The term “therapy” denotes healing. When used in the common sense of “psychotherapy” it means the healing of the mind. Healing implies that there is an illness that needs to be cured. So the term “therapy” implies that the process is one of healing an illness. Indeed, many therapies view their work in this way, using a model based on the medical profession. They see the need to come up with a diagnosis, and then to proceed with the cure. The methods of cure in psychotherapy are usually based on understanding the patient’s psychological makeup, and offering him or her some kind of cure based on that.
“Narrative Therapy” comes from a very different perspective and methodology. It’s even unfortunate that the term “therapy” came to be associated with the “Narrative” method. It’s unfortunate because it implies that we view the person as sick, which we do not. It implies that we view what we do as a form of cure, which we do not. We view the person as someone who is being upset, bothered, or held back in some way by the Problem. But we do not view the problem as an illness. The problem is simply that – a problem. Problems are not cured or healed, they are dealt with.
“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.”
We are careful not to define the person by the problem. For instance, we would not refer to the person as depressed, but rather as a person that is affected by depression. Even if the person is suffering from what is generally considered an illness, such as schizophrenia, we would not label the person by the illness and call them a “schizophrenic”. That would define the person as the disease. Rather the person is a person, and deserves to be related to as such. This particular person is one that suffers from, struggles with, is oppressed by, … an illness called schizophrenia.
So the first thing that we gain from this approach is that we give the person their dignity that they are worthy as a person. The person has his or her own identity independent of the Problem. When a person comes into our office it can be difficult for them to see that. The Problem can sometimes be so overwhelming as to take over the person’s identity. So it is important for us to see the person as a person as an individual, with their own values, strengths, and beliefs. Even if the person doesn’t see it at first, everyone has a life independent of the problem. We strive to get to know the person for who they are, not just what the problem tells them what they are.
So the axiom that “the person is not the problem” can be understood that the person sitting in front of us has their own identity independent of the problem that they came in for help with. It can also be understood that the person is not the problem, in the sense that they are not at fault. We strive to be careful not to assign blame to the client or anyone else in their life. We don’t view our role as one to be the judge of who caused this problem. Our job is to empower the client to mobilize their strengths and resources to overcome this problem.
A brief summary of Narrative Therapy
Narrative Therapy is an approach that builds on the idea that people give meaning to their lives according to stories they tell to themselves. These stories guide the person on how to act, think, feel, and make sense of new experience. Often, by the time a person has come to therapy, the stories they have told and retold themselves have become completely dominated by problems that work to oppress them. These are what are known as “problem saturated stories”. These kinds of stories can exert a powerful negative influence in the way people see their lives and capabilities.
In narrative therapy, the therapist engages the client in a conversation in order to collaborate in stepping away from problem saturated and oppressive stories, and to discover the preferred story which includes the person’s strengths, hopes, commitments, values, desires and dreams. The therapist does not act as an ‘expert’ to solve the client’s problems. Rather the therapist merely assists the client in discovering the solution through his own resources, skills, and values. This empowers the client to become the expert in his own life and to solve his problems by ‘re-authoring’ the stories of his life.
Putting the client in the center as the expert in their own lives assumes that each person has many skills, abilities, values, and commitments and that will assist them to overcome the influence of problems in their life. In this it is respectful of the client and refrains from blaming him for his problems. By putting the client in the position of expert, then the counselor moves himself away from the center. Rather than guiding the therapy through “interventions”, the Narrative counselor asks questions that he genuinely doesn’t know the answer to, and doesn’t have a specific agenda in the therapy. The ideal is for the counselor to maintain a stance of curiosity and with this to collaborate with the client to author and live his “preferred story”.