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David Epston, MA, CQSW, D. Litt.

, is codirector of the Family Therapy Centre in

Auckland, New Zealand and adjunct professor at the School of Community Studies,
UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. In 1985, David Epston and
Michael White were the innovators of a narrative psychology that employed a text
metaphor for therapeutic discourse. Epston's work has been received
enthusiastically in the US, as well as Canada, Europe, Asia and the South Pacific.
His publications include Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, Experience,
Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination and Playful Approaches to Serious
Problems: Narrative Therapy with Children and Their Families.


Narrative Therapy: An Introduction for Counsellors

ISBN 0 7619 5783 9 (pbk)

Martin Payne is a British counsellor who underwent his initial training and
professional socialization in a person-centred tradition which emphasizes core
concepts such as self, actualization, congruence, acceptance and empathy. He has
subsequently found a source of meaning a influence in the work of Michael White
and David Epston and their 'narrative therapy'. His book tells the story of how he
has assimilated and integrated these influences into his practice, and indeed into
his whole way of making sense of the world. He tells us a lot about hte ways in
which he has evolved an appropriately narrative-informed practice, and in doing so
reveals an approach which clearly allows him to engage actively and fully with the
lives of people in a highly affirming and creative manner. Towards the end of the
book he also writes about his struggle to come to terms with the moral and
philisophical implications of some of Michael White's ideas. Unlike the majority
of counselling writing currently being published, this is a genuinely radical
book. There is much to reflect on here both for those who are sympathetic to the
narrative approach, and for those who would question ints effectiveness. The
radical and perplexing nature of narrative therapy is clearly illustrated in
Martin Payne's account. As a way of responding to people who come for help with
'problems of living', his approach to narrative counselling is supportive,
purposeful and well received. Yet at the same time, the therapist's conception of
what he or she is trying to do is quite different from that of most comtemporary
counsellors and psychotherapists. At one level, this difference can be seen to
generate novel techniques and interventions (for example, writing letters to
clients). But, as Martin Payne clearly acknowledges, at another level letter
writing and other narrative-informed methods are not merely techniques to be
slotted in to a counsellor's repertoire, but are indicative of a different way of
understanding what therapy is, and what it shold be. My own view is that narrative
therapy is postpsychological, and forms part of a broad movement that has
recognized the extent to which psychological models and concepts have contributed
not only to the diffusion of what Kenneth Gergen has called a 'language of
deficit' but also to the erosion of collective and communal forms of life and
being in relationship. Martin Payne has done us all a great service in describing
some of the ways in which counselling practice can be re-imagined from a more
culturally and sociall-oriented perspective.

John McLeod
University of Aberdeen

Story RE-Visions: Narrative Therapy in the Postmodern World
by Alan Parry, Robert E Doan


Once upon a time, everything was understood through stories. Stories were always
called upon to make things understandable. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
once said that "if we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how"
(1889/1968, p. 23). Stories always dealt with the "why" questions. The answers
they gave did not have to be literally true; they only had to satisfy people's
curiosity by providing an answer, less for the mind than for the soul. For the
sould they were true, but probably no one bothered to ask whether that truth was
factual or "merely" metaphorical. That question came much later.

Most of the first questions were about origins: "Why is there something and not
nothing?" "How did we get here?" "Who made the world, and why?" "Why did we get
divided up into males and females?" "Why did trouble and sorrow enter the world?"
"Why do we have to work instead of just enjoying the world's plenty?" "Why do
women have pain in childbirth yet animals do not?" Before the modern era, all
peoples of the world, whatever their level...


The term narrative implies listening to and telling or retelling stories about
people and the problems in their lives. In the face of serious and sometimes
potentially deadly problems, the idea of hearing or telling stories may seem a
trivial pursuit. It is hard to believe that conversations can shape new realities.
But they do. The bridges of meaning we build with others help healing developments
flourish instead of wither and be forgotten. Language can shape events into
narratives of hope.

We have joined a growing community of therapists around the world who are
collaborating with children and families in ways that allow all of us (therapists,
children, and parents alike) to be lighthearted, humorous, and creative--and yet
surprisingly effective in resolving many of the problems that we face today. In
our view, the developments collectively known as narrative therapy offer some
unique and helpful perspectives to the field of child and family therapy.

