This page includes an introduction to narrative therapy, and writing therapeutic narratives, as well as an introduction to some of our E-CENT eBooks on writing therapy. If you would like to go straight to a description to one of those eBooks, then please use the links that follow:
Applying Narrative Therapy to the Lives of Real People
Or how to write a better life for yourself!
By Dr Jim Byrne
11th September 2016 (Updated on 21st November 2016)
On this page you will find two elements:
(1) A brief introduction to the theory and practice of a particular (Emotive-Cognitive) approach to narrative therapy (as writing therapy); and:
(2) Brief descriptions of a series of six eBooks on the nature of narrative therapy, and the use of writing therapy for self-development, mind-management, counselling and psychotherapy.
All of these eBooks (and the brief introductory presentation, below) express some aspect of the Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT) approach, as applied to the lives of real people.
Books 1 and 5 involve more consideration of the theory and practice of E-CENT approaches to the use of story in psychotherapy and counselling; while the other four involve personal histories, and illustrate the processes of life management, narrative analysis, and self-improvement.
Although these books are of high quality, they are available at modest cost in the form of eBooks, which can be downloaded from Amazon in any part of the world. They can be read on any Kindle device, or similar compatible devices; or you can download a Free Kindle Reader to your computer, and read the book on your desktop computer, laptop or tablet screen.
The human body-brain-mind-environment is the most complex arrangement of stimulus-response-change-action processes in the known universe. Self-management of this process – which means managing your own journey through life – is like learning to master the Rubik’s Cube, since there are at least 43 quintillion permutations of available options facing each of us in our journey through life. How, in this complex world, are we supposed to choose the best options for a good and happy journey, and a good and satisfying destination?
One way to optimise our life satisfaction is to pursue wisdom, and to manage our daily lives wisely, by writing our ‘Daily Pages’ at the start of each day. (Writing ‘Morning pages’, as described by Julia Cameron, in her book, ‘The Artist’s Way’, involves a commitment to write three pages of stream of consciousness every morning. Of course, this differs from Dr James Pennebaker’s approach, (which is described later). This writing process can clear the clutter out of our brain-mind, and help us to get a concentration of power on our top priorities for the day!
Perhaps you would like to know how to improve your life by using daily writing as a process of ‘thinking/feeling on paper’, based on the latest scientific and humanistic research on writing therapy?
Or do you want to learn how to use writing therapy, and narrative approaches, in order to help others?
The eBooks on this page can help you to achieve either or both of those goals. And one advantage here is that, with the exception of the novel (which is NTS eBook No.3) these eBooks are relatively brief and easy to read and digest!
In my new (but lengthy) book on Holistic Counselling in Practice***, I explain the E-CENT approach to narrative therapy like this:
Narratives and stories
“Clients … come in and, one way or another, tell their story and discover or construct new stories to tell. Therapists do not usually disclose stories of their own personal troubles, but instead offer their clients more general, almost mythic stories of how people change or what life can be like. Implicit in the therapist’s story is an image of the ‘good life’.” (McLeod, 1997/2006).
E-CENT counselling is interested in the stories of our clients, and we have helpful stories to share with them; and also ways of helping them to explore and re-write their stories. Some of this is described in Chapter 6, where I introduce the Jigsaw story model, which is a guide to focusing on the client’s stories, and to remember to relate the various bits of their stories to each other, and to look for patterns and inconsistencies.
But first, let us review the ‘narrative’ approach of E-CENT, by comparing and contrasting it to some of the more traditional approaches.
(i) Similarities: E-CENT accepts that human beings are immersed in social narratives, and that they apprehend their environments in terms of narrative elements of characters, plots, dramas, stories, cause and effect imputations, etc. (See: Perry, 2012, pages 71-88. And McLeod, 1997/2006). I believe humans function largely non-consciously, and view the world – non-consciously – through frames of reference derived (interpretively and automatically) from their past (social) experiences. And these narratives are emotive or feeling stories, which provide meaning and structure to the life of the social-individual.
