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 686 Comments

  1. Grace Love

    Hello and Dzień dobry,

    My Master’s degree of Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Adelaide, and in particular the Narrative Therapy course, has brought me to this free online course. I offer psycho-hypnotherapy to people from different walks of life. The Narrative Therapy Chapter of Story-telling Rights, especially the articles 3 and 4, have moved me deeply and contributed to making a tangible adjustment in my own life and practice. I have updated my website to allow clients to choose to invite the significant others to their sessions if that is what they wished to do in order to support their own healing journey. I also reflected on how at times I see others through a single storyline that I myself have created for them through the lens of some kind of deficit in them. I witness myself without judgement, with care and compassion, and I commit to not only listen to people’s multiple stories, but to also intentionally looking for them in others, so I can enrich our experiences in relating with each other.
    Thank you so much and I look forward to learning (and unlearning) further through this course.
    Grace

    1. Kim Taylor

      My name is Kim and after recently completing a degree in counselling I am interested in deepening my knowledge of Narrative Therapy.
      I see clearly how confirmation bias means we look over our lives or experiences and cherry pick the experiences that are consistent with the dominant view of us. It may be something we have been told about ourselves from childhood and I have seen in working with people the wide eyed look when they recount times when they did have a voice, and then we look at why stopped that, does it makes sense a child would not speak if they were beaten etc.

      I love the separation of person and problem this enables a collaboration with people to sit and explore their experience, their feelings and the meaning they made of the situation. The issue is no longer infecting their very being, we are looking at it together and examining it.

      This distance or space helps confirm to the person that are not innately bad or evil.

      Recognising people have always resisted and noticing those things is also powerful. So much judgement exists as victims are asked so many why questions, why didn’t you do something, say something, fight back etc. The blame people feel from others and from themselves can be so debilitating to identify resistance can help them see they did what they could.

      I look forward to the learning to come and to the questioning in narrative therapy becoming more natural in my practice.

  2. Mahlie Jewell

    I’m Mahlie, currently writing an arts-based program around identity and sense of self for those living with “identity disturbance” and “self-stigma, self-hatred and low self-worth.” – many of them carry the label of BPD. I’m about to finish a Masters degree in Art Therapy and I also have a lived experience of what I am writing about. I live in Eora (Sydney) in Oceania (Australia).

    The idea of the ‘thin’ story and how it plants itself in low self-worth made sense to me and also the “bringing in” of someone else to interpret the self-worth story was interesting. I see this very much as the role of group members – of peers – to provide people with a balanced view of who and how they are. By looking at the self through the shared experiences of others. For example, if we wouldn’t lay blame to other victims of abuse, why would we blame ourselves for our abuse? If we show others compassion, then where is the compassion for ourselves. This kind of constant reflection between people with shared experiences is so powerful and we KNOW that people living with BPD have enormous capacity for care and concern of others so being able to direct this inward might need to be done by challenging the story they are giving themselves.

    Of course we know that self-stigma is created and embedded by systems of power who get to control the narrative. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the power and danger of a single story – and how we are obsessed with the stories of our defeat – I mean the DSM is an entire storybook on what is WRONG with people. Power imbalances force us to focus on these negative stories, and they create “the danger of the single story”, this single story becomes a stereotype and destroys the dignity of people, so our job is to restore the balance and remind them of their collection of stories.

    Palestinian psychologist and narrative therapist Khader Rasras talks about remembering that we are “active survivors, not passive victims” and that is so true. Yet, I can’t remember a therapist ever suggesting to me that my “trauma responses” were active survival. They very much told me I was a “victim” though – and I couldn’t accept that – because I was NOT a “victim” in my own mind, I was a survivor. I realised that a lot of the work I do now is about taking the negative story and dissecting it and disproving it or “giving it back”, but I don’t spend the balance of time in reminding people to talk about the stories of survival, so this is important for me to think about in working with those who need to work on their sense of self. We rely on others around us to do this positive reinforcement. Maybe instead of JUST saying “it wasn’t your fault” (which is so necessary) we also need to say “look at how hard you worked to survive..” in the same sentence.

    All this is informing me in regards to building work around identity and leading me to seeing that we have to create balance. Teaching people not just to combat their single stories but also giving them the tools to look at the ones of resilience they already have.

    Mind blown.

  3. Yanni Gallagher

    Hello Everyone,

    My name is Yanni Gallagher, currently working on an online Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through NorthCentral University in United States. I come to learn about narrative therapy through my studies and have found the narrative metaphor captivating.

    How I would describe the narrative metaphor is we all story our lives based on experiences we have had in the past. For some individuals and groups, this might mean traumatic experiences and how these have been linked together to create a problem-saturated story. I find described in a narrative style, it allows the author and co-authors to explore other ways of storying their life, not to excuse the previous story, but to help provide healing.

