10 Narrative Therapy Activities & Exercises to do with Clients in Therapy

Michael White and David Epston developed Narrative Therapy in the 1980s. Therapists who employ this approach hold the belief that by examining, deconstructing, and reshaping troublesome narratives, clients can transform their perspectives and construct new narratives that enhance their overall well-being (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Keep reading to learn 10 Narrative Therapy activities and exercises to do with your clients. 

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In Narrative Therapy, clients are regarded as the authorities on their own stories, while clinicians serve as experts in the application of Narrative Therapy. Clinicians strive to incorporate their clients’ strengths and resources into the therapeutic process, offering support and encouragement along the way (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).

One distinction of Narrative Therapy from other therapeutic approaches is the practice of “interactive mirroring,” wherein clinicians actively participate as witnessing companions (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).

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Denborough and C. White identified the following as key concepts associated with Narrative Therapy:

  • Enabling people to tell their stories in a way that can make them stronger
  • With stories that have trouble, hardship, loss, and despair, there is always more than one story
  • When whole communities are affected, we seek collective ways forward, which involves finding ways to share skills within various members of our community.
  • As counselors, it is best to start small. Our role is to “play our part” in sustaining and building on the local initiatives of individuals, families, groups, and communities.
  • People are always responding to the difficulties they are facing
  • Enable those who are experiencing hardship to make a contribution to others who are also experiencing hardships
  • Experiencing the act of making a contribution generates and sustains hope

Narrative Therapy can be combined with other therapeutic approaches including humanistic and experiential approaches.

Why Narrative Therapy?

Narrative Therapy is chosen for several compelling reasons:

  1. Empowering Personal Narratives: Narrative Therapy empowers individuals to examine and reshape the stories they tell about themselves and their lives. It helps them move from problem-saturated narratives to more empowering and preferred narratives.
  2. Externalization of Problems: This approach externalizes problems, allowing individuals to see that issues are separate from their identity. It helps reduce shame and self-blame.
  3. Culturally Sensitive: Narrative Therapy can be adapted to be culturally sensitive, respecting the diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives of clients.
  4. Effective for a Range of Concerns: It is effective for a wide range of concerns, including depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship issues, and identity exploration.
  5. Collaborative Approach: Narrative Therapy is collaborative, with therapists and clients working together to explore and co-author new, more constructive narratives.
  6. Focus on Strengths and Resources: It emphasizes clients’ strengths, resources, and resilience, helping them recognize their capacity for change and growth.
  7. Promotion of Agency: Narrative Therapy promotes agency and personal responsibility, enabling individuals to take an active role in shaping their own lives.
  8. Mindfulness and Reflection: It encourages mindfulness and reflection, helping individuals gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and actions.
  9. Long-Term Benefits: Many individuals who engage in Narrative Therapy report lasting improvements in their self-concept, relationships, and overall well-being.
  10. Crisis and Transition Support: Narrative Therapy can be especially helpful during times of crisis, life transitions, or when individuals are seeking to make meaning of significant life events.
  11. Holistic Approach: Narrative Therapy offers a holistic approach to well-being, considering not only the individual but also their social and cultural context.
  12. Transdiagnostic Application: While initially developed for specific issues, Narrative Therapy can be adapted to address a wide variety of concerns, making it suitable for clients with diverse issues.
  13. Positive Therapeutic Relationship: Narrative Therapy places a strong emphasis on building a positive therapeutic relationship, creating a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to explore their narratives.
  14. Customized Treatment: Narrative Therapy is highly adaptable and can be tailored to meet the unique needs and goals of each individual, ensuring that therapy is individualized and relevant.
  15. Enhanced Meaning-Making: It helps individuals make sense of their experiences and find meaning in their lives, contributing to a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Narrative Therapy is particularly well-suited for individuals seeking to reframe their life stories, challenge unhelpful narratives, and discover new perspectives that promote personal growth and well-being. It offers a collaborative and client-centered approach to therapy that respects the unique narratives of each individual. Keep reading to learn Narrative Therapy activities you can do with your clients.

Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from Narrative Therapy

A benefit of Narrative Therapy is that it does not focus on any specific concerns. Because of this, Narrative Therapy can be applied to clients with a range of presenting concerns and mental health concerns.

Narrative Therapy has been found to successfully treat children who are struggling with: delinquency, bullying, and other conduct concerns (Seligman, & Reichenberg, 2010). Additionally, Narrative Therapy can be effective for adults who are struggling with:

  • Eating disorders
  • Marital and relationship challenges
  • Abuse from childhood
  • Grief
  • Schizophrenia
  • Trauma

As with all therapeutic approaches, there are limitations associated with Narrative Therapy. Narrative Therapy would not be appropriate for clients who have poor contact with reality, individuals who are looking for quick results, individuals who are in a crisis, and those who have little hope for their therapeutic outcomes.

