Recovering The SelfA Journal of Hope and Healing


Bob Rich’s Self-Therapy Guide: Narrative Therapy – Rewriting Your Story

In this series, Dr. Bob Rich teaches you how to leave behind depression, anxiety, and other forms of suffering all too common in our crazy world. Recovering the Self published two sections of Bob Rich’s book From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide in a series of posts – the first section ending with the quest for meaning and the second section concluding with The Development of Resilience. The third section of Bob’s work continues here with special attention to various techniques and practices that are helpful in controlling depression.

In the previous post, Bob discussed secondary gains as an important contributor to pain that is part of depression. Here, he introduces readers to Narrative Therapy and its use in treating behavioral issues.

Narrative Therapy – Rewriting Your Story

Narrative Therapy sign

Ricky was one of those children you’re glad lives in someone else’s family. At school, he often bullied smaller kids, “just having fun” without any empathy, any understanding that the victim didn’t enjoy the activity. He saw every word as an insult, and when he could get away with it, he retaliated with violence. His older sister often wore bruises in response to comments or actions other people would never have found offensive.

His mother dragged him into my office (almost literally). He sat in his chair, glowering at the floor while she described life with Ricky, and her and her husband’s worry that he was a criminal in the making. As she said that, the expression on his face reminded me of the cliché, “If looks could kill.”

“Hey, Ricky,” I said, “I bet you a dollar I know what you’re thinking.”

“Bull… Bulldust. Yeah? You’re on.”

“It’s not fair. She is always picking on me.”

He did look at me, surprised. “Yeah. She is.”

I laughed, reminding myself that even he deserved love. “Keep your dollar all the same, or use it to buy your sister something nice. Does everyone pick on you?”

No answer, but his body was a coiled spring, waiting for the punchline he could interpret as an insult.

“I have magical abilities, and can tell you why that is.”

Was that a smile on his face?

“You’ve got a habit of sending out dark energy. Without realizing it, you’ve been sending out dark energy, and people respond to that. You can change that to silver energy, and people will also respond to that.”

“You’re making fun of me.” The truculent expression was back.

I laughed again. “That was an example. You just blasted a big beam of dark energy at me. I expected it, or I’d have reacted with anger.”

“Dunno what you mean.”

“Let’s do an experiment. Just imagine, you’re walking down the street, and four teenage hoodlums jump out of a doorway. They’re about to bash you up when a police car comes around the corner. The hoods run away. A policeman and policewoman get out of the car. Do you feel like thanking them?”

“Yeah, I guess I would.”

“OK, pretend your mom is the policewoman. Look her in the eyes, give her your best smile, and thank her.”

As he did, he looked like a nice kid. “Right, Ricky, store away what that feels like. That’s sending silver energy. When you do that, people will like you, and go out of their way to do nice things for you. When you send dark energy, you’ll find that everybody is your enemy.”

That was only the start. The next step was to convert the family from conflict to cooperation: “Mrs. Smith, your family needs to be Ricky’s support group. Changing longstanding habits is difficult. When he remembers to send silver energy, please all notice, and reward him with a smile, an appreciative word, some privileges, whatever. When he slips back, as he will because we all do, simply say some version of “You’re not doing this anymore,” or “That was a bit dark,” or some other gentle reminder. It’s important not to respond to dark energy with aggression, criticism, rejection or fear, but only with the reminder, so Ricky will remember to trick people into liking him by sending silver energy.”

This is one of thousands of ways you can apply the principles of Narrative Therapy, which was developed by Michael White and David Epston. Its central idea is seeing someone having a problem and not being the problem.

The person never IS the problem. The person HAS a problem.

A problem is something you have, not something you are. You don’t need to change your nature. You need to fight the influence of the problem on your life.

All of us must select from the huge amount of information the world throws at us all the time. We need to organize what we see, hear, feel and remember into a meaningful “story” or “picture.” This always introduces biases: we notice and remember things we find interesting, important, and in line with our beliefs, expectations and prejudices. We ignore, forget or play down things that are contrary to the way we see the world. So, things we notice and remember tend to confirm and strengthen our story about ourselves and our world.

This is fine for most people, because they’re OK within their story. Problems arise if you’re in a story that makes you or others unhappy. Examples are stories involving beliefs like:

  • “I am a violent person, have a short fuse (and can’t help it).”
  • “I am no good, useless, have no worth, nobody could possibly love me.”
  • “The world is a terribly dangerous place and I am helpless in the face of its threats.”

They all involve the belief that “there is something wrong with me.”

Narrative Therapy is a search for events that disprove these beliefs. There are ALWAYS exceptions: events that occurred but didn’t fit the story, so were ignored, played down or forgotten. They can be used to “write a new story,” one that separates the problem from the way you see yourself. Once the problem is found and named, it can be fought. In the process, you don’t need to change. You discover a past, an identity, that was always there, but hidden by the biases of the previous story. The new story liberates you from the shackles of the problem.

With Ricky, I invented a reason for his perception that everyone was always insulting him, getting at him, putting him down. Instead of a need to defend himself and counterattack, I gave him a tool for making people react positively to him. This interrupted the endless cycle of his story, and allowed him to experience the joys of pleasant social interactions.

I did this for myself, and you can copy me. My problem was depression rather than aggressiveness, but the principles are the same.

As a kid and teenager, the reality I created for myself was that I was stupid, ugly, and could never do anything right, and of course no one could ever love me. Everything I did was a futile attempt to disprove this story, but I needed to disprove it every day, even every hour. Logic, reason had no effect.

Then I learned about Narrative Therapy, and decided that those terrible thoughts about myself were not MY thoughts at all. When I was a little boy, a monster moved into my brain. He was very, very good at imitating the voice of my own thoughts. It was a Misery Monster: it fed on sadness. When it managed to get me sad, it feasted and grew strong, so its aim was to gobble me up, imposing as much misery as possible.

For a while, I kept a written record. When I had the chance, I wrote my thoughts down, and examined them. Some were clearly Bob thoughts, others equally clearly monster thoughts.

If you go back to the start of the First Aid chapter, you’ll see that I use the language of Narrative Therapy there (Michael White called this “externalizing language,” because it makes the thought external to the person). “Whatever depression tells you, do the opposite” identifies Depression as the source of that alien inner voice, not a part of you but a malicious invader.

Also, isn’t this like the ABC diary? It causes change through the focusing of attention, and it uncovers negative thoughts. In fact, I call Narrative Therapy “CBT in a clown suit.” It is very much more fun, and can be applied to all of the cognitive-behavioral tools I’ve described. While I am not setting this as formal homework, you may enjoy rereading the previous chapter, and translating each of the tools into externalizing language. For example, devising a new habit to conflict with the old one becomes “shouting over the monster.”

Narrative Therapy is not a set of techniques, but a way of thinking. Although much of the scholarly writing on it is very difficult, in practice it’s easy. So, I don’t feel I need to say any more here. You can use any techniques, including the ones from CBT, and things you invent for yourself, from a Narrative Therapy perspective. You’ll find this very powerful, and who’d believe that therapy can be fun?

Later I’ll return to how I’d used Narrative Therapy for healing myself, by changing my new story in one little additional way…


From now on, think about yourself, and everyone else, in externalizing language. That is, when someone does something you find hurtful, separate the person from the act. And isn’t this the Lesson of all the great religions?

Identify your inner monster, and learn to distinguish that invader’s thoughts from your own. A formal or informal ABC diary is very helpful for this.

 – Dr. Bob Rich

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