(ii) Differences: E-CENT does not subscribe to the White and Epston (1990) strategy for dealing with narrative disturbances. Instead I have created my own processes of narrative therapy. I also avoid using McLeod’s commitment to postmodern perspectives. The E-CENT perspective on narrative is grounded in our conception of the human being as a socialized body-mind-environment-whole. So there is a real, physical ‘me’, and a real physical environment in which I am embedded. We do not advocate the view which says “all there is is story!” And the stories I tell myself are dependent upon not only my physical existence in a physical/social world, but also upon how well I slept last night; how well I have eaten today; how much physical exercise I have done recently; how hydrated my body-brain-mind is today; how well connected I am to people in significant relationships; and so on.
So E-CENT theory only deals with grounded narratives: or embodied-narratives.
The research findings
It is now widely accepted in psychology and social science that narratives and stories are central to how humans make sense of the world, and communicate with each other about their lives. Professor Theodore Sarbin was one of the main and earliest of the American theorists who raised objections to positivist psychology, and argued that ‘emotions are narrative emplotments’. (Sarbin, 1989, 2001). Kenneth Gergen (1985, 2004) is another theorist of this ‘narrative turn’ in the field of psychology. White and Epston (1990) are probably the best known theorists of Narrative Therapy today. However, there are three pre-existing approaches to narrative therapy – as described by John McLeod (2003), pages 227-238; plus McLeod (1997/2006), chapters 3 to 5. These are: the psychodynamic approach; the cognitive/ constructivist approach; and the social constructionist approach.
(1) The psychodynamic approach to the use of narratives in counselling and therapy focuses on the ways that the client’s stories can reveal habitual ways of relating; and the counsellor can thus use those stories to help the client to ‘re-author’ their lives: (Strupp and Binder, 1984 ; Luborsky and Crits-Christoph, 1990) . The main emphasis in the psychodynamic approach to the use of narrative in counselling and therapy is in helping to identify the Core Conflictual Relationship Theme (CCRT). This CCRT then provides the basic agenda for their work of counselling.
(2) The cognitive/constructivist approach to the use of narratives in counselling and therapy focuses on two strategies:
(a) Identifying stories that conflict with each other, which provides the possibility of using ‘cognitive dissonance’ to help with the challenge of rewriting and integrating conflicted schemas (or frames, scripts, stories) in the client’s long-term memory ; and:
(b) The use of metaphor. For example: If your read my Story of Origins (in eBook No.2 below), you will find I use the metaphor of being a ‘little mouse’ to describe a period of my life when I was passive and withdrawn, and then ‘a big moral cat’, when I discovered a form of political expression that allowed me to safely express my anger towards my father. Metaphors can be depowering and empowering, and the therapist can help the client to develop more empowering metaphors for their problem roles, themes, or characters in their most difficult stories.
(3) The social constructionist approach to narrative therapy is based on the idea that we are social beings born into a story-telling culture; that we are surrounded by stories, myths, and legends; that these stories preceded our existence; and we take on some of the story roles and themes into which we are thrown at birth. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, we are primarily story-telling animals.
The best known contributors to the development of this tradition were White and Epston, a couple of Australasian family therapists: (White and Epston, 1990). Since people are seen as occupying a family- or community-generated narrative or story, the solution is to ‘externalize’ this story, and get the client to see it as not part of them, so they can step away from the roles specified in the story; or to re-author their story in various ways.
Like E-CENT therapy, this form of therapy uses both spoken dialogue and written narratives to help the client to unearth their dominant narratives and to change them.
The E-CENT approach
E-CENT theory does not fit comfortably within any of the three narrative traditions outlined above. Neither was E-CENT directly inspired by the creators of any of those three traditions. Nevertheless, E-CENT involves – primarily – an integration of elements of traditions (1) and (3) – the psychodynamic and the social constructionist.
But E-CENT is much more than that; and is a completely unique approach to narrative, in that I have integrated many different systems to develop and explicate our understanding of human development and individual functioning.
