Michael White has become synonymous with narrative therapy in the same way Kleenex became synonymous with facial tissue. His recent book Maps of Narrative Practice, likely to be regarded as his magnum opus, makes it clear why his brand of narrative therapy has broad appeal and great impact on the therapeutic community.
Many clinicians, including myself, practice narrative therapy. Broadly speaking, narrative therapists share the same social constructivist perspectives and the same interest in the power of stories in shaping people’s identities and lives. The multifaceted meanings of narratives provide almost unlimited potentials in creating new futures.
The goal of all forms of narrative therapy is to create relational and dialogical channels for positive transformation in clients. This dual emphasis can be summed up this way: “Meaning is all we need, and relationship is all we have” (Wong, 2008, p. 17).
However, narrative therapists differ in how to harness the curative potentials of stories. The author has developed a unique and systematic way of conducting therapeutic conversations, as evidenced in Maps of Narrative Practice. Using both broad strokes and minute details, White presents an intricate, interlocking, multilayered structure with a detailed blueprint.
Although his therapeutic journey is guided by clearly structured maps and techniques, he hastens to add that “the maps of this book are not the maps of narrative practices or a `true’ and `correct’ guide to narrative practice, whatever narrative practice is taken to be” (p. 5).
However, in spite of his humble and open-minded attitude, he seldom mentions other therapeutic avenues that are similar to his own brand of narrative practice. It appears that he is content to inhabit his own universe without seeing the need of connecting with what is going in the larger therapeutic community.
In this review, narrative therapy (NT) refers specifically to Michael White’s brand. Whenever appropriate, I will attempt to relate NT to logotherapy (Frankl, 1984) and meaning-centered counseling and narrative therapy (Wong, 1998, 2008) because all three approaches share the same positive orientation, which may be called meaning-oriented positive psychotherapy.
The book is neatly divided into six chapters covering the six major intervention strategies in NT: (a) externalization, (b) re-authoring, (c) re-membering, (d) definitional ceremonies, (e) unique outcomes, and (f) scaffolding. My review and reflections follow the same organization.
Externalization is by far the most widely known and widely practiced NT skill. Basically, the process of externalization (White & Epston, 1990) allows clients to distance themselves from the problem. In the context of externalizing conversations, when people learn that the problem does not define their identities, they begin to discover that problem resolution is attainable.
Externalization is similar to the practice of self-distancing and paradoxical intention in logotherapy (Frankl, 1986). When clients are encouraged to confront their problems, the object of fear becomes less threatening, and they are then able to find realistic solutions.
Externalization is also similar to attribution retraining (Wong, 1998) because it involves a switching from internal attribution to some form of external attribution. The motto of NT is clear: “The person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.” By regarding the problem as an external active agent, the client gains some space and insight on how to deal with it in a creative manner.
However, there are limits to externalization. Some problems are indeed caused by an individual’s internal or intentional state, such as misguided ambition, greed, an Achilles’ heel, or a Shakespearean tragic character flaw. The practice of externalizing all personal problems may undermine personal agency and responsible action, which are essential for developing preferred alternative story lines.
White is strongly opposed to the tendency toward totalizing, and rightly so, because no problems are always bad or totally bad—negative situations may contain seeds of renewal and transformation. There is always a positive side to every problem, just as there is also a negative side to the positive aspects of life. Such thinking is consistent with the balanced model of positive psychotherapy proposed in Wong (2008).
White is aware of the macro sociopolitical factors that may have a negative impact on individuals’ life situations and self-identities. It is helpful for clients to be aware that there are larger forces that limit their freedom of choice. While considering advocacy as part of the role of the therapist, the author has never intended to politicize the therapeutic conversations and make social engineering the main thrust of NT.
I also find it refreshing that White argues for the use of “why” questions in connection with externalization and other NT strategies: He believes that “why” questions facilitate the development of positive self-identities:
These “why” questions play a profoundly significant role in helping people to give voice to and further develop important conceptions of living, including their intentional understanding of life (for example, understanding their purposes, aspirations, goals, quests, and commitments, their understanding about what they value in life. (p. 49)
After deconstructing the problem through externalization, NT moves to the next logical step of reconstructing the meaning of past events through re-authoring, which remains the mainstay of NT. White emphasizes that “effective therapy is about engaging people in the re-authoring of the compelling plights of their lives in ways that arouse curiosity about human possibility and in ways that invoke the play of imagination” (pp. 75–76) in much the same way that good literature engages the mind.
Influenced by Jerome Bruner’s (1986) analysis of literary texts, White wants to makes use of narrative metaphors to stretch people’s minds and facilitate meaning reconstruction of personal narratives. More specifically, he makes extensive use of the metaphors of landscape of action and landscape of identity (which are similar to Bruner’s landscape of consciousness).
Landscape of Action and Landscape of Identity
Landscape of action connects specific events across time according to a valued theme, while landscape of identity refers to people’s reflections. These two maps of re-authoring serve to thicken the narratives and increase opportunities for transformation.