    It also provides for all of us a way to connect with one another and share ways we are fighting against injustice and trauma that manifests based on our cultural contexts. Having grown up in the state of Utah in the United States, there are many areas for us to grow as a community to support other members of the community who face injustice every day. I find this community helpful to help inform my work with my community and the families I serve.

  4. carleeadderson@yahoo.com.au

    Hi my name is Carlee and I am a practice counsellor on the Sunshine Coast QLD and also work heavily in the community sector. I love when Michael describes a ‘thin story’ and how we can build that out to be fuller and richer. I work with lots of people who believe the one story they have for themselves is the only one , I love that this concept and theory can give them hope and power to move forward.

  5. Sowmya

    Hi, I am Sowmya from Bangalore – India. I am a psychologist and a storyteller.
    The narrative metaphor talks about thickening the thin lines and including many other events that could expand the meaning we give to a story. We have a habit of looking at the dominant stories and ignoring the small daily stories. I feel our Identity is shaped by every story that we choose to tell.
    The more we allow ourselves to tell and share our stories, the more we will be able to reshape ourselves in a way we desire to be seen.

  6. Catherine Davis

    Hello. I like the dot metaphor by Freedman and Combs as it illustrates if we only tell one story that links the big dots (major life experiences) we miss out on the richness and complexity of the other dots (experiences). This flattens our memory of past but also give us a very narrow view of the future. This chapter has challenged me to search and reflect on the smaller dots (memories and experience) in my own story that I have lost touch with.
    Catherine (writing from Perth, Australia; student of Psychology at UWA)

  7. Karina

    Good afternoon! My name is Karina and I am from Toronto, Canada.

    I think the idea of having a peer retell a story can be cathartic as a third person may notice strengths a client may not realize they have, thus thickening their stories (plural). The concept of “stream of consciousness” is new to me; I appreciate the trauma-informed approach it has.

    What I am taking away from this lesson is that a person is not the problem; rather, a problem is the problem we should focus on.

  8. Elizabeth

    Hi I’m Elizabeth, I’m have a Social Work degree from Sydney University, but I work in the performing and visual arts. I’ve been living overseas for a number of years and feel that Narrative work is very important when working with people who are new to a geographical area and culture. I’ve experienced myself how only dominant stories are told and recorded when you are new to a place. The narrative metaphor helps us to remember to acknowledge the complexity of peoples lives and allow for multiple stories to exist. I believe the Narrative Therapy approach can be very healing, especially if people have lived through trauma and need to explore their experiences of resilience.

  9. Rebecca

    Kia ora, I deliver rehabilitation programmes within te Ara Poutama, Department of Corrections New Zealand. I am privileged to hear the stories of the men and women in our care and to work with them to change their dominant stories of offending which often have tragic and sad childhood stories attached to them. Chimamanda Adichie was amazing to listen to. We have to be open to others cultures and contexts and be willing to explore and make understanding of their experiences in order to truly understand a person. We also have to stay aware of our own biases due to our own experiences and cultural upbringing.
    I love working with people exploring the strands that make up a person and to make them more aware of their less dominant stories of strength, survival, ability, success, instead of a dominant negative story that has become a label for some, ostracizing and isolating them from family and society. I look forward to the rest of the readings.

  10. krissy_robinson4@hotmail.com

    Hi all, I am Krissy and I am a Master of Social Work student in Ontario Canada. My understanding of the narrative metaphor is that our lives are made of of lots of different stories, some more ingrained or consciously recallable than others. These stories, both the one’s that go told and untold, can have profound impacts on our sense of self and identity. By becoming aware of the stories we and other’s tell about us, it allows for richer understanding of our experiences and new creation of meaning.

    Thinking about stories in this manner provides endless possibilities for us, and those we work with to avoid totalizing ourselves and our identities based on a single story. It mades possible the ability to bring forth and strengthen storylines that perhaps have been forgotten or left out to create new meanings in our narratives and realize a more wholesome picture of our identities and capacities.

  11. Kerry

    Hi. I’m Kerry and I’m a counsellor from Australia. My first degree majored in culture, communication and media studies as well as English studies. I’m drawn to narrative therapy because of the multistoried approach to client’s lives. I like the idea of creating distance between a client’s problem and themselves and that narrative therapy views them as competent with many skills, beliefs, abilities to help them reduce the influence of their problem on their life. I also enjoy the immediacy aspect of asking questions.

