Narrative approaches to counseling are varied in their techniques and applications. The common philosophy underlying these different schools of thought is that clients' life experiences are internally organized into stories or narratives (Hester, 2004). Most commonly, this approach uses writing in the form of poetry, bibliotherapy, storytelling, and narrative reconstruction. It should be noted that bibliotherapy is not considered a narrative approach but is often used in conjunction with narrative exercises in counseling. These narratives are used by clients to make sense of their seemingly disordered inner and outer lives (Henehan, 2003). By allowing clients to share these stories in a therapeutic relationship, the counselor facilitates the growth of clients through a reauthoring of their perceptions of their lives.
The therapeutic value of writing is well established in the professions of counseling and psychotherapy, especially in the cognitive-behavioral approaches and techniques that
use writing exercises to encourage deeper client process. Storytelling techniques are also found in the analytic and humanistic approaches as a means to exploring client desires and fears. The inherent link between the narrative approach and theory enables simpler integration of its benefits within the counseling process. The ease of narrative integration with counseling theory has led some narrative counselors to support a concept called strategic eclecticism (Guterman & Rudes, 2005). Like other forms of eclectic theory, strategic eclecticism confuses theory and practice integration with theoretical variation as a means of helping clients.
In family systems theory, narrative approaches are used to promote healthy family interactions and provide an understanding for the social construction of meaning in the client's personal life. (This construction of meaning is important for clients because it enables clients to become aware of and acknowledge meaning as the foundation of their reality.) Narrative therapists believe that clients perceive their world from a framework of meanings that they have constructed and supported throughout their lifetime. This construction of meaning begins in the family of origin as children are taught societal norms, values, and expectations (Richert, 2002). As people grow, they agree with and support these given meanings or they disagree with and seek to invent new meaning in their personal lives, relationships, aspirations, and fears. Alfred Adler believed the use of narrative interventions in therapy assisted clients in making sense of their thoughts and belief systems that stemmed from early memories and interactions in life (Hester, 2004).
A central theme of the narrative approach is that clients come to counseling as a result of living a personal narrative of suffering, fear, or worthlessness. Narrative counselors often invite their clients to share their most painful or challenging narratives so as to open clients to the possibilities of hope that surround their stories (Salvatore, Dimaggio, & Semerari, 2004). From the narrative perspective, clients enter counseling following an unconscious script. They have been following their scripts for so long that they are unaware that they can change the plot at anytime. The social context in which clients live is of importance when conceptualizing strategies for their growth. The stories clients share in session are shaped by the meaning they have placed on relationships, choices, and their perspective. Because each of these elements is mutable, the goal of counseling is to gamer the awareness and power needed to change those elements that are holding clients back from fully enjoying life.
The goal of narrative counseling is to assist clients in reauthoring their life narrative and to help them reclaim their personal agency. Narrative therapists conceptualize client issues as a product of life and seek to facilitate their clients' awareness of the themes and moral lessons that they have learned through their life's journey. These themes and lessons are the tools that the clients bring to the counseling relationship and are the key elements of change for their presenting problem. One may conceptualize a client as a writer suffering from writer's block. As the writer struggles with the question of "What do I write next?", the client is stuck in his or her life's narrative with questions such as "Where do I go from here?" and "How did I even get here?" The narrative approach is seen as an opportunity for clients to continue their life's narrative however they wish. The role of the narrative counselor is to offer clients avenues of exploration into their dreams, desires, aspirations, fears, regrets, and emotional wounds. Through this exploration of their life narrative, clients find fulfillment and meaning as they begin to reauthor their life narratives into the story with happier outcomes.
In the following excerpt from a counseling session, the counselor uses an ice breaker by asking the client to provide three adjectives to describe herself. The client has been referred to counseling for alcohol abuse and up to this point in the initial session has been uncooperative about talking about the presenting issue. The counselor, working from a person- centered approach, uses unconditional positive regard for the client in an attempt to form a genuine rapport built on mutual trust and respect.
Client: OK, three words to describe me. Well, everybody says I'm bull-headed and mean ... and I like to cause mess, you know messy-like.
Counselor: Those are three words other people use to describe you. I want to hear three words that you would use to describe you.
Client: Urn, I guess I am kind of mean at times, but I'm trying to work on that. How 'bout "I don't know"? I'm kind of confused about things right now. Yeah, confused ... and I'm tired and well, heck, I'm here so I must be crazy or something right?
Counselor: Confused, tired, and crazy. Those words seem pretty unpleasant.
Client: Yeah, well those words are good descriptions of me like right now. I'll tell you that. I'd give anything to at least have a good night's rest. Then maybe I wouldn't be so tired and grumpy all the time.
Counselor: Life must be hard right now. . . . So after you had a good night's rest what three words would you use to describe yourself or better yet your life?
Client: Ha, rested, sane, and ... um, maybe a little less confused.
The client presents as a difficult case, yet through the use of a narrative intervention, she has disclosed feelings of confusion and displeasure with her current life situation. From this point on in the session, a therapeutic alliance can form around what the client would ideally like to see transpire in her life. The counselor can use the information that the client has shared to help the client construct a plan of action to reauthor her current life script. A good start for this client will be to focus on her state of confusion, because it seems to be an extended and recurring theme in her story. The integrative use of a narrative approach in this session reframed a potentially conflictual interaction into an opportunity for therapeutic work.