Narrative Therapy and Re-Authoring
Many titles have been heaped upon the late Michael White for his development of Narrative Therapy, ranging from genius to prophet to guru. These titles, I believe, provide a framework for the impact that his work has meant to the field of psychology and therapy. He has created a forum for individuals to reclaim their sense of identity and purpose and to begin to live into a new story. As Alan Carr writes, “within a narrative frame, human problems are viewed as arising from and being maintained by oppressive stories which dominate a person’s life. Human problems occur when the way in which people’s lives are storied by themselves and others does not significantly fit with their lived experience…Developing therapeutic solutions to problems, within the narrative frame, involves opening space for the authoring of alternative stories, the possibility of which have previously been marginalized by the dominant oppressive narrative which maintains the problem” (Carr, 1998, p. 486).
A critical component of narrative therapy is the concept of externalizing the problem whereby the person objectifies or personifies the problem as a separate entity from the individual. In doing so, the person is able to “separate from the dominant story that has been shaping their lives and relationships” (White, 1988/9, p.7). When persons are able to externalize the problems they are then able to identify times when their experience contradicts the problem (White, 1988/9, p. 16). In the end, the problem becomes the problem allowing the person’s identity to become separate. The problem no longer represents the truth about who the person is and this realization unleashes incredible opportunity for hope and resolutions to occur as the person is able to step back and view the situation from a less personal and problem saturated perspective (White, 2007, p. 9). Carl Tomm suggests that externalizing the problem provides, “a linguistic separation of the distinction of the problem from the personal identity of the [person]. It opens ‘conceptual space’ for [people] to take more effective initiatives to escape the influence of the problem in their lives (Tomm, 1989, p. 54). Externalizing the problem and then becoming aware of ‘unique outcomes’ where the client finds that their life is no longer tied to these negative conclusions allows them to begin the process of re-authoring their story (White, 2007, p. 27).
The process of re-authoring allows a client suffering from substance abuse to begin to develop their story but to integrate significant unique outcomes that were out of step with the dominant storyline. These unique outcomes are the starting point for re-authoring. The therapist can support the client in exploring alternative storylines by having the client “…recruit their lived experience, to stretch their minds, to exercise their imagination, and to employ their meaning-making resources” (White, 2007, p. 62). In so doing, the client engages more deeply into their alternative stories and begins to root their storyline in a new history and perspective which establishes a new foundation for them to address their externalized problem. As the client steps to becoming the author of their life, they begin to play with the terms Jerome Bruner coined ‘landscape of action’ and ‘landscape of consciousness’ which, “…bring specificity to the understanding of people’s participation in meaning-making within the context of narrative frames” (White, 2007, p. 80). Michael White found that landscape of consciousness encountered too much confusion so he reframed the term to become the landscape of identity which, I believe, aptly describes what occurs when one re-authors their story and renegotiates their own identity. Using landscape of action and landscape of identity allows the therapist to build a context, “in which it becomes possible for people to give meaning to, and draw together into a storyline, many of the overlooked but significant events of their lives” (White, 2007, p. 83) which are crucial for re-authoring.
In January we’re launching our Recovery and Aftercare programs, and we would love to work with you to re-write your story in your recovery. Please have a look at the program on our website, and we would love to hear from you!
- Carr, A. (1998). Michael White’s Narrative Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 20(4), 485-503.
- Tomm, K. (1989). Externalizing problems and internalizing personal agency. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies,16-22.
- White, M. (2007). Maps of Narrative Practice. New York, W.W Norton and Company Inc
- White, Michael, 1998/9. The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives and relationships. Australia, Adelaide: Dulwich Center Review