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 822 Comments

  1. Sami

    Hi, my name is Sami and I am coming to you from a small town near Kingston, ON, Canada. I am a white, cisgender, female MSW student nearing completion of my degree.

    The narrative approach is really resonating with me. My experience working with young survivors of sex trafficking is the primary context through which I see the value of this approach (not internalizing but externalizing the problem).

    Myself, when I think back on a ‘timeline’ of my life it is oriented around certain people and the stories of our connection, more so than a linear view of time such as in 2000 I was doing X and in 2001 I did Y. My life is oriented around “I was friends with ___” at this time, and then when I became friends with that person, something else in my life started changing. For me, then, the narrative approach is something that makes alot of sense.

    That said, I would like to do better at developing a sense of curiousity toward people. While some people are naturally curious about others, I do not feel that is me, so it is something I need to work at. Related to that, I love Alice Morgan’s 2nd principle of asking questions that you GENUINELY don’t know the answer to. I think that collaborating with clients and structuring genuinely open questions will allow me to enjoy them and get to know them much past what their intake form indicates. The way we intentionally structure these open-ended questions will allow us to, as Michael White says in his interview, scaffold therapeutic conversations. In my academic world I see the importance of scaffolding learning and knowledge, and likewise in a therapeutic setting I think scaffolding questions allows information and new stories to unfold.

  2. Sue Gordon

    My name is Sue Gordon and I am a gestalt psychotherapist living in Sydney.
    I think the narrative therapeutic approach is very much in line with the Gestalt philosophy and practice. It supports the principles of being curious and I really like the idea of asking the questions that you genuinely don’t know the answers too.

    I particularly enjoyed listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her talk on the danger of a single story. The point that, as children we are limited by our experiences really resonated with me and that when we see people as “one thing” that is what they can become. With this in mind I like the idea that we can work with a persons story to help them rediscover aspects of themselves that support positive changes.

    I am always looking for slightly different ways to explore people’s life stories and help them to make sense of their current situation by making links with other elements of their experiences. The narrative approach helps people to to look at the ‘whole’ of who are they rather than being stuck in, what may have become, a limited view of themselves.

    The charter of rights giving the clients whole story equal importance and the idea of working collaboratively are both concepts that I aim to work to as a therapist. I also share the belief that the client is the expert and has the ability to develop new perspectives that support positive change.

  3. Ellie Firns

    I am a social work student, studying at Flinders University, in Adelaide, South Australia.

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    We all tell stories of our life, and we follow certain threads that are solidified by our friends and family and the retelling of stories multiple times. Is the “narrative metaphor” really a metaphor? Or is it really a descriptor of what is fundamental to how we interact with each other and our internal reality and constructions of self?

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    I like that there are multiple threads of story, and that the more focus we give them, the more they strengthen. We may follow a thread for a long time, for example, I found it difficult to tell my story when I was in the deepest parts of my unwellness, I literally had nothing to say and doubted my ability to tell stories at all. But the more I have understood that we tell ourselves certain stories the more insight I have had into the validity of my personal journey and storytelling. Thinking about stories this way allows me to investigate stories that I tell myself, or that clients tell me, and be curious about what else might be going on.

  4. Isabelle R Chesher

    I think it can be very empowering for social workers to invite clients to see the possibility that the negative beliefs they have constructed about themselves might not be true after all. Often in my (albeit limited) experience as a social work student, I have found that people may not be aware that they carry a dominant, problem-laden narrative about themselves. Asking questions that allow them to consider the complexities of who they are and what they have been through / achieved can, I think, be incredibly powerful for those who have accepted a pathologising narrative as truth. Because this narrative has been constructed and is ‘thin’, though, it can be disproven and eventually discarded.

  5. Don

    I have come to hear about Narrative Therapy late in my life & career. It does resonate with me, when I think about the number of people/patients I have known who appear to be “trapped” in Dominant story.
    I have not had much opportunity to try or see it in practice. In my personal life, a period of anxiety led me to believe that I was failing in my work & home life. I became able to control the anxiety better & develop a better story of myself as capable & still functional.

  6. Sadekie

    How would you describe the narrative metaphor?
    The use of the dots is an apt way to explain the fact that we have multiple points from which we can reflect on our lives. This means that our frames of reference can be broader than we had previously seen them.

