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Is Narrative Therapy Systemic?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Dr Leonie White

Clinical Family Therapist, Psychologist

Co-Director Queensland Institute of Family Therapy

How does an appreciation of the importance of the stories people's lives are made up of fit with Systemic Family Therapy?

Context has always been a key defining characteristic of Family Therapy, and something that very early on set Family Therapy apart from other psychotherapies. But just exactly how context is interpreted, construed as being a part of the presenting problem or issue, and harnessed as a part of change and healing…well that’s a point of difference across different approaches to Family Therapy, and a point of difference in Family Therapy approaches across time.

Structural approaches were traditionally interested in connections such as boundaries, hierarchies, and subsystems. Strategic approaches considered patterns people became stuck in and notions of symptoms having functions that contributed to maintaining the patterns, and the early Milan approach was interested in family history and rules. These first generation schools of family therapy privileged changes in behaviour, patterns, and family structure as ways of helping people.

As time progressed, Post-Milan approaches attended to the influences of post-modern thinking and social constructionism, and the second generation schools of Solution Focused Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and Dialogical approaches emerged. These approaches understood the family as a system and the role of broader contextual factors, and focused on collaboration, narratives, meaning-making, and dialogue as ways of helping.

The shift from first to second generation schools of family therapy was essentially a shift from families as behaviour systems where context influenced behaviour, structure, and patterns, to families and meaning-making systems where context influenced narratives and the stories people pay attention to that shape their lives.

Michael White is attributed as the founder of Narrative Therapy, along with his colleague David Epston, and amongst other things he is famous for the saying “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. You might have heard this saying, even if you haven’t heard of Michael White or David Epston. Narrative therapy is a way of consulting/talking with people based on the idea that “stories are constitutive of life” (White, 2007), and that the stories we pay attention to shape us.

The Narrative approach is well known for considering meaning-making, the importance of stories in people’s lives, the influence of context in determining which stories people pay attention to, and the importance of seeing people as being in relationship with their problems as opposed to being or having a problem.

Given the Narrative attention to meaning-making, would you be surprised to know that Michael White’s early work fit within the more behaviour oriented Strategic Family Therapy school and the Cybernetic ideas that informed this approach? With early ideas of symptoms playing a role in the family’s homeostasis, feedback loops, patterns within families, the types of things that kept families restrained in patterns, and even task setting to disrupt unhelpful patterns?

Actually, Michael White’s interest in restraints (the things that kept people stuck) led to thinking about meaning-making in relation to restraints. This led to considering the multiple different ways of interpreting and describing the ‘reality’ of the situation as a way of relaxing the restraints. Multiple interpretations and realities opened possibilities to escape the one particular meaning that kept people stuck in unhelpful patterns and vicious cycles.

If this idea of multiple meanings and realities sounds familiar to you, you can probably see the roots of the narrative perspective of life being multi-storied. Some meanings/stories are problem saturated, and some meanings/stories open up possibilities. In this way, the Narrative approach involves the very systemic notions of life being shaped by the systems and relationships people come from and exist in, with change coming through ‘news of difference’, i.e., an alternate story for the multiple stories of life.

All Family Therapies attend to context and relationships and see the family as a system – they just work with this in different ways. These different ways don’t make one approach more or less systemic – just different, and “being differently systemic is something different family therapists have always done” (Haywayd, 2009: 14).

In Narrative practice, some common ways to work ‘systemically’ include:

  • Deconstructing broad social and cultural myths, e.g., what is normal and who gets to decide what normal is or looks like?

  • Deconstruction of presenting issues including the influence of context and relationships, e.g., what are the multifaceted parts of the anxiety, the going to school problem, the defensiveness…….etc.

  • Understanding and working with the influence of family and broader contextual factors in meaning-making and storying, e.g., deconstructing discourses of victimhood that support pathologizing and paying attention to alternate stories such as survival, resilience in the face of adversity, and responses to trauma.

  • Externalizing a problem and considering the effects of the externalized problem on both oneself and other people a person is in relationship with; considering in which contexts and relationships the problem tries to butt in or take over with its sneaky tactics.