But even more than that, I have developed a form of counselling and therapy for dealing with embodied-narratives about something (tangible and meaningful!) And that embodied narrative approach is informed by affective neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. (Panksepp, 1998; Schore, 2015; Siegel, 2015).
As mentioned above, on this page you will find a range of Kindle eBooks, most of which contain real life stories of personal trauma, life difficulties, and liberation through the processes of counselling, psychotherapy, coaching, writing therapy, and reading personal development books. The main exceptions are: NTS eBook No.1, which is a general introduction to the subject of Therapeutic Narratives and Writing Therapy: the E-CENT Approach; and NTS eBook No.5, which explores the theory and practice of digging up and completing undigested experiences from the past.
A good place to start your journey into E-CENT narrative therapy, and our approach to writing therapy, is right here, with Narrative Therapy Series (NTS) eBook No.1:
NTS eBook No.1 – Narrative Therapy and the Writing Solution: An emotive-cognitive approach to feeling better and solving problems
This eBook begins with a substantial section designed to get the reader quickly and easily engaging with the processes of writing therapy. Practical exercises are outlined, along with the rationale for doing them, including the scientific evidence of effectiveness in promoting physical health and emotional well-being.
Part 2 then begins by identifying a major problem for humans. We are born into families within communities, and those groups speak a language and promote a discourse, or conversation, about the nature of life, and our place and role in that world. We are thus dominated from childhood by narratives and stories that are not our own, in the sense of being consciously chosen or designed by us, individually, to promote our own interests.
This situation has both strengths and weaknesses, or good and bad aspects. The strength or goodness of this situation is that this is how we develop and disseminate an agreed social morality, which is essential for the wellbeing of the family and community. The weakness or badness of this situation is that racist, sexist and classist elements (or other unreasonable or immoral restraining elements) are normally built into those stories which we imbibe with our mother’s milk. Thus the possibilities for the development of our potential are normally constrained by the social status accorded to us in the story into which we are enrolled in early childhood.
Furthermore, we run the risk of buying into later stories, from subcultures, and elements of the mass media, which will further oppress and distort us.
Some of the narratives we live induce misery and mental suffering, and some are healing and therapeutic. Individuals may need to explore and resolve many issues from the past, and this can be done in the form of spoken narratives with a therapist, or written narratives as ‘homework activity’ outside of counselling sessions, or even as self-directed narrative writing.
This eBook deals with the writing of therapeutic narratives. It sets out to answer the following questions:
What is a therapeutic narrative?
What is writing therapy?
Is writing therapy effective?
Who should use therapeutic writing? And:
How should an individual guide their own therapeutic writing?
If you would value knowing the secrets of effective writing therapy, based on the latest research, then this is the book for you to buy. You can download it right now, for just £5.64 GBP.
To get your copy, please click the Amazon link which serves your geographical locality:
NTS eBook No.2 – Healing the Heart and Mind: Two examples of writing therapy stories, plus reflective analysis, by Jim Byrne
This book describes the weak connection, emotionally, that I had to my mother (and father), and the negative effects this had on all my later relationships, especially with girls and women (but also with my male peers).
Because of the intensity of my distress, I eventually had to seek help to make sense of my barren life. This began the journey of therapy, including much writing therapy, which I describe in this book. Here is an extract from the end of the book:
“Underneath the cumulative, interpretative experiences of this organism (or ‘person’), sitting here writing, there is the original, pure ‘capacity to be aware’ that existed before the first experience came in through my eyes, ears or skin. And that capacity to be aware is universal, and can be experience every day through meditation. And that capacity to be aware is capable of reinterpreting everything that was once interpreted, and reformulating every one of its early conclusions (that can be made conscious), or overwriting them with a new orienting set of interpretations (when they cannot be made conscious).
