Narrative Therapy: Techniques, Efficacy, and Use Cases

March 7, 2024

Narrative therapy is a therapeutic practice that invites you to re-author your life story, offering a creative way to navigate personal problems. It enables a separation of your identity from your issues, fostering growth and change. We'll explore how narrative therapy works, examining its key techniques and understanding how Resilience Lab can assist. This will provide insight into how narrative therapy might be the tool you’re looking for to create a more hopeful narrative for your future.

Key Takeaways

  • Narrative therapy, developed by Michael White and David Epston, is an empowering method that helps individuals separate from their problems through reframing life stories. This therapy aims to assist people in living according to their values and goals.
  • Key techniques used in narrative therapy include externalization (viewing issues as separate from oneself), deconstruction (breaking problems into manageable parts), and unique outcomes (exploring and expanding alternative life narratives).
  • Research shows narrative therapy can improve intimacy and marital satisfaction, as well as help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, although comprehensive studies are limited due to the novelty of the approach and quantitative measurement challenges.

What Is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy, developed by Michael White and David Epston, is a non-pathologizing approach that separates individuals from their problems, allowing them to reframe their life stories and develop new perspectives. This therapeutic process understands a person’s life as a collection of stories, acknowledging the significance these narratives provide to our lives, including the dominant story that may shape their identity.

The primary objective of narrative therapy seeks to empower individuals to become experts in their own lives and live in a way that reflects their goals and values. In contrast to certain approaches that diagnose behaviors as abnormal, narrative therapists consider problems as distinct from individuals, empowering them to distance themselves and reconstruct their lives with a feeling of control and optimism.

Key Concepts and Approach

At the heart of narrative therapy are fundamental principles that guide the therapeutic process. These principles include externalizing problems, deconstructing dominant problematic stories, and exploring unique outcomes to generate alternative narratives. These foundational elements significantly influence the direction of the therapeutic process and interventions within this approach.

Narrative therapy is unique in its distinction between the individual and their problems. The philosophy that ‘The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem’ encourages individuals to perceive themselves as capable of confronting and overcoming their issues, rather than being defined by them. The role of narratives is central in narrative therapy, as they are the stories, composed of events interconnected over time, through which individuals interpret their experiences.

Narrative Therapy Techniques

A variety of techniques are utilized in narrative therapy to aid individuals in comprehending and tackling their problems. These techniques include externalization, deconstruction, and unique outcomes. These methods guide clients in creating life-affirming stories that empower them to overcome their problems.

Each technique has a unique function within the therapeutic process and can vary from individual to individual. Here are the functions of each technique:

  1. Externalization: Encourages clients to perceive their problems or behaviors as external entities.
  2. Deconstruction: Systematically breaks down problems into smaller, more manageable parts.
  3. Unique Outcomes: These are moments when things go differently than the usual problematic stories we tell ourselves, helping clients explore and develop different, more positive stories.


In narrative therapy, externalization refers to the concept of creating distance from the problems experienced, enabling someone to observe issues objectively and from a non-judgmental perspective. This therapeutic tool encourages clients to perceive their problems or behaviors as external entities, rather than inherent aspects of themselves, potentially fostering a positive influence on self-identity and confidence.

Externalization helps people deal with bad habits or thoughts by treating them as if they're separate from the person. Imagine giving a name to a problem – it's like saying the problem isn't part of you, but something you can face and change. This approach makes it easier for people to understand and work on these issues.


Deconstruction is another critical technique utilized in narrative therapy. It involves the process of breaking down problematic narratives into smaller components, enabling clients to gain a deeper understanding of their issues and effectively address them.

During a narrative therapy session, deconstruction is employed by narrative therapists to:

  • Prompt the client to articulate the specifics of their distress.
  • Question dominant narratives or alternative stories.
  • Investigate alternative perspectives and meanings.
  • Help everyone understand and create shared meanings together.

