Convos With My 2 Year Old Season 1 Episode 4 Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

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Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

Once was now, right now. The past has been written from many perspectives but the future is still empty and now is the act of writing. Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that uses the story or narrative of our way of looking at our life situations. We look for that crack in the lens that tells an alternative way of perceiving our difficulties. Not to change the story but to tell it from a different point of view. Narrative therapy honors these stories and yet accepts that each point of view is imbued with a meaning that family, society, culture has predetermined as the “correct” meaning. Existential therapy tends to focus more on the individual attitude and with a focus on the “now” instead of the past or future. In turn it examines limits and expansiveness. The four main areas of examination within existentialism are meaning (vs. meaninglessness), freedom (vs. confinement), death (vs. life), and isolation (vs. inclusion) (Yalom, 1980). Narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy can help fill in each other’s remains. Including past, present and future tense and giving meaning to both as individual and collective attitude.

The term meaning has eluded philosophers for thousands of years. Giving it a precise definition proved to be almost impossible. The way we use meaning is a thread that runs through most of the major schools of psychotherapy. The view within narrative therapy is that meaning is not given, nothing is imbued with meaning, but instead it is the interpretation of experience. This interpretation is through the theory of social construction of reality. Therefore (“The Social Construction of Reality”, 2009):

“The central concept of The Social Construction of Reality (The Social Construction of Reality) is that persons and groups interacting together in a social system form, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other’s actions, and that these concepts later become accustomed into mutual roles played by the actors in. relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter and play, the mutual interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process of this institutionalization, meaning is embedded in society .People’s knowledge and concept (and belief) of what reality is becomes embedded in the institutional fabric of society.”

A more general way of stating this is that through language, symbols and interactive dialogue we give meaning to experience. First comes experience and then that experience is filtered through these cultural transactions which then create interpretation. Just because we see the color blue it is only “blue” because that was the assigned meaning that occurred within a cultural context. A quick formula for meaning in narrative therapy is experience plus interpretation equals meaning.

One of the core tenants of existential psychotherapy is Sartre’s oft-quoted phrase “existence precedes essence.” Meaning is personally constructed, as opposed to socially constructed. There are given how we will all die, which we will all have to face. Meaning is therefore personally constructed within this framework. Since we will die sometime in the future, what does the present moment mean? This meaning probably comes from the individual. We become a more honest or authentic person when we acknowledge this limitation but ask ourselves, what are we going to do about it? First there is only being, as in the present moment, and then from that we create the essence. Meaning within existential psychotherapy tends to be about the higher beliefs such as the question of “what is the meaning of life?”

A key theoretical move within narrative therapy is to pay attention to what is called the shining moment. As a client relays the story of what brought them into the therapist’s office, the therapist listens for an episode within the story that contradicts the main story. A story that tells a different picture of our preferred way of being, for example, if a client tells a story of depression, then the therapist listens to an event or a time when the depression was not present. The telling of this alternative story in narrative therapy is called “re-authoring”. The therapist can help this along by eliciting what is called a “reminiscing” conversation, where an important focus is on the identity of a past significant other who helped contribute greatly to the client’s life. This could be a friend, lover, parent, musician or even an author.

To help the client on this path, the therapist must remain decentralized and non-influential. They can do this by helping the client “thicken up” the preferred plot by encouraging the details of what is being told, rather than having a thin description of an event. For example, instead of just saying the weather is nice outside, ask questions about why the client thinks it’s nice outside. What are the smells, the air, the feeling, does it remind them of something, The therapist would do well to remember the rich history of existential psychotherapy to help thicken the preferred way of being.

Existential psychotherapy has a rich history of learning about the way we use what Howard Gardner called multiple intelligences. They are, according to Wikipedia, body-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, and musical intelligences (“Theory of multiple intelligences”, 2009). Howard Gardner proposed a ninth intelligence which would be existential intelligence. The existential intelligence would consist of the ability to be able to question larger issues in life such as death, life, and possible spiritual meaning (“Theory of multiple intelligences”, 2009). Narrative therapy also embraces this notion of multiple intelligences even if this is not explicit. The therapist is encouraged to explore with the client the best possible expression. This could be through music therapy, writing therapy or even art therapy. Existential psychotherapy in conjunction with humanistic psychotherapy has historically promoted the concept of the whole self including an investigative angle. The therapist comes not from an expert role but rather from an interest in the authentic person or a phenomenological approach. To be fully present with this approach, the intelligence from which the client works best should be the path of research for further development.

