Michael White and David Epston founded narrative therapy with the 1990 publication of their book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. In this post, I will summarize their book and describe the premise and processes of narrative therapy.
In working with families, White and Epston (1990) observe that, when asked to describe their reasons for seeking therapy, family members present a “problem-saturated” story of family life (p. 39). This problem-saturated story internalizes problems within the character of a specific family member or relationship and therefore eliminates family members’ personal responsibility for supporting problems in their behavior and beliefs. White and Epston claim that this problem-saturated story is the dominant narrative of family life, ascribing meaning to experiences and determining interaction within relationships at the cost of marginalizing alternative narratives. The purpose of narrative therapy is to help persons recognize and separate themselves from oppressive dominant narratives through an interactive creative process that enhances personal agency, leading to the creation and performance of preferred alternative narratives.
White & Epston (1990) propose externalization as the mechanism by which persons can separate themselves from problem-saturated descriptions of their lives and relationships. They define externalization as “an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive (p. 38). Externalization occurs in the creation of a significant object or persona that serves to represent a problem. This can take the form of a verbal or written description, an image, or any other product of a self-expressive medium. Through externalization, persons can liberate themselves from the problem. The problem no longer dwell within their identity, but rather exists outside of themselves as a distinct entity. The person is free to act autonomously, no longer fused with the problem. Consequently, “the problem becomes the problem, and then the person’s relationship with the problem becomes the problem” (p. 40).
To encourage the process of externalization, White and Epston (1990) propose two sets of “relative influence questions” (p. 42). Relative influence questions assist persons in becoming more aware of a problem by describing their relationship to the problem. The first set of questions encourages persons to “map the influence” of the problem in their lives and relationships. These questions broaden the problem’s sphere of influence to span the behavioral, emotional, physical, interactional, and attitudinal domains of the whole family system, rather than the inherent nature a single person or relationship. The second set of relevant influence questions encourages persons to map their own influence and the influence of their relationships on the “life” of the problem. Personal agency is enhanced with this set of questions, as persons reveal their own roles in supporting the problem. From answering these relevant influence questions, a map is created that defines the structure of the dominant narrative and the requirements for the problem’s survival. Within this map, the persons and problem are “linked in a relation of dependence” (p. 63), with the problem influencing persons and relationships, and persons and relationships influencing the problem.
Just as a map of a region fails to represent every detail of that region’s geography, White and Epston (1990) assume that the map of a dominant narrative fails to represent a person’s lived experience in its entirety. Vital aspects that contradict the dominant narrative are left out, and White and Epston refer to these vital aspects as “unique outcomes” (p. 15). Persons are encouraged to identify unique outcomes through a “selective process” in which persons “prune” from their experiences those events that contradict the dominant narrative (p. 11). Unique outcomes can be historical (found by reviewing the past), current (found by analyzing therapy sessions), or future (found by imagining possible scenarios). These events are expanded and enriched by further investigative questioning from the therapist. From a thorough examination of unique outcomes, persons are able to identify personal resources, or skills they have employed to defy the problem.
Unique outcomes and personal resources form the base for the generation of preferred alternative narratives (White & Epston, 1990). They provide examples of moments when the problem’s supports were eliminated and the problem’s structure broke down. Because the problem and persons are linked in a relation of dependence, it can be said that the problem is dependent upon the persons for its survival. If the persons can alter their influence in the same manner as their unique outcomes, then they can stop supporting the problem, and the problem will cease to exist. By deconstructing the oppressive dominant narrative in this way, the path is cleared for the construction of a preferred alternative narrative. Meanings of experiences and relationships are revised, and the resulting description contrasts markedly with the description of the relationship between persons and problem initially derived from mapping relative influence. This new description informs the performance of the preferred alternative narrative, with persons acting out new roles and new meanings within their identities and relationships. These new roles and meanings are validated and encouraged by this public performance, and the preferred alternative narrative is further established.
White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.