“And now – after completing my therapy (much of it in writing) – my basic orientation in the world is turned on its head. My orientation towards my fellow humans is turned upside down. Now it is this:
“I feel a strong sense of love for the world: and especially those bits that have not yet experienced love. For love can be found; created; regained; and exulted in. This wish of mine that you should experience love is an expression of my relationship to you. You are lovable; you are love; so long as you grow the Good Wolf side of your character, and shrink the Bad Wolf side. To find love in the world, you have to first find love in yourself. And to find love in yourself, you often have to go back and analyze what went wrong in your childhood. Why should you go back and do this work? Only if you don’t know how to love, and don’t know how to relate adequately to your partner or loved ones in the present moment. Or if you are heavily ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, or addictive sex, pornography, sugary food, and so on. Here’s a clue from Alice Miller, a world-famous psycho-analyst and writer:
‘The former practice of physically maiming, exploiting and abusing children seems to have been gradually replaced in modern times by a form of mental cruelty that is masked by the honorific term child-rearing. Since (child) training begins in many cultures in infancy during the initial symbiotic relationship between mother and child, this early conditioning makes it virtually impossible for the child to discover what is actually happening to him(self or herself). The child’s dependence on his or her parents’ love also makes it impossible in later years to recognize these traumatizations, which often remain hidden behind the early idealization of the parents for the rest of the child’s life’. (Page 4).
“It was only the extreme nature of my childhood experiences, combined with an acute intelligence, and a dogged determination, plus some incredible good luck, and years of hard work, that I eventually was able to complete my analysis of what happened to me and my mother, and how that shaped me. I hope you do not need to do this work, but if you do, then do it diligently, for the reward is that you get your life back! You no longer feel the need to die – to achieve non-consciousness – in order to escape the pain of utter wretchedness and a sense of total isolation and worthlessness. You step back into Paradise, from which you were so cruelly ejected all those years ago. “
And, as Robin Skynner says: ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’. And that’s what I got, along with lots of other benefits, from my long journey through writing therapy.
You’ve got to do your therapy – face to face or in writing – in order to reclaim your original potential as a wonderful, joyful, creative human being!
The therapy journey can take weeks, months or years. In my case it took a full 61 years, from birth to ‘final liberation’! – or what I take to be my final liberation. And in this book I deal with the value of this journey:
“Was this 61 year journey worth the effort?
“Yes, it most definitely was. I have got my life back. I have a kind of freedom that I did not have before. I have a sense of peace and happiness in everyday moments that is new. I have a more open heart towards the world. I have less fear of others. I have more to give. I am calmer. I am joyful. And I have got my ‘good childhood’ back! I am a liberated man. I am so very lucky! (And, of course, I also don’t exist [in the way my mind thinks I exist!) And thank you for sharing this journey with me (even though you, also, do not exist [in the way your mind thinks you exist!).”
If you want to learn how to write emotionally honest stories, for your own journey of writing therapy – or to gain some insights into psycho-therapeutic analysis – then this is the book for you.
To find out how I processed my story of origins, and my story of my relationship with my mother – and how you could process and resolve your difficult stories from the past – please click the Amazon link that serves your area of the world:
Before we move on to look at NTS eBook No.3 – Daniel’s Devilish Daydreams, which is a novel by me, I want to present some ideas about literature.
It seems to me that, if we want to identify the archetypal form of therapy, then we should look to literature as the prime candidate. Long before psychology and psycho-analysis came into existence, authors searched their hearts and guts, their family histories, and their social experiences in general, and crafted stories which touched the hearts of others, and elevated their souls.
Classic literature not only set out to reform the calloused souls of the denizens of early capitalist cultures, but also to reform those very cultures – to humanize them. And those two goals should be found prominently in any therapy worthy of the name today.
My own experience of literature was scant to say the least – especially in the first twenty years of my life. No libraries in the areas of Dublin in which I grew up. (Joyce, Singe and O’Casey must be spinning in their graves at this revelation!) I was twenty one years old, and totally lost in an autistic world, when I stumbled across Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. This put my toes on the road to personal liberation – but only my toes, and only by a measure of two or three millimetres!
I was 27 years old, and just beginning my studies at Ruskin College, Oxford, when I stumbled across The Idiot, by Dostoevsky; and this was like holding a mirror up to my emotionally damaged perception of love and marriage.