It is interesting to note that both Bruner and White criticize the extensive use of “internal state” (i.e., needs, drives, unconscious and conscious motives, personality traits) in psychology as the underlying essences of actions:
According to this tradition of understanding, these elements or essences are universally present to different degrees in the human condition, and life is derived from either the direct expression of these elements or essences or from distortions of these elements and essences. Such distortions are often called “dysfunctions” or “disorders…” (p. 101)
Both prefer the “intentional state” notion, which emphasizes personal agency, goal striving, purpose, values, and beliefs that help shape the preferred future. As such, intentional state is actually a motivational system, which cannot be clearly differentiated from internal states. Contemporary psychology of personality (McAdams, 2006) includes motivational and narrative approaches to personality; such approaches are highly similar to what White means by intentional state. Therefore, the criticism of the concept of core values or essential self as an internal state sounds like attacking a straw man.
The metaphor of “filing cabinets of the mind” is used to depict the landscape of identity. This metaphor suggests the generation of many identity conclusions in the course of re- authoring conversations. It is important to discover the hitherto ignored identities that contradict the dominant-self identity in a problem-saturated storyline.
Again, White criticizes the notion of a core self as an internal state. He emphasizes that “identity is founded upon `association of life’ rather than on a core self” (p. 129). It is worth noting that the reality of multiple identities is not incompatible with the concept of a core self. Individuals may entertain multiple selves (the private self, the public self, the realistic self, the ideal self, etc.) simultaneously, but they still want to know what really matters in life and what is the essential self when everything is stripped away.
There are multiple entry points to re-authoring. NT depends heavily on the landscapes of action and identity as the maps for re-storying. NT also favors unique outcomes as the springboard to developing alternative story lines.
Meaning-centered counseling and narrative therapy (Wong, 1998, 2008) tend to make use of guided life review and guided autobiography to discover adaptive leitmotifs as valued themes that restructure one’s life. McAdams’s (2006) life history interview is another useful tool.
Re-membering is primarily concerned with the question about the significant people in one’s life. The term, borrowed from anthropologist Myerhoff (1982), refers to the reordering of past relationships in such a way as to make sense of one’s past and move forward to a preferred future. Exploring significant relationships increases a “multivoiced” sense of identity and increases a sense of coherence about life.
The re-membering metaphor emphasizes the reciprocal nature of significant relationships. White is interested in not only how significant others contribute to the client’s life, but also how the client has impacted significant others. Such reciprocal thinking provides opportunities for clients to discover the neglected positive aspects of their lives.
If life is as an association with a membership, then this membership can be sorted out and rearranged. Re-membering contributes to positive psychotherapy by opening up possibilities for thickening the narratives and discovering more positive self-identities.
Significant life events, such as bar mitzvah, graduation, and wedding ceremonies, require the witness of family and friends. There is a rich tradition of such social acknowledgment because it validates and reinforces individual performance.
Likewise, when the therapist turns to a selected group of witnesses as the audience of therapeutic sessions, it helps verify the client’s performance in retelling his or her alternative life stories and authenticate the client’s new self-identity. White calls such performances before an audience “definitional ceremonies” (p. 181).
Since self-identities are shaped by constructed historical and cultural forces, active participation by outside witnesses can be very valuable to the therapeutic process. The conversations among the witnesses about their impressions and reflections on the client’s performance can enrich and enhance the development of an alternative story line.
Definitional ceremonies are similar to the reflection teams commonly used in marriage and family therapy. They reinforce the notion that self-identity is socially constructed and personal transformation needs to be socially validated. This collective emphasis needs to be stressed in positive psychotherapy because it counteracts the individualistic orientation of Western positive psychology.
Unique outcomes are exceptions to the problems that dominate clients’ storylines. Such positive outcomes are among many other lived experiences that have been forgotten or neglected. The job of the therapist is twofold: first, help clients reflect on what these unique outcomes mean in terms of values and life purposes; then, use these exceptions to generate re-authoring conversations through the landscapes of action and identity.
In this context, “why” questions open space and opportunity to give voice to clients’ values, purposes, and understandings of these unique outcomes. As a result, their identities are no longer defined by problems but by solutions and preferred futures.
NT contributes to positive psychotherapy in two ways: Maps for externalizing the problem are complemented by maps for exceptions to the problem. Thus, NT not only addresses clients’ familiar predicaments and concerns in a positive way but also simultaneously generates hope for a better alternative future. Such dual emphasis is consistent with a balanced model of positive psychotherapy (Wong, 2008).
The final chapter integrates the previous five chapters by providing a map to move incrementally from the immediate experiences to an unknown future through a “proximal zone of development” (p. 263). The scaffolding map consists of five categories or levels of inquiries, from low level to very high level:
- Low-level distancing tasks deal with the immediate experience of events. Scaffolding questions encourage clients to make attributions about events that are either unfamiliar or unnoticed: “What does that event mean to you?”