Unique Outcomes

Unique outcomes in narrative therapy help clients explore different, more positive stories about themselves, making it easier to deal with their problems. These moments show times when clients see things differently, feeling more in control of their own story. This helps them move away from the negative stories they're used to telling themselves.

The unique outcomes technique can be implemented through:

  • The exploration of alternative storylines unrelated to the client’s issues.
  • Enabling them to envision the problem differently and gain new insights compared to the dominant story or problematic stories that they have been working through.
  • Providing an opportunity to expand upon their stories from a different perspective.
  • Aiding in problem resolution and fostering the necessary confidence for healing.

Applications of Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is a versatile approach that can be tailored to fit many different situations. At Resilience Lab, our therapists work to design a care plan that’s just right for each client's unique needs and goals, ensuring they get the best support possible. Narrative therapy can be used in many ways, such as in individual counseling, family therapy, and couples counseling, depending on what works best for the client.

  • Individual therapy: Help clients address personal issues
  • Couples therapy: Facilitate positive interactions and strengthening relationships
  • Family therapy: Promote understanding and communication within the family unit

Individual Therapy

When applied in individual therapy, narrative therapy can yield transformative results. It assists clients in comprehending and addressing their personal issues using narrative techniques, helping them to become experts in their own lives and live in a way that reflects their goals and values.

Individuals engaging in narrative therapy can expect to:

  • Be guided in the process of re-authoring their narrative.
  • Examine the past experiences that have helped to shape their life.
  • Revise their narratives or construct new ones that more accurately represent their desired identity, values, and the positive transformations they aspire to achieve in their lives.

Couples and Family Therapy

The advantages of narrative therapy are not limited to individual therapy but are also applicable to couples and family therapy. In these settings, narrative therapy is used to facilitate positive interactions and strengthen relationships. The method of externalizing issues plays a significant role in promoting positive interaction.

In a couple or family context, narrative therapy might utilize a range of techniques including:

  • Constructing positive and functional storylines to promote growth.
  • Encouraging members to share experiences that have shaped their lives.
  • Working through alternative and healthier stories.
  • Confronting unhealthy beliefs that are holding them down.
  • Fostering positive communication and using family sculpting to resolve issues

Enhancing Self-Differentiation Through Narrative Therapy

Additionally, narrative therapy is an effective instrument for bolstering self-differentiation. It helps individuals recognize their own thoughts and feelings, set boundaries, and prioritize their own needs and well-being. It allows for an individual to form a clear sense of self, independent of how others view them.

Self-differentiation allows for an individual to:

  • Recognize their own thoughts and feelings.
  • Respect that they are sometimes different from other individuals in their life.
  • Be confident and comfortable with themself, even if they differ from their loved ones.

Narrative therapy, through its focus on individual narratives and externalization of problems, aids in enhancing this self-differentiation.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.

Benefits of Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy can yield extensive and transformative benefits. It empowers individuals by guiding them to develop expertise in their own life, challenge prevailing narratives, and assists them in recognizing and nurturing alternative, healthier beliefs and stories. As the story gains richness, this process results in the reclamation of agency, heightened self-esteem, increased confidence, enhanced empathy, and improved relationships, thereby creating avenues for personal growth and development.

Moreover, narrative therapy fosters self-compassion by prompting individuals to:

  • Externalize their problems and acknowledge that these issues do not dictate their sense of self.
  • Identify alternative narratives to avoid being trapped in a problematic story.
  • Question harmful beliefs and develop a new narrative practice.
  • Cultivate a more positive and compassionate self-perception, which is crucial for personal welfare.

What Can Narrative Therapy Help With

Narrative therapy can aid in addressing an extensive array of mental health conditions and adverse experiences. It has been shown to be particularly helpful for individuals grappling with anxiety and depression, relationship issues, and low self-esteem.

Narrative therapy, especially in the form of narrative exposure therapy, shows promise for more severe conditions like PTSD. Unlike traditional narrative therapy which focuses on reshaping personal stories, narrative exposure therapy is tailored specifically for trauma disorders. It helps individuals confront and process their traumatic memories, which can effectively reduce PTSD symptoms.