  • Creative engagement with the client’s broader system, e.g., bringing in friends or witnesses to strengthen new narratives; celebrating beating the externalised problem.

  • Practices of acknowledgment, e.g., bringing in family, friends, or their letters or stories when they have experienced similar struggles.

These ideas might sound familiar for conversations with individuals, and they can also be used in dyadic and family sessions. But you might be wondering what are some Narrative approaches that can be used specifically for working with couples and Families? What does this look like?

Externalise and Unite

One way to support families is to include them in the externalisation of a problem one family member is experiencing, and invite them to unite against the problem.

  • E.g., instead of seeing a young person as a ‘school refuser’, externalise the ‘going to school problem’, and find creative ways for the family to come together to understand the sneaky tactics of the problem and work against its influence or find ways to work together to keep the problem at bay.

  • E.g., parents can talk to children to help externalise problems, like the shy problem or the nervous feeling, and work together to find ways to reduce the influence of the problem and identify times when the problem hasn’t taken over.

Externalise Relationship Issues and Broader Context

Externalisation isn’t just for problems and issues individuals are wrestling with. This approach is great for relational issues, e.g., the ‘bickering problem’, ‘wall of resentment’ or the ‘divorce plague’ that haunted the family history.

Externalization is also great for broader social issues, e.g., the ‘transphobia problem’, the ‘impacts of racism’.

Find Family Stories and Work with These

There are often untold family stories that have influenced the meaning-making of particular family members. And there are also often untold stories in the family history that could have a positive impact on present situations. Take time to explore the family history, find family stories, understand the influence of dominant stories, consider alternate stories and the opportunities they open up, decide which stories to hold close or put away, and bring forth untold stories.

Exploring stories can be done in conversation or using a genogram as a vehicle for curious exploration.

Support Meaning Making for Shared Experiences

Families have shared experiences e.g., a shared history of surviving domestic violence, shared experiences of COVID-19. A Narrative approach might seek to discover unique outcomes - those times when the problem hasn’t taken over or hasn’t been as ‘loud’ e.g., times when the anxiety resulting from experiences of trauma hasn’t stopped the person from doing something they really wanted to do like caring for their children or holding on to hope.

Within a family context, unique outcomes for family members can be woven together into a family story of ‘resistance’, ‘connection’ and ‘growth’. And also, unique outcomes might be discovered for the family as a whole in their relationships and sense of themselves as a family unit.

It’s also important to note that even when you can only work with one family member, this will always have a positive impact on others in the family, and the family system as a whole, because of ‘circularity’. Circularity is the systemic concept that each person is impacted by others and in turn, impacts others – we simply do not exist in isolation, but in a context within which impacts are recursive and ripple effects happen.

The Narrative approach evolved from Systems Theory. In some ways has become more than ‘systemic’ as it has evolved even further over time. And also, this approach is systemic and relational in supporting the development of alternate storylines and healing and can be used with intentionality with individuals, couples, and families. Meaning is after all made through language, in relationships within the multiple layers of a person’s context.

For more detailed information on these ideas, you might like these resources:

Campbell, D. (2003). The mutiny on the bounty: The place of Milan ideas today. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 24(1), 15 – 25.

Hayward, M. (2009). Is narrative therapy systemic? Context, October, 13 – 16.

Morgan, A. (2000) What is Narrative Therapy: An Easy to Read Introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Nichols, M. & Davis, S. (2017). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. Pearson Education Inc: New York.

White, M. (2001). The narrative therapy metaphor in family therapy. Family Therapy: Exploring the field’s past, present and possible futures. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (2007) Maps of Narrative Practice. New York: WW Norton

White, L. (2020). What can contemporary family therapy offer in a pandemic Psychotherapy and Counselling Today, 26 – 33 (or see the blog that inspired this article – below).

White, L. (2020). What is family therapy?

Photos Attributions:

Photo of mother and daughter wearing a mask - Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

All other photos - Vecteezy Pro

Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute professional advice.

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