Two years later, as my first marriage was falling apart in a most cruel and unbelievable nightmare, I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. That book helped me through the next period, in which my marriage failed, and I moved on into a raw and cold new world in which I felt totally lost and alone.
Music and poetry played their own roles in my recovery; plus love, and being reflected at my full size by a new woman with a big heart. And literature continued to ‘find me’, from time to time, and to inform my heart and my head – though more my non-verbal heart than my thinking, conscious mind. The books of Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula Le Guin are two of my fondest memories of that period of history.
And now, decades later, I have written my own novel – the story of the difficult life of Daniel O’Beeve. This novel reflects everything that I have learned so far from literature, psychotherapy, philosophy, and eastern spiritual traditions.
If you enjoyed Donna Tart’s story of The Goldfinch, you will love Daniel O’Beeve. If you enjoyed Hanya Yanigihara’s novel, A Little Life, then this story is going to enthral you. Or if you enjoyed H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, then you are in for a real treat with Daniel:
NTS eBook No.3 – Daniel’s Devilish Daydreams, by Jim Byrne
A good novel should change the lives of its readers, by helping to break the hold of some earlier story over their hearts and minds. And by inspiring them to see themselves and their world in a whole new light. This novel, about the life of Daniel O’Beeve, is a good example of how to dispel your own devils by writing your own life story in the form of a fictionalised autobiographical novel. It’s about getting to know yourself; and untangling the knots in your personal history; coming to terms with all the previously ignored ‘bad bits’, traumas and struggles. But it can also be enjoyed as a story to be moved by.
This novel was inspired by some elements of my own story, combined with some elements of the life of a fellow psychologist/ psychotherapist; plus some obvious fictional drama, and the universal quest for meaning, connection, relationship, sex and love. (There will be a sequel to this novel later!)
If you want to immerse yourself in a story of personal struggle and the attempted transformation of an emotionally damaged boy into a self-directed and happy man, on a difficult and uncertain journey through an indifferent world, then you should buy this novel today, from one of the following Amazon links:
NTS eBook No.4 – How to Understand and Analyze Your Own Life Story, by Jim Byrne
Book description: In this original and helpful eBook, Dr Jim Byrne presents the results of several years of research on the nature of autobiographical stories, followed by some incisive guidelines for analysing your own, or somebody else’s, life story, or personal narrative.
If you want to understand whether personal stories are ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’, and ‘something else’; and to be able to analyse your own life story, or the story of a significant other, then this is the book for you. Get it today for just £X?? from one of the following Amazon outlets:
NTS eBook No.5 – Facing and Defeating your Emotional Dragons: How to process and eliminate undigested pain from your past, by Jim Byrne
This book is designed to help the reader to resolve their emotional disturbances which are driven by old, painful, undigested experiences from their past.
The author describes two potent processes which were developed as part of the core of Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT). They are both supported by good approaches to diet and exercise!
The first is a way to reinterpret our past experiences which were too horrible to confront when they happened, way back in our childhood or early life. These experiences are what we call our ‘emotional dragons’, or ‘undigested traumatic experiences’.
The second is a way to digest and dissolve those ‘dragons’ so that they can disappear from your life, and no long cause you any problems in the present moment.
These two processes are illustrated via some interesting case study material from E-CENT counselling. And there are appendices on how to rate your emotional problems accurately, plus helpful guidelines for the use of diet and exercise to manage your emotional problems. Also, there are some useful insights into personality adaptations we tend to make to our family of origin.
The reader will come away with an arsenal of techniques and ideas to help them heal their undigested emotional traumas from the past.
E-CENT counsellors teach their clients how to go back and dig up the undigested dragon experiences from their past, and to ‘complete’ them: which involves feeling the feelings and having the thoughts that we ran away from in our earlier lives, and thus exorcising those troublesome ‘ghosts’ and ‘ghouls’ in the basement of our minds. Once we have chewed through those experiences, our health and happiness tend to improve, and the world looks and feels like a much better place to live.