Effectiveness of Narrative Therapy

Research has indicated that narrative therapy has been associated with heightened intimacy, enhanced marital satisfaction, and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Comprehensive research is limited, however, due to narrative therapy’s status as a relatively new therapeutic approach, and challenges in quantifying its impact.

The effectiveness of narrative therapy will vary based on the individual as well as the therapist involved. It is important to find a therapist who can provide you with an individualistic approach to therapy that is tailored around your personal needs. The team at Resilience Lab can provide you with a personalized care plan while establishing measurable goals and outcomes.

What To Expect From Narrative Therapy

During narrative therapy sessions with a narrative therapist, clients are encouraged to:

  • Narrate their personal stories
  • Discuss their challenges and aspirations
  • Collaborate with their therapist to explore alternative narrative ideas and address their concerns

In a typical narrative therapy session, the client:

  • Creates a storyline for their experiences
  • Finds meaning and develops a positive and functional identity
  • Explores their narratives and actively challenges them
  • Discovers their voice and examines events in their lives and the significance they have attributed to these experiences

Through open dialogues with their therapist, the individual can engage in this process and benefit from the moment they started narrative therapy.

How Resilience Lab Narrative Therapy Can Help

Resilience Lab offers therapists who specialize in a wide variety of therapeutic techniques in order to find the best strategy for your needs. As a Resilience Lab client, you can benefit from a therapist focused on providing  holistic, evidence-based, and affordable care for various mental health concerns.

Resilience Lab’s inclusive community of therapists holds extensive experience across many clinical approaches. Whether you benefit from narrative therapy or another approach, the tools you learn can help build your resilience to future challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

Although each individual’s experience with narrative therapy and therapy as a whole will differ, below are general answers to common questions.. If you are looking for more personalized answers, we recommend you book a consultation with one of our therapists.

What is a narrative therapy approach?

Narrative therapy is a therapeutic approach that centers around storytelling. It treats individuals as the authors of their own stories, focusing on identifying and rewriting the internal dialogues, themes, characters, and plots that shape their lives. This approach helps clients distinguish between thoughts and feelings, facts and opinions, and reframes negative self-talk. It offers tools to describe experiences, feelings, and past traumas accurately, enabling the rewriting of unhelpful narratives and the discovery of one's voice in the process.

What are examples of narrative therapy?

Examples of narrative therapy involve the active and collaborative process of reframing and rewriting recurring life patterns that are not beneficial. It includes understanding dynamics, attachment styles, what one can control, and one's role in relationships. Through narrative therapy, individuals can gain clarity on their life goals and relationships, and learn new ways of engaging with the world. This therapy might involve unpacking thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and their interrelations, thereby enabling individuals to construct a more empowering and authentic personal narrative​.

What is the difference between narrative therapy and other talk therapy?

The difference between narrative therapy and other talk therapy lies in their focus and methods. While talk therapy generally involves discussing issues and exploring feelings, narrative therapy specifically emphasizes storytelling. In narrative therapy, the therapist and client work together to craft and understand the client's life story, identifying and rewriting harmful narratives. It's a process of recognizing and changing the stories people tell about themselves, which can influence their perceptions and behaviors. In contrast with other talk therapy, which may not necessarily focus on the narrative aspect of a person's experiences or delve into rewriting their life story​.

What is the main goal of narrative therapy?

The main goal of narrative therapy is to empower individuals to become the editors of their own life stories. It aims to help clients identify the themes that drive their experiences and re-story the themes that are draining or unproductive. This approach enables individuals to confront challenges confidently, rewriting narratives that inspire and energize them. Narrative therapy helps clients separate their identity from their problems, offering a space to reframe their experiences and past traumas, and discover their true voice. Ultimately, it seeks to guide individuals to a place of deep understanding and revelation, where they can learn new ways of engaging with the world and write a narrative that aligns with their true self and aspirations.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.