The term narrative implies listening to and telling or retelling stories about
people and the problems in their lives. In the face of serious and sometimes
potentially deadly problems, the idea of hearing or telling stories may seem a
trivial pursuit. It is hard to believe that conversations can shape new realities.
But they do. The bridges of meaning we build with children help healing
developments flourish instead of wither and be forgotten. Language can shape
events into narratives of hope.

We humans have evolved as a species to use mental narratives to organize, predict,

and understand the complexities of our lived experiences. Our choices are shaped
largely by the meanings we attribute to events and to the options we are
considering. A problem may have personal, psychological, sociocultural, or
biological roots--or, more likely, a complex mix of the above. Moreover, young
persons and their families may not have control over whether a certain problem is
in their life. But even then, how they live with it is still within their choice.
As Aldous Huxley once said, "Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you
do with what happens to you."

It has continued to astonish us how resourceful, responsible, and effective

children can be in facing problems! Externalizing language separates children from
their problems and allows a lighthearted approach to what is usually considered
serious business. Playfulness enters into a family therapy when we narrate the
relationship between a child and a problem.

When adults and children collaborate actively play is a mutual friend. It inspires
children to bring their resources to bear on problems and make their own unique
contributions to family therapy. Playful approaches in narrative therapy direct
the focus away from the child as a problem and onto the child-problem relationship
in a way that is meaningful for adults as well as intriguing, not heavy-handed or
boring, for children.


"The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem" is an oft quoted maxim
of narrative therapy. The linguistic practice of externalization, (White, 1988/9;
White & Epston, 1990a) which separates persons from problems, is a playful way to
motivate children to face and diminish difficulties.

In a family, blame and shame about a problem tend to have a silencing and
immobilizing effect. Moreover, when persons think of a problem as an integral part
of their character or the nature of their relationships, it is difficult for them
to change, as it seems so "close to home." Separating the problem from the person
in an externalizing conversation relieves the pressure of blame and defensiveness.
No longer defined as inherently being the problem, a young person can have a
relationship with the externalized problem. This practice lets a person or group
of persons enter into a more reflective and critical position vis-�-vis the
problem. With some distance established between self and problem, family members
can consider the effects of the problem on their lives and bring their own
resources to bear in revising their relationship with it. In the space between
person and problem, responsibility, choice, and personal agency tend to expand.

This practice also tends to create a lighter atmosphere wherein children are
invited to be inventive in dealing with their problem, instead of being so
immobilized by blame, guilt, or shame that their parents are required to carry the
full burden of problem-solving. As White (1988/9, p.6) has commented,
externalizing conversation "frees persons to take a lighter, more effective and
less stressed approach to 'deadly serious' problems."

Soiling was one of the first problems to be externalized by Michael White (1984;
1989). In a straightforward externalization encopresis was renamed "Sneaky Poo."
Encopresis is a medical diagnostic term; in itself there is nothing wrong with it.
However, the grammar that we use in speaking with and about young people has
certain effects. To say that "Tom is encopretic" is to imply something about his
identity. To say that "Tom's problem is that he soils his pants" is accurate, but
it may be adding shame to an already humiliating situation. To say that "Sneaky
Poo has been stinking up Tom's life by sneaking out in his pants" is a more
gamesome way to describe Tom's relationship with the problem of soiling. It is
more likely to invite Tom's participation in the discussion of his problem. It can
also evoke a more sportive stance for Tom vis-�-vis the problem, as we can now
talk about how "Tom can outsneak Sneaky Poo and stop it from sneaking out on him."
Tom no longer has to be a different kind of person from the one he understands
himself to be. In fact, revising his relation with such a problem as "Sneaky Poo"
may very well confirm him as being just the right kind of person for the job at
hand--"outsneaking Sneaky Poo."
Standing as an alternative to the diagnosis and treatment of pathology, the focus
in an externalizing conversation is on expanding choice and possibility in the
relationship between persons and problems. Roth and Epston (1996, p. 5) write:

In contrast to the common cultural and professional practice of identifying the

person as the problem or the problem as within the person, this work depicts the
problem as external to the person. It does so not in the conviction that the
problem is objectively separate, but as a linguistic counter-practice that makes
more freeing constructions available.