  12. Eleni

    Hello! My name is Eleni Skoura-Kirk and I am accessing the course from Kent, in the UK (I am originally from Greece). I am a Lecturer in social work and teach subjects around values and ethics, and lifespan development. I have a keen interest in the use of language and the ways in which it can create our realities, identities and can help us bring meaning to our experiences. I have looked into discourse analysis; in particular, focusing on different texts and what choices people make in describing phenomena/construct identities. I am really interested in Narrative therapy, as I can see that it uses these powerful ideas into a practical, therapeutic context. The material in this first chapter was very enjoyable to read and listen to. I particularly responded to the notions of thin descriptions and conclusions and could see how working beyond these can be therapeutic and empowering. Moreover, I was delighted to read about the charter and the strong social justice value base that the approach is based upon. The combination of focusing on individual trauma, experience, storytelling whilst locating these within the wider social context and power relationships really ‘speaks’ to me as a social worker. I am really excited to continue with the next chapters and learn more. Thank you for making these resources available to all.

  13. Stephanie

    Hi I’m Stephanie 🙂
    I am a community schools coordinator and social worker at an elementary school in Northern BC Canada.
    I am looking forward to learning more about Narrative Therapy, especially the tree of life and how this can be incorporated into my daily practice with the children I work work.
    I really enjoyed the TED talk; danger of a single story. I believe this happens all to often, especially with children and how we understand their ‘problematic’ behavious. I think its important to look at who the story tellers/makers are and who they are empowering and dis-empowering. By doing this, hopefully we allow and create space for those ‘disenfranchised’ groups to reclaim their own stories.

  14. Caro

    Kia ora,
    My name is Caro a Social Worker from Whangarei, New Zealand. The narrative metaphor to me, helps people to gain autonomy over their lives. Narrative metaphor helps them and us as therapists to work collaboratively to unravel the layers and to work with the tools that they already have through the use of storytelling.
    By utilising narrative metaphor, we are still acknowledging their pain and suffering, as well as any conclusions they may have drawn for themselves (or that have been placed upon them out of that), but also helping them to gain a different view of how they can also strengthen themselves and see themselves within a different light.

  15. krenzkehaley@gmail.com

    Hi there – I’m Haley, I hold a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy and am currently located in Seattle, WA until I can rejoin my partner in Brisbane. In my work, I have seen the importance of using narrative metaphor to truly help marginalized communities feel a sense of agency over their own lived experience and storylines. So many times I have witnessed the pain that follows someone’s belief in a single, problem story – most times this story has been one that has been told to them, “this is who you are”, “this is what you are”, “this is what this means”, so on and so forth. The healing and freedom that accompanies thickening a story, observing multiple points in the storyline, constructing a meaning that makes sense at an individual level as well as within the larger context is truly phenomenal. This training is a comforting reminder that human-to-human connection and witnessing of story has the power to transform lives.

  16. 27ravine27@gmail.com

    My name is Tailor. I am an Adelaide based visual and performance artist that emphasises storytelling through art and spoken word.
    I would describe the narrative metaphor as being the author and narrator of our own lives. By allowing ourselves to be in this position of power or driver’s seat of our own lives, we give our self the self-authority and autonomy to take control and action to make decisions to align ourselves with the story or narrative that we want to create for our life.
    I feel that be allowing ourselves to be recognised as a multitude of intersecting storylines and not a single-story narrative can provide us to access, realize and build upon other alternative plots. This way of thinking about stories provides access and permission to explore the hidden or overpassed parts of ourselves that may be overlooked, whilst also acknowledging embracing the complexity of our stories and character.

  17. Lana

    Kia ora hello my name is Lana, and I live near Whangarei, New Zealand. I am working in counselling. My study focused primarily on narrative therapy, so it is helpful to add this learning to my understanding.
    I have really appreciated the reminder about life having multiple stories, and to be able to be curious about people and situations from more than just the main story that we know or is presented. This approach helps me to remember to listen for the other stories and to consider the context of these stories. I am also reflecting on how I story myself, and the stories that are dominant in my life and culture. Thankyou so much for putting this training together!

  18. rose.vaughan-cadmus@stenbergstudents.com

    My name is Marie, I am registered counsellor and health worker from Surrey, BC. Canada. I am drawn to Narrative Therapy modality because it gives people the tools to rewrite their stories. Narrative metaphor empower people with the tools to create their own stories and uncover deeper truth.

  19. Regan

    Hi. I’m Regan, a Master of Social Work student and mental health support worker from Melbourne in Australia. I have a background in cultural anthropology so I was immediately drawing links between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ stories and anthropology’s ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ descriptions of culture.

    I see the narrative metaphor as an opening to uncover meanings which were previously hidden, dormant or overlooked. Our minds create linear causal relationships between events which stick with us over time and are sometimes very resistant to change, neglecting the multitude of possible meanings and explanations that can be drawn. I was struck by the way various speakers in this chapter approach human experiences with such reverence and compassion. I feel drawn to this tradition which honours the richness of people’s lived experiences and the many threads which make up our lives.

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