Narrative Therapy Activities

Narrative Therapy exercises can be used to reinforce and practice material discussed during sessions. Narrative Therapy activities can provide clients with an opportunity to practice skills they learned in session in a safe and encouraging environment. Additionally, this can provide counselors with the chance to provide feedback regarding helpful modifications that clients can make to the skills they are learning.  Here is an example list of Narrative Therapy exercises that can be used during Narrative Therapy Sessions:

  1. Using a  tree of life exercise during your Narrative Therapy session will allow your client to explore where they came from, their normative activities, their skills and values, their dreams and wishes, what is important to them, any legacies they are carrying, and what they hope to leave with others. This exercise can help clients work towards living in a way that reflects their true selves in a healthy manner by letting go of unhealthy beliefs.
  2. Deconstructing is an approach that Counselors can take to help clients identify the root of their concerns, and what it means for them. By asking clients to be specific during this exercise, you can work to understand themes that your client is experiencing that are contributing to their narrative. Once there is a better understanding of the theme or pattern that they are experiencing, they can then work to correct the situation.
  3. Work with your client as they work to write their life story. This can include important experiences in their past, their current life experiences, and what they are working towards for their future. This exercise can help clients gain new insight regarding their experiences, and help widen their view of themselves. TherapyPatron.com has a My Life Story worksheet that can guide you and your client through this exercise. Allow time to explore if this activity was able to bring something new into their perspective.
  4. Talk to your client about different ways that they can express themselves. This can include meditation, journaling, drawing, moving, or visualizing. Encourage your client to use different forms of expressing themselves to find one, or more, ways that they can effectively get out what they are feeling. Allow for time to talk about any barriers or hesitations that your client has regarding some of the methods of expressing themselves, as they may have a narrative associated with the activity which differs from what you would like them to try.
  5. A follow up exercise to the previous Narrative Therapy activity would be to revisit the challenging experience they wrote about, and this time, try to reconstruct it. This will include exploring why the event happened, why they felt the way they did, and why they acted in the manner that they did. Allow for time to process this exercise and explore any shifts in their narrative that they experienced.
  6. Another writing Narrative Therapy activity would be to have your client write their own eulogy. With a vague direction, you can allow the client to write as they believe their eulogy would be written at this moment, or how they would like it to be written. This can be done in session, or you can ask your client to complete this Narrative therapy exercise as homework. Allow time to process this activity and explore changes that this activity made them consider and behaviors that support their values and goals that they wish to continue engaging in.
  7. Using the externalizing technique can allow the client to separate their challenges from themselves. This can improve their self-esteem and confidence. An example of this would be someone who identifies themselves with a  mental illness. This can look like someone saying, “ I am bipolar” and “I am anxious”. Rather, clients can change their narrative to something similar to “I am living with anxiety”, or “I am struggling with bipolar symptoms”. Similarly, this is something that Counselors can model to clients by being mindful of how we associate their challenges with them as human beings.
  8. Spend time exploring and identifying your client’s core values.  Core value worksheets can help facilitate this activity by offering common values for your client to consider. Once your client has completed the exercise, you can talk about how their values are tied to their current challenges and future goals. Is there anything that they are working towards or struggling with that does not align with their values?
  9. Ask your client to write two letters; one to themselves as a child, and one to their teenage self. Encourage them to think about what wisdom or encouragement would have helped them during this time, and what they feel is important to share. Topics that can be included would be how to cope with difficult emotions and situations, and how to find happiness and joy at those times. Encourage your client to show themselves kindness and compassion in those letters that they wish they had received during those times. Allow time for the client to share the letter if they feel comfortable doing so, and process this experience for them.
  10. Ask your client to spend 10 minutes a day writing about a challenging experience they have had. Your client will write about the same experience for 5 consecutive days. At the end of the 5 days, have your client bring their written narrative into session. Spend time exploring any changes that occurred to the story over the 5 days and how these changes impacted the story they associate with the experience. Provide your client with a worksheet, similar to the one available at TherapyPatron.com to facilitate this exercise at home.

Final Thoughts On Choosing Activities for Narrative Therapy

Thank you for reading this resource on 10 Narrative Therapy activities and exercises you can do with your clients. The versatility of Narrative Therapy in addressing various mental health and interpersonal issues makes it a compelling therapeutic option. Engaging in Narrative Therapy activities can enhance a client’s self-esteem and foster alignment between their behaviors and core values.

If you wish to deepen your knowledge of Narrative Therapy and incorporate its exercises into your sessions, consider exploring continuing education opportunities and specialized training programs. Acquiring a solid understanding of Narrative Therapy’s principles, techniques, and interventions will enable you to enhance your competence in practicing this approach within your counseling relationships.

TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.

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View all of our Narrative Therapy Worksheets

Resources:

  • Denborough, D., & White, C. (2007, November). Collective narrative practices. Narrative Therapy Centre. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from  https://narrativetherapycentre.com/collective-narrative-practices/
  • Seligman, L., & Reichenberg, L. W. (2010). Narrative Therapy. In Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: Systems, Strategies, and Skills (3rd ed., pp. 220–225). essay, Pearson  Education, Inc. 
Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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