Troubling Trends in Narrative Therapy

Hong Kong from Chi Lin NunneryWorking here, in Hong Kong, has me thinking about Narrative Therapy as it is viewed and practiced in North America. It seems to me that Narrative Therapy is  becoming institutionalize, particularly in the U.S.. Perhaps the fate of Just Therapy in the U.S. is even more disturbing. While there are a growing number of Narrative Therapy texts, each seemingly determined to remove all traces of social engagement from Narrative Therapy, I could find only two books about Just Therapy on Amazon, and none in our mulch-million volume university library.

Increasingly, texts speaking to Narrative Therapy appear to be intent on easing Narrative ideas into the comfortable, and more acceptable, category of Cognitive Behavior therapies. This is particularly disturbing to those of us who have utilized Narrative ideas to privilege local experience, especially that experience and expertise that arises from disability and tribal identity. Somehow, while acknowledging the centrality of context and social justice to Narrative ideas, authors simultaneously focus on the individual or family outside social context.

Two of the contested areas I find particularly discomforting are those discounting the influence of tribal knowledge and the centrality of liberatory practices to Michael White’s work. While writers such as Stephen Madigan discount the importance of both to Michael’s work, Michael told me, in several brief conversations over the years, that both had enormous impact on his vision. I did not know Michael well; indeed, many of these conversations took place during breaks at workshops.

I have no doubt Michael resisted joining any program that sought to impose a centralized plan of social change; his work was deeply rooted in showing preference to local knowledge. That, however, does not dilute his insistence on supporting the claims of individuals and groups to the right to liberation from injustice. In fact, on more than one occasion Michael voiced the concern that Narrative Therapy would be absorbed into the mainstream and lose it’s  capacity to challenge deeply rooted social ills.

Michael often told stories about his early days working with Australian Aboriginal women and families, and his slow realization that social injustice shaped many of the disabling experiences they reported. Most often, the problems that saturated therapy sessions arose from the racism and economic injustice that were daily experiences in his collaborator’s lives. Michael also mused on the centrality of meetings with Aboriginal elders, and their ideas about the role of external forces, both socio-economic and spiritual, that assured him he was on the right track in his work.

In contrast to Michael’s work stand Cognitive-Behavioral ideas about the centrality of thought processes in the creation of “pathology” and suffering. These ideas place the problem directly in the body of the patient. This is of course congruent with Medical model concepts of normalcy and illness, ideas that consistently acknowledge the centrality of social conditions to the development and life course of illness, while isolating the problem within the body of the patient. This placement of disability and dis-ease in the body of the other opens that persons to further practices of power, including medication, that undermines the person’s claims to knowing, and reduces the likelihood they will develop preferred ways of living that are not regulated by institutional power.

While I do not question the disabling effects of troubling self talk, I strongly believe an over-focus on self-talk to be detrimental to the individuals, families, and communities who seek our aid. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of persons identified as “having” disabilities, and in the lives of Native people. Both groups experience astronomically high rates of poverty, joblessness, and violence, and both groups must contend with a wide array of disabling narratives, policies, and procedures that isolate them, while masking the effects of disabling cultural and political influences on persons not labeled as “disabled”.

I believe one cannot overestimate the degree to which disabled  and Native lives are constricted by social narratives, political and economic power, and institutionalized medical practices. Nor should one underestimate the knowledge that disabled persons and their families, and Native persons and communities hold regarding the working and intent of these powers and their practices.

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19 thoughts on “Troubling Trends in Narrative Therapy

    • Thank you Rob,

      I have another part to this post, almost ready to go. Teaching this material here in Hon Kong, as well as in India, has dramatically shifted my thinking about it. Who would have guessed I would view things in this way now? By the way, I have become very aware of the challenges inherent in teaching and practicing NT.English language metaphors do not necessarily translate, and that leaves an opening for seeking culturally appropriate metaphors. That, too, leads one in interesting directions.

  1. Hello Michael – I appreciate this viewpoint and agree with you. For many years, I was “disabled” and lived under the government’s programs and requirements. I feel much freer now as I am “retired” (even though I still have the same conditions) I can move in my life with a sense of independence and dignity that was not present before. I believe that the First Nations suffer from the same or more government rules. And your use of the words Narrative and Just Therapies is another way to explain what can be right and good and what is not!
    Thank you for this article.

