we make and actions that we take are heavily influenced by the stories we tell ourselves. The narrative metaphor can help us identify the other segments of a situation that could be as influential as the dominant story. It guides us to recognize the issues/stereotypes that could potentially be enforced by a dominant story and to reframe them or replace them entirely. It is an empowering approach that aims to help us externalise the problem and look at it as a separate entity.
    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    I work with Older people from different cultural backgrounds and have witnessed how the impact of intergenerational trauma, wartime and torture have contributed to the creation of dominant stories. The readings and articles above really helped me identify those stories and ask the right questions in order to support the client in shifting and rebuilding their narratives. I believe that in working with Older people the use of narrative reminiscence is crucial.

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    mmccollum@callutheran.edu

    I think what is so powerful about the narrative metaphor and the shift from thin to thick and rich stories is how often we can overlook vast quantities of information because we are have narrowed our vision to support our go-to narratives, for good or ill. Working with children in particular, I can see this happening frequently, where a child has been defined so narrowly that any deviation from the expected behaviors is missed: the times the “hyper” child is still and focused, the times the “quiet” child is boisterous. Helping our clients to see themselves and those around them more fully is so empowering and such an incredible first step for those who are seeking to make a change in their lives and behavioral patterns.

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    Rantshoke David Makhema

    The narrative metaphor is a respectful sharing of life experiences between the story teller and the listener. Only the story teller has the right, skills, competencies to tell how the experiences and own contributions, relationships with others current or in the past or future affect the individual. It is the only story teller who can tell how and what remedies the individual wants to effect in his or her life in a preferred way.
    Thinking this way, I see possibilities of healing through collaboration and respect from the listener or a Therapist. Although at the beginning, only thin and very dominating experiences may appear , but through dialogue suitable to the story teller, more experiences can be shared either in the past, current and future and lead to a preferred way of an individual.

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    Sophia

    The narrative metaphor means that the way we talk about our life informs and defines our experiences. A dominant narrative that acknowledges only a small subset of life events can be problematic, as it discounts many different experiences the individual has had and can lead to a thin storyline and stereotyping. Through the narrative metaphor, individuals can be helped to recognize the alternative events and experiences in their lives and incorporate these to a richer and more meaningful story.

    One thing I like about thinking about stories in this way is that it makes problems seem less daunting or entrenched. A problem in someone’s life may simply mean that they are only considering one story in their life and discounting other stories. Helping them elaborate their alternative stories does not necessarily make the problem go away, but it can help it gain a new meaning, when seen in the context of the other stories. I also like what Alice Morgan talked about how conversations through the lens of the narrative metaphor create possibilities for new meaning.

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    tangheng055

    Narrative Metaphor is powerful, every one has a story and evolve into many stories, to have the counsellor encouraging the client telling her own story at her pace and comfort level, and affirming other perspective into the story such as co authoring alternate stories are helpful, the voice of the client among many voices, and finally finding discovery, and self awareness, and new possibility of a present voice which look beyond the past (problems) and look into pathway of the future (preferred future) surely must be enriching and empowering. Narrative therapy allows for space and awareness of self, history, culture, community, past wounds, traumas, seen in the context not in the dance floor but balcony allowing one to step back and look at life as a whole, as an observor, and drawing lessons of strength and hope in present and future. (Derek from Singapore, the Lion CIty, that’s is another story!)

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    kategobes

    The narrative metaphor can be described as a personal story line that is made richer when placed in context. It can be thin, when unchallenged and oversimplified narratives are assumed to be true. This often calls for alternative storylines as to challenge the dominant narrative. To better understand someone we need to understand them within the context of their experiences and existence. One’s social location – gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity- these heavily affect the ways in which their actions are interpreted and in turn affect how others respond and how the person internalizes events. These internalizations lead to meaning making and story lines, which can become embedded in one’s sense of identity, and affect future behaviour. While alternative stories may not eradicate the dominant narrative, they offer a greater picture of understanding for the individual.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    A: Placing stories in context is everything because it takes the micro understanding and places it in the macro experience. It’s possible to understand how marginalized people become vilified for simple acts that would be acceptable had they held a more dominant social location. It’s possible to understand how that vilification leads to actions that affirm they are a villain and work to keep them marginalized in the system.

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    Anita

    The narrative metaphor provides the opportunity to discover what underlying influences, steps and process led to a person or family forming and holding close their dominant narrative. The narrative metaphor then allows for unspoken thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams and goals to be brought to the surface. Doing so then gives voice to an alternative narrative or path to follow or consider as dominant. The narrative metaphor gives strength to the idea of changing one’s internalised view of themselves, their experiences and the world in which they live.

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    Sunny

    Narrative Metaphor recognizes the emphasis one places and points in the individual’s lives; what matters, what does not and what is meaningful and what is not. Stories will then go on to shift and change perceptions, actions, behaviours and so on. I appreciated how narrative therapy can invite people to not only focus on broader picture of one’s lives, but how inviting others to relate their stories of us, can help shift the thin stories that we are stuck focusing on

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    Suzie A

    The narrative metaphor highlights how and why we tell our story the way we do; it embraces the world we have created around ourselves through our eyes. Its essentially is the map of our being, our path with doors that open to the layers that together are the platform of who we are.

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    emma030497@hotmail.co.uk

    The narrative metaphor allows us to consider how the stories we tell of our lives may be shaped both internally and externally, how we connect (or otherwise struggle to connect) life events in with other narrative threads that we hold, and how we can connect these threads in order to build a more comprehensive, deep understanding of our selves and our experiences.
    I am currently a postgraduate researcher in the field of relationships in dementia care, looking at supporting couples to maintain a sense of relationship continuity when one partner has dementia. Dementia can create a huge shift in identity, both individually and as a couple, and many report experiencing their life as ‘before and after dementia’. I think the narrative metaphor will help to form the foundation of therapeutic practice with such couples, by encouraging them to connect these seemingly divided parts of their life and identity to feel more cohesion and connection.

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    Grace

    The narrative metaphor shines the light on the stories that we all tell ourselves and the power of these stories to shape how we define ourselves, internally and externally in the world, based often, on thin conclusions and storylines.
    Our lives are much more multi-faceted and rich than these thin stories. These thin stories can often present as problems in our lives which seem so solid and concrete. A Narrative Therapy approach can intentionally shine the light on alternative stories and events and begin to redefine who we believe ourselves to be and the story of our lives.

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