President's Column - September 2002

Transformative narrative therapy
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

All psychotherapy is concerned with change. However, each school of therapy differs in terms of the kind of change it prescribes. Some focus on cognitive-behavioral modification; others emphasize changes in family dynamics; still others stress the importance of re-authoring one's life story.

Transformative narrative therapy, as the term implies, aims at nothing less than the transformation of the person and the social ecology; it does so through changing one's meaning constructs about the self and the world. Therefore, it is also referred to as meaning-centered narrative therapy.

Here are some of the basic principles of transformative narrative therapy:

1. It is dialectic and paradoxical. It embraces the paradox that evil and good co-exit, despair and hope live together. Furthermore, it believes that the synthesis of opposites gives rise to a new condition, which is stronger than the initial positive. Paradoxes and conflicts generate a positive motivation for change. Person growth takes place, when there is an upward spiral of syntheses through repeated integration of thesis and antithesis. Thus, clients are encouraged to integrate their problem-saturated stories with alternative ones, resulting in a more encompassing and compelling new narrative.

2. It is synergic. The therapist does not remain detached as a reflecting mirror or a sounding board. Throughout the course of counseling, the therapist actually becomes a part of the client's life, and vice versa. There is an exchange of life, so to speak. Therefore, who we are matters much more than what skills we possess. During the magic hour of encounter, the two lives interact and mingle, generating synergic energies for the client to move forward and explore new horizons. When synergism happens, there is a sense of oneness between the therapist and the client, characterized by trust, unconditional acceptance and therapeutic alliance.

3. It is symbolic. The transformation is more fundamental and far-reaching when it occurs at the symbolic level. Expressing our deepest longings, symbols are what dreams are made of. More importantly, symbols tap into our spiritual potentials and reveal glimpses of sacred moments. Therefore, mundane everyday trivia take on profound new meanings through symbolic transformation. Even negative events, whether early childhood abuse or adult traumatic experiences, can become symbolic of something spiritual, something positive. Symbolic transformation is partially achieved through heeding the poetic voices of the naked soul and discovering the deeper meanings of the human existence.

4. It is holistic. The transformation needs to involve cognition, behavior, emotion, and spirituality. In short, it touches every aspects of the client's life - how to live and what to become. It will result in a brand new story line, built upon many different threads and moving towards a different ending.

5. It is heroic. It does not seek easy victories, nor does it aim at superficial solutions. It demands taking a courageous stance in life; it requires an unwavering willingness to confront and slay one's most dreaded dragon. Drawing inspiration from the myths and legends of heroes gone before us, and seeking guidance from divine revelations in human history, clients learn to gain a broader perspective of their personal struggles and give lives to something, someone much bigger than themselves. The end result is that a victim's journey is transformed into a hero's adventure.

6. It is pragmatic. The transformation needs to manifest itself in new directions, new goals, and new patterns of living. Just like an actor learning to internalize and live through a new role, clients need to learn a new language, a new way of doing things as if they have been "born again". It requires homework and ongoing practice, reinforced by the therapist. The new story finally takes hold when it results in transforming one's environment, in which one moves and lives.

The above six principles are by no means exhaustive, but they represent the basis for practicing a powerful transformative narrative therapy.

However, there is a catch -- No one can effectively practice meaning-centered narrative therapy without first experiencing a transformation of personal meanings. Only a transformed life can be effective in bringing about a transformation in others.