NARRATIVE THERAPY IN ADDICTION RECOVERY
By: Michele King
Storytelling is a uniquely human and deeply important practice—it’s a means of connection and preservation, and it’s also, according to narrative therapy developers Michael White and David Epston, how we conceptualize and give meaning to our lives. White and Epston introduced narrative therapy in the 1980s as a collaborative, empowering, and non-pathologizing approach to psychotherapy.
A narrative approach recognizes the client as the expert of their own life, and the therapist as a partner, rather than an authority, in the work they will do together. One of the most important principles of narrative therapy is separating the person from the problem—the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, we create stories within ourselves, and these stories (or narratives) influence how we see and interact with the world around us. They also influence how we see ourselves, our decision-making processes, our behaviors, and what we imagine is possible (or impossible) in our lives; we often internalize problems and see them as inextricable parts of our identities. Narrative therapy, then, uses the power of these stories to externalize problems, frame them within larger, sociocultural contexts, and make room for new, empowering stories. It helps clients focus on their many strengths and develop a self-image that is full of possibilities. This approach might be helpful for someone experiencing addiction.
Many clients use poignant narratives to describe addiction: For example, life might feel like a “rollercoaster”; they might be “fighting their demons” or feel that drugs or alcohol are their “best friend.” Instead of simply relaying a chronology of our experiences, we use imagery and expressions with deep cultural meaning—we tell stories. Narrative therapy helps clients identify evidence (or lack thereof) for thoughts and feelings, and encourages them to examine the messages they’ve received, many of which might be the result of harmful stereotypes, gender or racial biases, or sociocultural power imbalances that have become deeply internalized. It allows people to build alternative storylines and reflect on the larger context beyond the “problem.”
It might also feel like there is an “addiction” to negative thoughts, which can impede a sense of purpose and meaning. Clients and therapists work together to put a space between the client and the addiction; when someone can see their addiction (or grief, trauma, etc.) as just one part of their story, rather than their entire identity—and understand it within the frame of a larger social environment, rather than their “fault”—they begin to observe their story and gain power in changing it. This objective, empowered position can lessen shame, highlight strengths, and help clients build new, rich stories that incorporate all parts of themselves.
Some of the techniques a practitioner might use in narrative therapy include:
Telling your story: The therapist will help you find your voice and tell your story in your own words. You will work together to expose the hidden scripts that guide your beliefs and actions. Storytelling is how we make meaning and establish identity; by “reauthoring” your experience around addiction, you can learn to interpret it differently or build an entirely new one.
Externalizing the problem: This is how we separate the person from the problem or challenge—instead of seeing addiction as an integral or unchangeable part of yourself, narrative therapy will help you understand it as a problematic behavior, one with important cultural factors. Addiction is not a core aspect that exists inside of you; it is a narrative that has been jointly created through social ideas, family dynamics, and many other external circumstances. The idea is that it is much easier (and more empowering) to change a behavior you do than to change a fundamental part of your personality.
Deconstruction: Sometimes our stories can feel too big and overwhelming to take in. Deconstruction makes the issue clearer and more specific and helps the client and therapist understand what is really at the root of the problem. Breaking addictive behaviors down into smaller parts (such as the social context when drinking or how you feel before or after using drugs) can make it less overwhelming and allow you to see where you have the power to change the story.
Unique outcomes: This technique involves changing (or reauthoring) your story. The client and therapist will work together to construct a new narrative that gives meaning and purpose to the client’s experiences. It is important to see our storylines as fluid and malleable, like a novel that switches perspectives between characters. While addiction might look like the whole picture from one angle, another perspective can help you see it as something conquerable—and see yourself as resilient, empowered, and whole.
Narrative therapy is about respect and support for the client, regardless of the issue they are facing. It is a non-blaming approach but encourages honesty and accountability. The person is not the problem, but the problem is often embedded in the story they’re telling—stories that can be newly understood and reauthored. Clients are the experts of their own lives, and therapists are collaborators in the healing process. By telling the story of your addiction and seeing yourself as the powerful protagonist of your own life, you can make sense of painful experiences, revise long-held beliefs, and begin to write a new narrative.
To find additional support and recovery resources, check out our resources page here. You can also search for a licensed therapist near you using PyschologyToday.com. There is an option to search for therapists who utilize a narrative approach, along with any other issue or type of therapy that is right for you.
If you are in recovery, you can become a member of the International Quit & Recovery Registry by registering here, where you can take our monthly assessments, earn rewards, and get support from other Recovery Heroes. Please help us help others by registering and growing our community!
Ackerman, C. (2021, 21 August). 19 narrative therapy techniques, interventions, and worksheets. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/narrative-therapy/
Good Therapy. (2018). Narrative therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/narrative-therapy
Lighthouse Recovery Institute. (n.d.). Narrative therapy for addiction treatment. https://lighthouserecoveryinstitute.com/narrative-therapy-approach-to-addiction-treatment/
Ricks, L., Kitchens, S., Goodrich, T., & Hancock, E. (2014). My story: The use of narrative therapy in individual and group counseling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 9(1), 99-110.
Weegmann, M. (2010). Just a story? Narrative approaches to addiction and recovery. Drugs and Alcohol Today.
Yabar, M. (2016). Narrative therapy: Developing a richer story of your life. Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/narrative-therapy-developing-richer-story-of-your-life-0518165