When they enter therapy overwhelmed by a problem, members of the family may expect
that the clinician will discover further underlying conflicts in their minds or
relationships. Therapists take an active role in shaping the attributions that are
used to describe young persons and families and to explain their problematic
situations, and when a therapist listens to, accepts, and then furthers the
investigation of a pathological description of a child, the child's identity may

When a problem is externalized, the attitude of young people in therapy usually

shifts. When they realize that the problem, instead of them, is going to be put on
the spot or under scrutiny they enthusiastically join in the conversation. Relief
shows on their faces. Their eyes light up, as if to say, "Yeah, that's it, that's
how I look at it. It's not my fault." They are then in a position to acknowledge
that the "problem" happens to be making them and others miserable and to discuss
matters with, at times, remarkable candor.

Although in one sense it is a serious pursuit, we find this practice to be

inherently playful and appealing to children. Maria sent Jenny a valentine card
one year, with the caption "Poo Poo to Fear and Temper" and little drawings of
each on the front. On the back was written "I like talking with you and I like
calling fear and temper names. From Maria." Jenna, a nine-year-old once wrote in
relation to a mask she had made of "The Trickster Fear": 'You're no longer nothing
. . . being nothing made it hard to know you. Once you're named, you can be known
and conquered!"


Aside from their understandable opposition to being blamed or shamed, perhaps

children are showing common sense in resisting being defined by descriptions that
imply that their identities are limited or fixed. Even adults do not find rigid
negative descriptions of themselves particularly motivating toward change. Why
shouldn't children resist a fixed adult-imposed definition or a normative
characterization? After all, identity remains exploratory and relatively fluid
well into adolescence.

Viewing the child as facing rather than being a problem is a helpful start to
preserving the fluidity of identity formation. Externalization seems a natural fit
for many children. It is compatible with the way they typically approach
difficulties in the dynamic learning environment of play. In play, along with
hats, costumes, and accents, multiple perspectives and roles are tried on during
"dressup" and other games. This fluidity allows the child to explore variations of
attitude, identity and behavior--to try out the emotional flavor of the moment or
day. In fact, when a child's play is repetitive, ritualistic, or confined in its
range of roles and behaviors, we may wonder about abuse or other severe
interruptions to developing identity.

For the child, externalization is like playing a game of "pretend." Implicitly, or

sometimes even explicitly, we are saying to the child, "Let's pretend the problem
is outside yourself and we'll play with it from there." As Paley (1990, p. 7)
writes, "'Pretend' often confuses the adult but it is the child's real and serious
world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be
safely revealed."

As therapists, we have been especially trained in the use of words. But practicing
the language of externalizing conversations is for us, as for many others, not so
much about learning a technique as about developing a particular way of seeing
things. As Roth and Epston (1996a, p. 149) write:

We do not see externalizing as a technical operation or as a method. It is a

language practice that shows, invites, and evokes generative and respectful ways
of thinking about and being with people struggling to develop the kinds of
relationships they would prefer to have with the problems that discomfort them.

We have noticed some benefits for us personally. Focusing our attention on values,
hopes, and preferences, rather than on pathology, we find ourselves less fatigued
by the weight of the difficulties we encounter. Since we can now put the problem
in the spotlight, we can be more forthright in our questions and comments. As well
as allowing us to connect with children "where they live," this practice
stimulates our creativity as well.

This approach is distinct from most open, unstructured play therapy, in that we
collaborate closely with children in play that is actively focused on facing a
problem. Children's sense of effectiveness as agents of change clearly increases
when they experiment with possibilities in relationship to an externalized
problem. In therapy with families the play is mainly with words, using humor
wherever possible! But an externalizing conversation is easily enhanced with other
forms of expression favored by children, such as play and expressive arts therapy.

SELECTED READINGS (Emphasis on children)

Epston, D. (1986). Nightwatching: An approach to night fears. Dulwich Centre

Review, 28-39.

Epston, D. (1989). Collected papers. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre


Epston, D. (Autumn, 1989a) Temper tantrum parties: Saving face, losing face, or
going off your face! Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 12-26.

Epston, D. (1993). Internalising discourses versus externalizing discourses. In S.