    What might thinking about stories in this way make possible for you?
    For me this gives hope. Hope that it is possible to start fresh, at a different point and move from there. This is particularly helpful in times of disappointment. Though starting at a different point does not undo what has happened, it gives the feeling of control. In working with others, trapped in one story, or tangled in a complex story, the dot metaphor offers an alternative way to chart a new path by connecting the dots a different way or direction.

  7. kwill504

    Kam – Teacher/ Social Work
    I too resonated with Alice Morgan’s words. The examples she gave regarding her driving expertise provided visuals that consolidated my understanding about how a dominant story can be created. I think of my daughter who won awards at primary school but went to high school, was bullied and even called demeaning names by the school counsellor to my face when I went to discuss my concerns at her changed behaviour. This behaviour was withdrawal at home but apparently acting as super tough at school. Her ‘school’ dominant story became one that was negative and totally disempowering as her confidence dropped and she hated going to school. I took her out of this school, kept her at home and home schooled her till her confidence returned. I then sent her to another school, which changed her life and provided a group of friends who are still loyal to each other in their 30s. After reading Morgan’s chapter, I realised that I helped her re-author her identity and change the dominant story that wasn’t her. This also makes me consider students at school whose dominant stories are not favourable and how teachers can be at fault for continuing these stories due to frustration and lack of willingness to help the child find their alternative story.
    I found the Dot Exercise excellent and have shared this therapy with others in my school setting. It links beautifully with Alice Morgan’s explanation about how the dominant story can supersede the alternative and how people can get caught up in the thin story of their lives but forget the rich tapestry of experiences that are also present. Adichie also spoke of the danger of single stories, emphasising that everyone has more than one story and that single stories create stereotypes that are incomplete. Collaboratively finding the alternative story/ies is the key to creating a new and empowering narrative.

  8. Belinda

    Wow, this chapter has had an immediate impact for me. Chimamanda Adichie’s speech rang true for me, how we all are shaped and impacted by single stories as I grew up poor within housing commission estates (social housing) and how for many years I carried that single story as my whole story. This single story of ‘a houso kid’ stuck and many used it powerfully against me. Fortunately for me I have always been curious and wanting more than just a stereotyped version of myself and my future.
    I am really interested in the power of storytelling, my grandfather was a wonderful story teller and Barbara Brooks has inspired me to be more creative and install play into my world. I am going to attempt to connect with myself through writing.

  9. Sarah LaFleur

    The information on this page is exceptionally useful and comprehensive. I am particularly drawn to Alice Morgan’s emphasis on finding rich descriptions and alternative conclusions for disempowered narratives. I love considering judgments, criticisms, complaints, cognitive distortions, and limiting beliefs as “thin descriptions.” There are always alternative possibilities and factors that can enrich a person’s story, moving them away from labels and a single dimension to a multi-dimensional, “multistoried” existence. I also appreciate Michael White’s sentiments on the narrative metaphor and the role of the therapist as a builder of scaffolding to allow clients to explore underdeveloped or untraversed domains of experience. Like a writer, the therapist offers language and attention to these neglected, limited domains. With patience, curiosity, and bravery, the therapist offers questions and observations to enrich the focus of the client so that they can hold more colors and depths in their perspective.

  10. AvanthiB

    Counsellor, Naarm (Melbourne)

    As a visual person, the dot exercise from Jill Freedman and Gene Combs was particularly useful in understanding the narrative metaphor and how to interpret the narratives brought into my sessions by my clients. It really helped me to reframe my role as the counsellor in supporting clients with bringing forth the alternative narratives, particularly for my clients who had created dominant scripts of themselves that reinforces their sense of hopelessness.

    I’m also particularly interested in the proposed charter of story-telling rights. This is so fascinating and empowering. It’s exactly the kind of message I want to leave my clients with. Your story matters… every part of it. Your reasons, your rationales, your emotions and thoughts, it all matters. You play a role in this story, but what other roles have you played along the way and in what contexts?

    The whole notion of curiosity is something that personally guides my own practise and I love that it Alice Morgan talks about how crucial is it to this practise. Curiosity without judgement. We as the therapist are there to be taken on the journey of the client’s life with them. We just act as a torch or a guide to uncover some of those alternate scripts!

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