Understanding Narrative Therapy in Social Work

Narrative therapy in social work is widely celebrated as a strengths-based and client-centered approach to collaborative work with clients that seeks to re-author the problem-saturated stories that can come to dominate our lives.

Narrative therapists work with clients to make meaning of their life’s events and experiences through a re-storying process that places the client in control of the way her/his story is told and witnessed. Together, client and clinician explore and discuss alternative stories, and then identify the client’s preferred stories, with a focus on the developing client agency in the future.

Narrative Therapy: Externalization

This interdisciplinary-based approach to therapy utilizes many useful intervention strategies that practitioners can utilize with clients, whether in a narrative therapy setting or as a part of a mixed method approach.

One such intervention, a key tenet of the narrative approach, is externalizing the problem – recasting problems as external entities. This intervention strategy separates the problem from the client, placing the client in a position of greater control over the problems that affect her/him.

Externalization is a powerful non-pathologizing process that takes place primarily through language and metaphor. As Michael White, one of the founding theorists behind narrative therapy, states: “In the process of externalizing problems, cultural practices of objectification are utilized against cultural practices of objectification. The problem itself is externalized so that the person is not the problem. Instead, the problem is the problem1.”

Therapists Use Language that Places the Problem Outside of the Client

In externalizing the problem, therapists use language that places the problem outside of the client, allowing the client and therapist to discuss the problem as separate from the client. This often takes place through labeling or naming the problem, and then beginning to talk about it as an external entity with its given name. Often, a metaphor comes into play as a part of this process as well, as clients can assign pictorial images or visual descriptions to the named problem as well. Through metaphor and language, the problem might begin to take the shape of a character or enemy in the client’s life, and client and clinician can discuss the problem in that way.

Roommate Metaphor

Narrative therapy in social work can use a metaphor to externalize a problem is to consider and talk about the named problem as a roommate, a problematic person who resides with the client.

For a client experiencing depression, client and clinician might choose to name the problem “Depression,” or personify the problem further by calling it “Eeyore” for example.

By adopting the roommate metaphor and identifying the problem by name, client and clinician can discuss the problem in a way that emphasizes its external nature. Instead of asking, “Why are you feeling depressed?,” the therapist can ask questions such as, “How long as Eeyore been living with you?” or “What is keeping you from banishing Eeyore from the house?”

This Approach Might Be Uncomfortable

Talking about problems in this new way might be uncomfortable, at first, and clients might seem reluctant to adopt these stories or laugh at the use of metaphor, so “if this happens, the clinician can acknowledge how foreign this language may feel and discuss with the client why this change is important.2” Once the problem has been externalized, therapist and client can continue to discuss it in this new way in future therapy sessions with the aim of it becoming fully integrated into the client’s view of the problem in relation to her/himself.

Externalizing the problem is a unique feature of narrative therapy in social work that has proven beneficial in working with diverse clients on a number of issues. This intervention technique bonds client and clinician together in the use of metaphor and externalizing language, empowering the client to see problems as external entities that the client can resist, defeat, or overcome.


Reference List:

1White, M. Family therapy and schizophrenia: addressing the ‘in-the-corner’ lifestyle. Dulwich Centre Newsletter. 1987, Spring: 14-21.

2Steelman, S.M. Externalizing identities: an integration of narrative therapy and queer theory. J. of Fam. Psychotherapy. 2016, Jan 2;27(1):79-84.

Additional References:

Merschman, C. Restoring trauma with narrative therapy: using the phantom family. The Family J. 2000, Jul 1;8(3):282-286.

Epston, D. Ethnography, co-research, and insider knowledges. Intl J. of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. 2014, Jan;1:65-68.

Narrative Therapy in Practice: Externalizing the Problem
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Narrative Therapy in Practice: Externalizing the Problem
Narrative therapy in social work strengths-based and client-centered approach with clients to re-author the problem-saturated stories
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