The use of metaphors in clinical practice has been extremely helpful for me as a therapist. Explaining what I am trying to say and how I am trying to help the people I see can be difficult. I have found that using metaphors to explain the therapeutic process clarifies my intentions as a therapist and my role in the relationship with clients. I appreciate Stillman’s (2010) hiking metaphor as it provides a clear description of how therapy will unfold when using a Narrative approach to treatment. I have often read the description of the Narrative Metaphor in the first chapter of the Narrative Trauma Manual, Stillman (2010) to clients to elicit interest and excitement to begin the journey. Additionally, I have noticed that clients often become discouraged as a result of the extensive “information gathering” process that often needs to take place in intakes. Sharing the Narrative Metaphor passage has been very useful in combating the negative feelings that may arise in response to the intake session. My goal is for clients to feel hopeful about the therapeutic process and the use of metaphors can elicit this sense of hope.
Repositioning is a process that also elicits hope in people consulting me. I often use repositioning when clients or I become stuck in the therapeutic conversation. I find it helpful to pause and use imagination to create new possibilities. I have used different metaphors to describe ways to reposition and see problems or situations from a completely different perspective. But repositioning is not just about that, repositioning also helps in reaching new conclusions and discovering options. My use of metaphors during repositioning has to match the person’s needs, experience, and understanding of their experience. For instance, I often use sports metaphors with adolescent boys who practice a specific sport at school. I find this process to be magical. Not only helps in developing a positive relationship with the person, but it also helps emphasize my curiosity for the person’s experience and that I am really trying to understand and actively empathize.
As a therapist, being de-centered but at the same time, influential has always made a great deal of sense. I like to feel like an active participant in the therapeutic conversation and overall process. I also value people having a space to explore their own stories and interpret them in their own way without my potentially biased input. I appreciate how Freedman and Combs (1996) describe the process of interpretation within Narrative practice. Understanding that only the person is the expert of their own experience and life is essential for us therapists if we are going to be helpful at all. As several of the texts on Narrative therapy I have read state, people are meaning-makers and I believe that it is in my clients’ best interest to develop a level of awareness about their interpretation of situations and events. I also wish for my clients to be able to understand discourses such as inner dialogues and external or environmental factors that may contribute to the problem or whatever it is that makes them come to therapy. All of this can be done centered on the person and their experience while being curious. This is why I became a therapist, because I’m curious about people’s stories, experiences, and how they interpret these. I find this to be my most effective tool in the therapeutic process.
Discourses in Therapy
It is important to be cognizant of discourses and their role in people’s experience. I found it very helpful to be reminded about discourses existing in the therapeutic process. I notice that clients typically respond to me in accordance with how I present myself. In some cultures, people are used to viewing the therapist as an authority figure. This is something which I have had to navigate carefully. It is important to me that I don’t offend or disrespect a client’s beliefs or values. In doing this, I find that it’s easier to build a trusting relationship and empower clients to be the experts of their own stories.
One of the things that makes me excited about therapy is the variety of stories and the uniqueness of these stories. I enjoy listening to a person’s story. This natural inclination to want to listen to the stories people bring into therapy makes me remarkably curious about what else there is to the story. Curiosity is very important in Narrative Therapy and I strongly believe it may be, next to a respectful relationship, the most significant aspect of the therapeutic process.
Values and Principles
Reading or hearing about personal agency and people’s values and principles always makes me look at my own life and the ways my life has been shaped by what’s important to me. A few months ago, I talked to my partner about my values and commitments and how these shaped decisions I have made in my life. I thought a lot about how much I “value” education. I gave this idea a lot of thought which made me realize that I actually value autonomy and freedom. Deconstruction of societal messages and cultural forces helped me identify that education was not necessarily what I valued, but instead, it is what I needed to do in order to obtain the autonomy I always desired. I can clearly see that society places disproportionate value to education, success, and power. I thought that I needed to become educated in order to experience full autonomy. Having gone to school and have a career has been a blessing to me; however, I now understand that I could have chosen other paths to be autonomous.
Deconstruction of Problem
One of the most amazing concepts I have learned through Narrative training is deconstruction of the problem. I think this process is very important because it strengthens externalization. I see that most clients believe they are not the problem when they can look at the problem’s activities and effects on their lives. I also find it extremely helpful when the person can identify patterns in their relationship with the problem. I have witnessed improved self-confidence and self-esteem when clients begin to develop insider knowledge on the problem. This process helps the person experience a more influential role in relation to the problem.
Problem is the Problem
When people ask me about Narrative, specifically about Externalization, I struggle explaining it. At first, I used to be very comfortable describing externalization and how it’s useful to clients. Nonetheless, I have noticed that 1. I may not be doing externalization justice or 2. Other professionals have a misperceived notion of what Narrative therapy is. I often hear people refer to Narrative therapy as a psychological model or simple story-telling—both of which it’s not. I have also been accused of not “holding clients accountable” when using externalization—also untrue. Freedman and Combs (1996) explain that externalization is often criticized due the belief that the process “takes responsibility away from the person.” Externalization is more about having the choice to take responsibility in a given situation. The person can pay close attention to the ways they can have more influence over their life; therefore, reducing, and at times, eliminating the problem’s role in the situation or client’s life.
I wish I explained externalization more clearly. It is a process I often recur to because I have seen it work. It makes me more curious about the person’s life and consequently, it engages the person in richer discussions about their stories. I don’t want to end without saying that I very much appreciate the use of externalization when describing aspects of the person’s life that contribute in positive ways such as “The Bravery” or “The Helpfulness.” To conclude, I find the process of externalization to be a powerful tool to reclaim lives and re-tell stories in ways that best fit with the person’s values and principles. I hope that other therapists can learn about externalizing conversation before contributing to the negative reputation it can sometimes have. I am always happy to explore these ideas with you. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, nobody fails here.
Freedman J. H. and Combs G. (1996). Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Stillman J. S. (2010). Narrative Therapy Trauma Manual: A Principle-Based Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Caspersen, LLC.