We are forever in the now but always focused on future plans, worries, hopes or even dreams. Likewise when we are not future focused, we are past focused. The past focused on our worries, shame, even our doubts. This tends to be the realm of narrative therapy. That connects a sequence of events through a specific time period and gives that meaning. Narrative therapy struggles with the present moment. It requires a center or self as opposed to the Buddhist concept of the non-self. This attitude of self is referred to by a state of observer investigating or remembering the plot. The concept of the non-self contradicts this position and has no observer but this is in the temporal now. The concept of existence is the current flow or the becoming (like a flower opening into what it could be). Existential psychotherapy pays homage to the past and possible future but the main source of temporal time is the now. James Bugental calls this the living moment (Bugental, p.20). While in the phase of re-authoring and thickening the plot within narrative therapy, this existential attitude could prove to be very informative. It could also be used within the problem saturated phase of storytelling. If the client seems stuck on issues of the effects or judgments of a particular event, then ask what the current emotions, thoughts, smells, etc. seem to be. to unblock the blockage. Remaining in the temporal now there are many facets that could be examined for example the current kinesthetic experience. This is one possible way to help with the deadlock problem.

Existential psychotherapists tend to narrow in on four different realms for meaning making. They are freedom, death, isolation and insignificance (Yalom, 1980). Each of these realms can be constructed as being on a continuum. Freedom would have two extreme sides to it. On one extreme of freedom would be the complete restraint of any freedom at all. Not having any choice like being chained in a dungeon. The other end would be complete freedom such as is found in libertine philosophies, that everything goes without limits. Existential psychotherapists posit that each of us falls somewhere on this continuum. In order to move, to find relief from our struggles with our mental illness or anxiety, we must come to an individual understanding of where we are currently on this continuum and where we would like to go or what we would like to become. For example, if we feel that we have too much freedom from over-indulgence without restraints, we may need to move this continuum a bit for more restraint to help us balance. There are no right or wrong answers but where the individual feels fit. To help flesh out the preferred way of being within narrative therapy, this theory might appear to be a limitation on what meaning is. This meaning is created by the therapist and client, but I argue that if we use it as a map, it can help keep us focused.

This opinion piece is not meant to be a position that is grounded in a complete theoretical stance. The author acknowledges that both narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy both come from very rich philosophical but very different backgrounds. There are only a few philosophers who have tried to examine the similarities between postmodernism and existentialism. If one looks for connections they could always find, in some detail, those connections but each philosophy is really a different project altogether. The therapeutic stance, or pou sto, is a completely different matter. Narrative therapy does not only use postmodernism as a philosophical background and existential psychotherapy does not only use a strict philosophy of existentialism. Instead these philosophical backgrounds are an applicable way to use these various therapeutic attitudes to try to help heal our mental illnesses. As Foucault stated in his last known interview (William V. Spanos, P.153) “For me Heidegger has always been the essential philosopher … My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger.”

What are some of the future directions for enhancing narrative therapy with existential psychotherapy? A first narrative therapy would do well to further elaborate what is intended by thickening the preferred story. What does it mean to make this story more real or the main focus above the grand stories? There needs to be a more philosophical discussion about the idea of ​​meaning because both forms of therapy have an important emphasis on meaning making but they just come at it from different angles and different projects. The question could also be asked if these two different therapies are as compatible as this author suggests they are. If not, why not? And is there a way forward?

As this story (theoretical positioning) ends, it is important to remember that these are questions and not absolute truths. The story can still be changed by adding subtle detail and subtracting the distractions. The one thing that can be stated is that narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy are strangers traveling the same path.


1. Bugental, James FT (1999). Psychotherapy Is Not What You Think: Bringing the Psychotherapeutic Engagement Into the Living Moment. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig Tucker & Theisen Publishers.

2. The Social Construction of Reality. (2009, July 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:46, July 8, 2009, from

3. Spanos, Williams V. (1993). Heidegger and criticism: Taking the cultural politics of destruction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

4. Theory of multiple intelligences. (2009, August 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:07, August 4, 2009, from

5. Yalom, Irvin D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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