- Medium-level distancing tasks encourage people to connect the events in their world into chains of associations from which they can make judgments regarding similarity and difference: “How are these events related?”
- Medium-high level distancing tasks encourage people to reflect on and evaluate the previous steps: “What have you learned from these givens?”
- High-level distancing tasks encourage people to formulate concepts about life and identity: “Given what you have learned, what do you want to do about your life?”
- Very high-level distancing tasks encourage people to move forward in a way that is consistent with newly developed concepts about life and identity: “What kind of actions or changes would you initiate in order to achieve a preferred future?”
These five steps are similar to Wong’s (2008) PURE model of developing a meaningful life: P stands for purpose, U stands for understanding, R stands for responsible action, and E stands for evaluation.
White is fully aware of external constraints and power differentials that limit people’s personal agency and responsible action. White reminds us that we should not always attribute people’s failures to a lack of motivation or lack of self-mastery. Often, social collaboration and advocacy are needed to assist them to traverse the proximal space of learning from the familiar to the unknown. This point is especially relevant to marginalized minority groups.
Therapists need to provide not only the conditions for positive change, but also the scaffolding for personal development. White emphasizes: “It is important that people have the opportunity to place experiences of personal failure within the context of this normalizing judgment and to find support in subverting these operations of modern power” (p. 268).
It is not difficult to understand why practitioners are attracted to Michael White. He is theoretical and yet down-to-earth. He prescribes a detailed roadmap without discouraging exploration of new avenues. He emphasizes collaboration between therapist and client, and yet recognizes that the therapist needs to take an active role in moving the conversations toward a preferred outcome. He believes in the clients’ capacity for choosing a better life and at the same time acknowledges the constraints, including cultural and political constraints. His balanced approach is very appealing.
To me, the most exciting aspect of Michael White’s book is that it demonstrates fully and compellingly the unlimited power of narrative metaphors in transforming lives. Narrative practice in the context of a trusting and collaborative relationship is both the tool and the product. One uses language to achieve transformation, and the product is the preferred positive story line, which can be lived out on a daily basis.
Consistent with my effort to integrate the fragmented field of psychotherapy, I need to point out that positive psychotherapy (PPT) was created by Nossrat Peseschkian in Germany. PPT is a synthesis of psychodynamic and behavior-therapeutic elements with a transcultural emphasis. It is positive, holistic, and integral in its orientation. Within the framework of PPT, clients learn to give up their patient roles and become change agents for themselves as well as for their environment. PPT is an evidence-based practice, supported by numerous empirical studies.
Seligman, Rashid, and Parks (2006) also called their approach “positive psychotherapy” without mentioning Peseschkian’s contribution, although it is readily available in English (Peseschkian, 1968/1987). Seligman et al. demonstrated that exercises designed explicitly to increase positive emotion, engagement, and meaning are more efficacious in treating depression than is just cognitive-behavioral treatment without positive psychology exercises. I am wondering whether such positive psychological exercises go far enough to effect fundamental change in one’s lifestyle and outlook.
In contrast, meaning-oriented positive psychotherapy, as demonstrated by White, Frankl, and Wong, taps into people’s universal capacities for imagination, meaning construction, responsible action, and personal agency; their narrative, meaning-oriented therapy brings about fundamental changes in how people live out their lives and create a preferred future. From a meaning orientation, happiness is a by-product of living according to one’s preferred values and purposes.
One of the strengths of White’s book is that it includes substantial segments of transcripts of actual cases, which provide an in-depth account of the therapeutic process. We can see how the therapist’s well-crafted questions and comments move the process toward the development of a richer story line. We can see why certain skills work or do not work. We can also trace the critical incidents for positive change. This type of qualitative case study can provide more compelling evidence of efficacy of psychotherapy than can the randomized controlled clinical trials in medical research.
My only misgiving about this book is its very limited bibliography. As someone used to reading psychology books, I would like to see a more extensive bibliography that includes relevant theories, research, and practices.
I highly recommend this book to both practitioners and researchers, especially those interested in positive psychology and positive psychotherapy. There is an exciting and dynamic world of narratives out there to be explored and harnessed to uplift humanity and transform individual lives.
- Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Frankl, V. E. (1986). The doctor and the soul: From psychotherapy to logotherapy. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
- McAdams, D. P. (2006). The person: A new introduction to personality psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Myerhoff, B. (1982). Life history among the elderly: Performance, visibility and re-membering. In J. Ruby (Ed.), A crack in the mirror: Reflexive perspectives in anthropology. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Peseschkian, N. N. (1987). Positive psychotherapy: Theory and practice of a new method (R. R. Walker, Trans.). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag. (Original published 1968)
- Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8), 774–788.
- White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY: Norton.
- Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Meaning-centered counselling. In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 395-435). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2008). A brief manual of meaning-centered counseling. International Network on Personal Meaning. Retrieved from http://www.meaning.ca/archives/archive/art_MCC_manual_chp_1_P_Wong.html