    • Thanks, Laara,
      I will eventually post a second part to this post, dealing more explicitly with disability issues. Here In Honk Kong I have been working extensively with the Disabling metaphor, and extending the definition of disability. There are many disabling practice, even in very affluent societies, although these practices are largely invisible to people, even those who are most influenced by them.

      You have, very clearly, bloomed in your “retirement”. I am wondering how much of that blossoming came as a result of lessening your involvement with disabling institutions.

      • Thanks Michael for your reply! And I agree with you on many disabling practices. In 2007 it was necessary due to my poor health to go on government disability. I think the past three years, I have just decided to live completely and in a different way from before. As my health improved, I improved my circumstances. Previously, I was an artist and managed to support myself and live in my own gentle world by teaching in my studios for much of my life. The damage from the institutions was brief and I am so thankful to be “retired” as an artist! It is a joke really because I will never stop painting! Or being who I really am! I will read with interest your further posts about the issues of disability! As I read them all and enjoy them. Thank you for all you do!

      • Laara,

        I am glad to hear that you are both allowing support and insisting on a life that is satisfying to you. I wonder how many of us who fit the institutional criteria for Disability are successful in doing so. Perhaps you will share with us your strategies for managing support and remaining true to your dreams, values, and needs. I also wonder whether there are people in your life who have appreciated your skill in navigating Disability. Do you think other people who are faced with Disability might benefit from your knowledge and experience? I know that as I read your comment, I felt buoyed by hope. Is this unusual or do others find your journey hopeful?

      • Michael I am fortunate to have close friends who both support me and value my dreams and needs! My son and his fiance who are getting married March 30th are a true blessing in my life as is my family that live far away. Most people don’t see my disability because it is COPD (breathing problems) however that being said I have recovered from cancer twice and I am writing a small book about what I did to return my body, spirit and mind to health!!! I am going to publish this book Pathways to Health this Spring and I am optimistic that by sharing my experiences and knowledge this will help others. I want to just price it at cost so many can obtain it! But for today the very simple way I can offer assistance to those with disabilities is this: Remember that you do have choices, you may have to look for them but there are always choices; Take good care of yourself first then others around you will truly benefit; Be willing to ask for assistance, whether it is carrying groceries or getting a ride to an appointment; Pray and meditate each day to see how you can live your highest good; particularly pray for the people or institutions that you find irritating! So I hope that is a little bit helpful. I am still praying to be rid of my frustration with our government! At night I say Higher Power help me to forgive the government!!!! I am serious! But most of the time I am happy and content and pleased with the new opportunities in my art career. As we vision…so it is! Yes, I do hope to offer support and caring to all those I reach and if this brings even one person( ie you today) some hope I am so very happy! And thank you Michael for requesting this information!

  2. Thank you for this excellent post. I’m a therapist and often find it hard to find others practicing who see that the pathology is not always in the body of the person, at least it doesn’t originate there. I would like to know more therapists who take a liberatory approach to their work.

  3. The name for my web address–“Stories with No Books”—came from a comment made by a small child, many years ago. I worked in preschool then, and would sometimes tell stories about my childhood—describing how it was living “way back then” when I was little–just like them.
    Then one day, while we were outside, a young boy asked me to read another story.
    I said, “Sure! I will go in, get a few books, and bring them out.”
    He replied, “No! Not those kind! Read me one of your stories…you know….the stories with no books.”
    They identified with the silly mistakes that I had made (much the same as the mistakes that they were making now) when I was the same age. In the middle of the stories, I would sometimes stop and say things like: “How was I supposed to know that?!”
    It made them smile.
    Is that a sort of Narrative Therapy?

    • Mary, Yes! Our stories are our lives, as individuals and communities. Some are written, some are passed down through the generations, and some just pop up and say, “Hi!”. Stories, as you have come to learn, are powerful and no one owns them. (Well, there are stories that are owned by clans, tribes, and families, but that is a different and complex matter.)

  4. Hi Michael

    I agree. Our society tends to homogenise and pasteurise everything. Analyse and interpret it until it no longer looks, sounds, smells anything like the original.

    I have seen the same thing happen with attachment theory.

    That’s why I prefer to go back to the original creators of the work – Freud, Winnicott, Bowlby, Klein, Bion, Rogers, and Michael White.

    • Yes, I believe you are right. I love Winnicott and Klein. And yes, Attachment Theory seems to have gone down some weird rabbit hole. Still, when we put these ideas and skills into new, eager hands, amazing things happen. Michael’s work remains vibrant and new, in spite of the efforts to make it into yet another form of CBT.

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