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Old Stories & Possible Selves

Narrative Therapy and Self-Authorship

Narrative Therapy (NT) is a system that works with the stories we tell about ourselves, and those that others tell about us. Stories can be reflections of what other people think about us, or what a particular culture, or society in general, tells us that we should be and do. Past experiences also leave an imprint, and persist in our life-narratives as stories we believe.

Problem-saturated stories

Looking through the lens of NT, we can begin to understand that some stories are unhelpful, yet they continue to influence us deeply. Old, ‘problem-saturated’ stories have titles like: Addict, Depressive, Dead Beat, Victim of (...fill in the blank), or Angry.... They may be written in the language of 'should,' 'always,' or 'never.' What these unhelpful stories have in common is that they shut down our ideas about what we could become (our ‘possible selves’). When a story has taken up too much of our life energy for too long, we may come into therapy.

Looking for exceptions

Narrative therapists listen for exceptions in the problem-saturated stories of clients. Exceptions reflect and reveal unique sources of strength, and strategies for change. Listening curiously without judgement, and knowing that individuals are the experts on their own lives, therapists hear the most appropriate wisdom in clients' stories. Together, clients and therapists unearth evidence that clients are already moving toward new stories and possible selves. Exceptions are the seeds of ‘counter-narratives,’ they provide examples of how a person is already resisting a problem-saturated story, and taking a stand against the problem. Sometimes, we find exceptions in the stories that trusted others would tell or believe, about us.


Telling new stories, or re-authoring life-narratives, can be disorienting. It may take time and work in therapy to ‘embody’ a new story, or feel that a possible self is an authentic and attainable new way of being. Emotions such as grief, anger and shame may need to flow through in order to clear the way for acceptance, joy, and a measure of peace. Practices that support grounding and centering in the present, and therapeutic work that widens our window of tolerance for strong emotion, can be extremely helpful when moving away from old stories and integrating more expanded ideas of the possible self.

Powerful and authentic life-narratives

Eventually, as we become familiar with the process of re-authoring our own life-narratives, we recognize problem-saturated stories before we take them on as truth. We learn to trust in our own capacity to feel what is authentic for us, and to move toward living the stories that are more closely aligned with who we want to be.