Narrative Therapy: Why It Works with Aboriginal Clients
At the heart of narrative therapy – and the crucial aspect distinguishing it from more empirically-based therapies (such as CBT) – is the question of how we can know reality. Empiricism tells us that there a single “truth” waiting for us to discover it. Narrative therapists, on the other hand, recognise that the operative word is “realities”, as individuals, families, and cultures each come to create their own.
This philosophical stance shows up in the following chief assumptions (content sourced from the Mental Health Academy course, Narrative Therapy: The Basics).
That realities are socially constructed
We may take for granted that in western cultures, for instance, we greet people with “How are you?” and often shake hands, hug, or kiss. We may also notice that there are rules for how, or even whether, we may speak with intimates, strangers, the opposite sex, and professionals. But these and other social protocols are actually the result of complex negotiations in the social interactions of a group occurring over a long period of time. Aboriginal cultures, too, have social protocols, probably much more complex than western ones due to wider kinship connections, but they are different from western ones.
Thus, for a dominant-culture professional to assume (or unconsciously believe) that another culture is deficient because it does not have the same protocols is a grievous but sadly typical response. For a majority-culture (i.e., western) person to believe that his or her perception of reality is the only “real” one is to subtly disrespect the social constructions of another culture’s reality. Given the history of colonisation and oppression to which Aboriginal people have been subjected, it is understandable that many Aboriginal people would be sensitive to any perception that a western professional was regarding their culture as somehow deficit and/or not manifesting “real” reality. Narrative therapy, by definition, respects the narratives (social constructions) which comprise the Aboriginal (or any other) culture. That respect is both subtly and overtly manifested in the ways in which narrative therapists work with their clients.
That realities are influenced by and communicated through language
Empirical and modernist-based therapists would argue that language represents a one-to-one correspondence with the external world; thus language is said to represent external realities so that a person’s internal experience accurately mirrors the outside world. Narrative therapy, conversely, looks at how language is used to constitute a world view and beliefs rather than mediate between those and the outer world. Language is not neutral, then, but something that collaboratively brings forth reality.
We have only to look at language used by the dominant culture – particularly in reference to Aboriginal people – to understand how a colonising, oppressive stance has been subtly maintained. In addition, some therapies tend to use language which puts the health professional in a superior position: determining the course of the therapy, asking all the questions, telling the client/patient what to do, and generally showing control of the session and the “patient”. An anthropologist working with doctors to improve their communication with patients noted, for instance, that many doctors told Aboriginal patients what they should do without helping people realise what they could do for themselves. As a result, “people felt talked down to”.
Instead, in narrative therapy new meanings are constantly negotiated for beliefs, emotions, and behaviours causing problems in clients’ lives and from this can emerge new possibilities for meaning and for choosing courses of action. There is a more solid stance of social equality.
That realities are organised and maintained through stories
Through language we construct our truth, says narrative therapy, and through stories and narratives we maintain it. The Aboriginal cultures – traditionally oral cultures – are nothing if not consummately well-storied. Many informants spoke about Aboriginal creation stories, stories that formed a sense of history, and stories that helped those hearing them know how to behave, and how to understand life. Where a narrative stance can best become therapy is at the edge of the stories; no person’s (or culture’s) narratives can include all the stories of their experience.
Thus, there is room to grow toward wholeness where narratives of strength, resourcefulness, and resilience which have been left out can now in therapy be included, and maladaptive stories can be re-storied to show adaptation and success in the light of major challenges. A therapy that engages the co-construction of stories as its way of operating can find high congruence with Aboriginal cultural values and ways of relating.
That there is no “objective reality” or absolute truth
This assumption, the lynchpin of narrative therapy, insists that what is true for us may not be true for another person or even for ourselves at another point in time. In the narrative, social constructionist paradigm, there are no essential truths and we cannot know reality; we can only interpret experience. While the empirical world view urges us to be like technocrats, following the rules to arrive at the correct conclusion about what is happening, the narrative mind frame exhorts us to bring forth our novelist selves. This means that we can understand our client’s story from many perspectives.
The work of narrative therapy is to elicit various experiences of the client’s whole self, determine which selves (parts of the client) are preferred in the new narrative, and then support the growth and development of those new selves and their accompanying stories (Ackerman, 2017; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). Obviously, a stance which helps to construct an understanding and appropriate storying of Aboriginal peoples’ resilience, capacity for survival in the harshest of conditions, and spiritual qualities will do much to not only restore individuals clients’ pride in themselves and their cultural origins, but also to bolster the status of that culture to both cultural members and the broader society.
What does not fit with narrative therapy, especially in counselling Aboriginal clients
Because in narrative therapy clients are deemed to be the expert on their own life and the therapeutic alliance is formed as a partnership in which the therapist is a consultant, typical counselling concepts such as “resistance”, “denial”, or “mental disorders” are not to be found in the sessions. Too, those using a narrative approach have little use for the DSM: the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of symptoms describing the various personality and mental disorders.
Those would describe, after all, someone else’s story about the client, not that of the client. We reiterate that, if a therapist comprehends how profoundly colonisation and the resultant oppression by the dominant culture are still affecting (if only covertly) Aboriginal clients, then concepts of resistance and denial do not belong in the discourse. They, after all, describe the efforts of one party to not be subjugated by another rather than two socially equal beings coming together to improve someone’s quality of life.
The inherent pathologising of the DSM is alien to the narrative effort to positively re-story painful, unhelpful, or maladaptive behaviours or beliefs. Notions such as resilience and denial are, however, not part of narrative therapy, so a counsellor who is genuinely working with a narrative approach should not be stymied by them.
This article was adapted from the Mental Health Academy course Sitting with Aboriginal Clients: Appropriate Modalities.
- Ackerman, C. (2017). 19 narrative therapy techniques, exercises, & interventions (+ PDF worksheets). Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved on 10 October, 2017, from: Website.
- Archer, J., & McCarthy, C.J. (2007). Theories of counselling & psychotherapy: Contemporary applications. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.