What is Narrative Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 12, 2023
4 min read

If you’ve experienced severe trauma in the past, you may be searching for ways to understand your emotions. Trauma has a way of taking over your life, even years later. Learn how narrative therapy may help you understand the trauma and move on from negative life experiences. 

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is a treatment approach for trauma disorders like PTSD. It is especially helpful for individuals suffering from multiple traumas or trauma scenarios that are complex.

The approach of narrative therapy is most often used for people with community-based trauma which includes political, cultural, or social influences. Individual therapy sessions are used, but there are usually groups of four to 10 people receiving therapy together.

The foundational belief of narrative therapy is that the story you tell about your life influences how you view your experiences and overall well-being. When you frame your life in a way that revolves around a traumatic experience, those feelings, and stress stay with you.

Narrative therapy assumes that:

  • There is no single truth. Instead, you have your own view of reality, and another person has their own view as well.
  • When we attach meaning to something, it has a foundation in social, cultural, and political contexts.
  • You are never the problem. The situation is the problem. 
  • You are an expert on your own life.
  • You can become the author or narrator of your own story. 
  • When you create your narrative, you have already assigned meaning to events in your life. Your narrative affects how you see yourself and how you live your life. 
  • Before seeking professional help, you’ve already tried to reduce the impact of past trauma on your life. 
  • You may be seeking therapy because you see yourself as less than you are. You may not see your full capabilities and potential. 
  • Maximizing your skills and abilities means that you can take control of your life and let go of past trauma. 
  • No problem has complete influence over your life. There are moments, relationships, and events that remain pure and uninfluenced by the trauma you went through. 
  • The therapy atmosphere should be welcoming, respectful, non-judgmental, and professional.

When you commit to the principles of narrative therapy, you can refine your view of your traumatic experience and better understand it in the full context of your life. To achieve this, your therapist helps you to establish a chronological narrative of your life that places emphasis on your trauma.

Your therapist will make sure you have a better perspective by having you include positive experiences, too. When you turn your trauma into a narrative, you give context to the cognitive, affective, and sensory memories of the trauma. You’re able to turn fragments of memory into a complete autobiography by filling in missing details and connecting everything together.

During a session, your therapist asks you to describe in detail your: 

  • Emotions
  • Thoughts
  • Senses 
  • Physiological responses 

In a sense, you will relive the trauma. During these storytelling sessions, your therapist will make sure you are grounded in the present, so you don’t become overwhelmed by the memories. This may take place over several sessions.

This strategy helps you to identify the emotions you felt during trauma, but connect them to a specific time and place. You can separate the trauma from your everyday life instead of allowing it to influence your daily decisions. When your treatment is complete, your therapist will provide you with a documented autobiography.

When you safely reconnect to your trauma, reflect on it, and then let it go, you cultivate a sense of personal identity. Having a physical autobiography helps you to validate your responses and behavioral problems while also letting go.

Transform the problem. Your trauma may leave you feeling like you are the problem. Narrative therapy helps you shift your view and give yourself grace. Once you can separate from the problem, you can have more empathy and compassion for yourself.

It’s not about changing you. This therapy technique does not ask you to change who you are. Instead, it asks you to transform the trauma. It helps you put space between yourself and the trauma you experienced. This makes it possible to see yourself in a positive light.

Limitations. There is little scientific research to back the effectiveness of narrative therapy. Some professionals also critique the assumption that there are no absolute truths in life.

It’s not for everyone. Your unique needs are different from anyone else’s. If trauma limits your cognitive, intellectual, or language skills, you may not be ready for narrative therapy.