Gilligan & R. Price (Eds.), Therapeutic Conversations (pp. 161-177). New York:

Epston, D. (1994). Extending the conversation. Family Therapy Networker, 18(6),

31-37, 62-63.

Epston, D., & Betterton, E. (1993). Imaginary Friends: Who are they? Who needs
them? Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 2, 38-39.

Epston, D., & Brock, P. (1989). Strategic approach to a feeding problem. In

Epston, D. Collected Papers. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Epston, D., Morris, F., & Maisel, R. (1995). A narrative approach to so-called
anorexia/bulimia. In Weingarten, K. (Ed.), Cultural Resistance: Challenging
beliefs about men, women, and therapy . (pp. 69-96). New York: Haworth.
Epston, D. & White, M. (1992). Experience, contradiction, narrative, and
imagination: Selected papers of David Epston & Michael White, 1989-1991. Adelaide,
Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Epston, D., & White, M., & "Ben" (1995). Consulting your consultants: A means to
the co-construction of alternative knowledges. In S. Friedman, (Ed.), The
reflecting team in action: Collaborative practice in family therapy. (pp. 277-
313). New York: Guilford.

Epston, D., Lobovits,D., & Freeman, J. (1997). Annals of the "new Dave". Gecko,

Freedman, J., & Combs G. (1996). Narrative therapy: The social construction of
preferred realities. New York: Norton.

Freeman, J., Epston, D. & Lobovits, D. (1997). Playful approaches to serious

problems: Narrative therapy with children and their families. New York: Norton.

Freeman, J. C., & Lobovits, D. H. (1993). The turtle with wings. In S. Friedman
(Ed.), The new language of change: Constructive collaboration in psychotherapy.
(pp. 188-225). New York: Guilford.

Lobovits, D. H., Maisel, R., & Freeman, J. C. (1995). Public practices: An ethic
of circulation. In S. Friedman (Ed.), The reflecting team in action: Collaborative
practice in family therapy. (pp. 223-256). New York: Guilford.

Lobovits, D., & Prowell, J. (1995). Unexpected journey: Invitations to diversity.

Paper from workshop presented at "Narrative Ideas and Therapeutic Practice,"
Fourth International Conference, Vancouver, BC.

Lobovits, D. & Freeman, J. (1997) Destination Grump Station, Getting Off the Grump
Bus. In D. Nylund and C. Smith (Eds.) Narrative Therapy with Children and
Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

Roth, S. & Epston, D. (1996). Developing externalizing conversations: An exercise.

Journal of Systemic Therapies, 15(1), 5-12.

Roth, S. & Epston, D. (1996a). Consulting the problem about the problematic
relationship: An exercise for experiencing a relationship with an externalized
problem. In M. Hoyt (Ed.) Constructive therapies: Volume 2., (148-162). New York:

Seymour, F. W. & Epston, D. (1992). An approach to childhood stealing with

evaluation of 45 cases. In M. White & D. Epston (Eds.) Experience, contradiction,
narrative, and imagination: Selected papers of David Epston & Michael White, 1989-
1991. (pp. 189-206). Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1985). Fear busting and monster taming: An approach to the fears of
young children. Dulwich Centre Review.

White, M. (1986). Negative explanation, restraint and double description: A

template for family therapy. Family Process, 25(2), 169-184.

White, M., (Winter,1988). The process of questioning: A therapy of literary merit?

Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 8-14.

White, M. ,(Spring, 1988a). Saying hullo again: The incorporation of the lost
relationship and the resolution of grief. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 7-11.

White, M. (1988/9). The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives
and relationships. In M. White (Ed.), Selected Papers . (pp. 5-28). Adelaide,
Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1989). Pseudo-encopresis: From avalanche to victory, from vicious to

virtuous cycles. In Selected Papers. Adelaide Australia: Dulwich Centre
Publications. (pp. 115-124). Original work published in 1984, Family Systems
Medicine, 2(2).

White, M. (1991). Deconstruction and therapy. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 3, 21-40.

White, M. (1993). Commentary: The histories of the present. In S, Gilligan & R.

Price (Eds.), Therapeutic Conversations (pp. 121-135). New York: Norton.

White, M. (1995). Re-authoring lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide, Australia:

Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Consulting your consultants: The documentation of
alternative knowledges. Dulwich Centre Newsletter. 4, 25-35.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990a). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: