Michael White and David Epson: The Pioneers of Narrative Therapy

· May 24, 2019
Narrative therapy separates the problem from the person. Learn more about it with us!

In the 80s, narrative therapy emerged. The main authors and promoters of this therapeutic modality are Michael White and David Epson.

Some consider narrative therapy a postmodern therapy, since White and Epson based part of their approach on philosopher Michael Foucault’s. One of the fundamental premises of this therapy is that each person, family, or institution develops their identity from the narratives they create about events.

Michael White and David Epson

Australian social worker Michael White and New Zealand-based anthropologist David Epson started working together and developed narrative therapy. However, we can’t explain the birth of this therapy without going back to the works of Gregory Bateson, as well as those of Maturana and Varela. These authors pointed out that individuals are never alone and belong to social systems instead.

Thinking not only about individuals but their environment contributed to the development of systemic therapies. These serve the entire family system, some members, or only individuals depending on the situation. The more important actors were incorporated into therapy, the shorter and more effective it was. As a consequence, this led to different brief therapy models.

It’s common for some family members to feel affected by a problem despite not feeling part of it. So you could say that this conceptual change, in which involvement and influential ability are instrumental, is the first step to finding plausible solutions.

The attitude of each family member is of extreme importance. If we can put ourselves in other people’s place, we can better develop what actually happens. Therefore, the first step is not to blame anyone but to understand the influence that each individual person exerts on the problem.

Narrative therapy separates the problem from the person and facilitates the understanding of an idea. Each person has values, commitments, and attitudes that help reduce the negative influence of the problem. Techniques such as negotiation and discussion of viable alternatives are greatly used in order to find new solutions.

Two men communicating with the help of narrative therapy.

Narrative Therapy and Its Methodology

Narrative therapy replaces the now common online approach with a linguistic model. It states that knowledge is a consensual version of reality; it’s a product of interpersonal interaction and negotiation. According to this therapy, individuals develop meaning within the context of the discourse that sustains it.

Therefore, our personal story, culture, and the organizations we’re a part of are intimately related to our actions and what we build in relationships. Thus, we organize our lived experiences in the form of narration, with a temporal sequence, intentions, meanings, and outcomes.

For this reason, narrative therapy understands therapy as a conversational process, where clients and therapists co-construct new meanings, histories, possibilities, and solutions to the problem.

Here are the main premises of narrative therapy:

  • Identifying the dominant story.
  • Outsourcing the problem.
  • Exploring valuable aspects.
  • Discovering the implications of extraordinary events.
  • Analyzing the family background.

Michael White gave great importance to the dramatic structure of a story. According to him, it’s an ‘agent of influence’. When we’re going to tell a story, we usually leave out parts of the experience that may be very relevant, even if we think otherwise.

Therefore, the therapist’s mission is to try to rescue subjugated or invisible stories in the dominant story (the one that the client narrates). They look to recover facts or thoughts that may restore the lost balance.

Two people exchanging ideas.

Some stories we tell become dominant and restrictive, to the point where they push us towards conclusions that are detrimental to our mental health.

That being said, when people go to therapy with a dominant story packed with problems, the therapist focuses on trying to find entry doors to alternate stories. For example, making questions that invite the client to connect with experiences they pushed aside when they constructed their story.

The narrative therapy approach created by Michael White and David Epson separates the problem from the individual (externalization of problems), which eases the process of recommencement of relationships. This, in turn, creates a safe space where people can act against the problem. Plus, it leaves room for their skills, interests, commitments, and responsibilities. It contributes to their personal development and more effective coping.