Narrative Therapy: What’s Your Story?

I and the whole staff at work attended a training last week on a “narrative” method of career counselling led by Mark Franklin, the practice leader of a company called Career Cycles.  It’s inspired me to write a bit about narrative therapy in general, especially as it applies to career development.  You might be wondering what I mean by the word narrative – essentially narrative therapy is about looking at the stories we tell about our lives and how we can examine those stories (or narratives, so to speak) from different angles in order to move forward constructively into our lives’ next chapters.  That’s a pretty big oversimplification of a theory that’s actually incredibly complex, but in the end I think it captures the biggest component – the stories.

Narrative therapy comes from an epistomology (how we know things) that can be referred to as postmodern.  Under postmodernism, it’s assumed that knowledge is co-constructed and that there is essentially no one, absolutely “correct” truth (because everyone will construct their own truths).  This is in stark contrast to positivism, which states that knowledge can be measured, quantified, and is absolute (i.e. the traditional scientific method).  I’ve briefly discussed this in a past entry about lifelines.

If “truth” is relative, and the nature of something depends on the lens with which we look at it (or, a la quantum physics, whether we look at it), the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, are open to re-authoring.  Picture your life as a word processing document, and you can go back and change the way that the chapters of your life are written.

Now, I’m not talking about changing your memory, removing negative events from your life, or anything like that.  The issue here is in the analysis of your life.  It’s in the way you tell your story, and the patterns that emerge, and how those ultimately converge to form something called an identity.

The reason that there’s a lot of utility with something like this in regards to people’s careers is that your career is such a big part of your identity.  It’s something that people think long and hard about, spend years training for, and form their lives around.  When you’re in school thinking about what you want to do after you graduate, you’re telling yourself stories about what kind of person you are, and imagining the unwritten chapters of your life.  Out of the stories students tell themselves, fuzzy possibilities often begin to emerge, while others become barred off from all access.

The big picture here is that where you’ve been is connected to where you’re going.  How you interpret where you’ve been affects how you view yourself and often the possibilities (or lack thereof) that seem open moving forward.  To give an arbitrary example, if your narrative is that you are a terrible people-person, you’re unlikely to see yourself in a career involving close work with lots of people.  The issue that is of interest is how you’ve constructed that initial, limiting narrative of being a terrible people-person.  It could be that having a look at the chapters of your life in which that story started being told could open up some new avenues of interpretation, which could lead to an opening up of possibilities you see for yourself in the future.

Often the hardest part of this work is in discovering those stories in the first place.  We carry around all sorts of stories about ourselves, often without even knowing it.  Looking back at your life can give you a window into those narratives.

So, what stories do you tell yourself about yourself?  Where do those stories start?  How can they be told differently?

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.