What Is Narrative Therapy And How Does It Benefit Clients?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 5, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Studies show that there are over 400 types of psychotherapy modalities. With so many options, an integrative approach to treatment is often possible for those seeking specialized support with specific diagnoses, symptoms, or life concerns. One type of psychotherapy often used to treat clients is narrative therapy, which can be offered in an individual, couple, family, or group form. 

Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that separates the person from the problem and encourages clients to rely on their own skill sets to feel in control of these challenges. Through narrative techniques like storytelling, roleplay, and art, clients can be the author of their own life stories. 

Receive the benefits of creating a narrative with professional guidance

A detailed overview of narrative therapy

Narrative therapy separates clients from their challenges by reframing their experiences into a narrative, like a story, providing an avenue to gain a more objective, critical perspective.

This form of therapy allows individuals to determine the actual impacts of their problems, improve their future, and clarify their goals. It was developed in the 1980s by Michael White and David Epston, two social workers who recognized the need for a collaborative and non-pathologizing approach to counseling. Narrative therapy has been used to help people improve their overall well-being, as well as treat a number of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

How does narrative therapy work?

Narrative therapy often aims to help clients understand that they can employ their innate skills, talents, and strengths to better their lives and bring about change. Clients may be encouraged to look at the upsides of a perceived problem and determine how it may benefit them. Depending on the issue at hand, doing so may be challenging. A narrative therapist can use several techniques to guide the client to this point. 

For instance, an individual with marital issues in a healthy marriage may view their marital conflicts as an unsurpassable challenge. A narrative therapist can ask the client to examine how these conflicts offer opportunities. For example, perhaps the conflict with the client's spouse has prompted them to start examining their boundaries in a way they hadn't considered before. In addition, they might notice that the distress over communication issues manifests in their love for their partner. This love might motivate each spouse to make modifications to strengthen their marriage and connect with each other. 

At times, the perspective you take surrounding a problem can change how you confront that problem. Even if the issue is significant, the individual's perception can make circumstances seem more or less manageable. For example, if someone breaks their leg and believes they will never walk again, they might feel down and refuse to get out of bed each day, causing more pain or complicated emotional responses. Another person who breaks their leg believing in the potential for healing may try to participate in physical therapy, follow their doctor's guidance, and feel hopeful for the future. These concepts can be applied to recovery from mental health conditions as well. 

What are regularly used narrative therapy practices?

Below are standard techniques that may be used in narrative therapy, first developed by Michael White and David Epston.

Story telling 

Often, narrative therapy begins with the client telling their story as they understand it. If narrative therapy is done in a couples setting, both partners can have a chance to express their story without interruption. Telling one's story can establish a "therapy narrative" to provide the basis for the client to heal, establish their purpose, and discover the value in their experiences. The therapist can often offer validating, empathetic, and probing feedback to learn more about the client's mindset during this stage. 


Another common practice employed during narrative therapy is the externalization technique. Externalization encourages the client to view their symptoms, challenges, and concerns as separate entities instead of a part of themselves. For example, individuals struggling with anger may label themselves "angry people." However, with the externalization technique, the therapist helps the client view the behaviors that accompany their anger as a challenge and themselves as problem-solvers instead of conflating themselves with every behavior or emotion they experience. 

Through externalization, clients can see the problem as solvable. If a client believes that a problem is part of their personality or core state of being, they might not see it as mutable. Instead, they might think that problem will exist for as long as they do. 


The deconstruction technique occurs when the individual works with their therapist to dissect their issue. Breaking down the problem into manageable chunks can make it easier to tackle while allowing the client and the therapist to discover the root or underlying causes that could enable or feed the problem on the surface.

Re-telling the story

At the end of narrative therapy, the client may better understand their story, the role of language and perception, and the distinction between their present story and the one they wish to author in the future. The therapist can help the client set goals to achieve their dreams and make changes in their lives, focusing not only on problems but on solutions and changes. 


The benefits of narrative therapy

There are many potential benefits associated with narrative therapy. Those willing to work with their narrative therapists may experience psychological and emotional benefits and growth, including the following. 


Externalization requires clients to separate themselves from their challenges, allowing them to see themselves as they are instead of as defined by a problem. Not only does this technique ease the burden of reaching viable solutions, but it also allows individuals to assess themselves. They can analyze their habits, strengths, weaknesses, and patterns and determine minor steps to take to change what they aren't satisfied with. 

Self-awareness can be an essential quality when looking to achieve self-growth. If you're unsure what you want to change or what could be changed, you might struggle to take the necessary steps. As therapists are professional guides and cannot do the work of self-awareness for you, separating your challenges from your personality is one step toward understanding who you are and what you need. 

Personal responsibility

Increased personal responsibility is another potential perk of narrative therapy. Clients are often prompted by their therapist to assess their actions, habits, and decisions. Questioning oneself often encourages responsibility as one observes patterns between their choices and their positive or negative consequences. During narrative therapy, the client may be asked to modify their quality of life. They may also be asked to assign responsibility to the outcomes when making choices. Doing so can help them learn how to change their strategies in the future. 

Future success

While success can mean different things to different people, narrative therapy often revolves around helping individuals meet their goals and feel successful. Problem-solving abilities are often considered critical in all aspects of life. Those who can enact solutions may make more life changes than those who sit back and wait for changes to occur. 

Counseling options 

Despite narrative therapy's techniques, practices, and many benefits, many people struggle to seek professional help. Stigmas surrounding receiving mental health support can cause individuals to avoid treatment out of shame or misinformation. For example, many people believe you must have a mental illness to seek therapy. However, therapy is for everyone, and narrative therapy can benefit anyone interested. 

Narrative therapy is about problem-solving and identifying your abilities and strengths while separating yourself from challenges to solve them productively and objectively. Narrative therapy often involves growth, respect, and progress. Each client may be encouraged to go step-by-step at their comfort level to make changes. If you're interested in meeting with a counselor, several options are available. 

Receive the benefits of creating a narrative with professional guidance

Many clients seek therapists online by browsing therapist directories or emailing in-area providers. However, you can also receive therapy online by signing up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. Both platforms involve a match-based system so you can be matched with a therapist who meets your preferences. You can ask to be matched with a narrative therapist upon signing up. 

If you're unsure about the effectiveness of online therapy, note that many studies have found online interventions more effective and cost-effective than traditional in-person options. For example, one study on internet therapy for OCD found it saved clients a significant amount of money and offered positive results. Narrative therapy can be used for OCD, many mental health challenges, stress, conflict, and relationship challenges. When you talk to a narrative therapist online, you can meet from home over the phone, via video chat, or through live messaging sessions. 


Narrative therapy is a type of counseling that gives clients control over their stories. It allows individuals to rewrite their lives, tackle problems, and separate themselves from their behaviors. If you want to try narrative therapy, consider contacting a therapist online or in your area for further guidance. 

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