Dr Marlene Winberg
PhD (UCT) MA FA (UCT) BA (UCT)
Healing through the Arts
Narrative Therapy Practitioner
This parable is a metaphor for how a different perspective can bring about a new, life-saving storyline to a person’s life:
A farmer went down to the river each day to collect water in his two pots. One day, one pot said to him: “Farmer, I have a crack. When we reach home there is only half the water left. I think you should get a new pot. I am broken and of no use to you.”
The farmer replied: “Well, that is one way of seeing it. From my viewpoint, I look at the path to the river and I see that your side has green plants growing from the soil you watered. I think I will keep you.”
The stories we tell ourselves can make or break us.
Narrative Therapy is a branch of psychology that helps you to reframe the stories you tell yourself in beneficial, healing ways.
Narrative Therapy aims to help people move away from a dominating, single story about themselves, to a richer, multilayered narrative with many possibilities.
My clients are typically women and teenagers who struggle with stories of loss – as a result of death, trauma, chronic illness, anxiety, depression, divorce, addiction, pain, convalescence or significant life changes such as puberty or menopause. Let’s take a look at Amanda’s experience of Narrative Therapy as an example:
“Narrative Therapy introduced me to grief as a verb, something you can actually do. The narrative art exercises helped me to make meaning of my overwhelming loss.” (Amanda van der Hulle 2021.)
Amanda used a combination of writing, clay modelling, storytelling and letter writing to re-construct her experience of mourning her mother. Narrative Therapy offered her a nurturing structure within which she felt safe enough to reach deep and remember, make peace and re-establish her identity in life without her beloved mother.
Maria is a teenage client whom I saw weekly over a period of twelve months. This is what she had to say:
“I was a sexual abuse survivor at the age of 15. I changed my story of being a victim to becoming a child rights activist who councils other children. I did not know that so many other children have been through a similar experience. I think my story is now stronger than it was before.” (Maria Ndlovu 2020.)
Narrative Therapy cannot wipe a traumatic experience from your mind, but it can teach you creative techniques to recognise and manage your anxiety. You learn how to deal with trauma and fear rather than ignore it, wish it away or allowing it to make you ill. In Maria’s case, the aim was to transform a traumatic experience into a narrative that turned her insider knowledge of abuse into one that had no shame, benefits other young people and makes her feel proud of herself
Angie turned to Narrative Therapy in the hope that she could reprogram a repetitive, stuck story in her mind:
“After my divorce, I developed a habit of venting my anger in a kind of self-talk that became obsessive. Especially when I was driving. My narrative journey helped me to change this habit. It opened up different possibilities for me which I would not have seen otherwise.” (Angie Carelse 2021.)
Angie transformed her problem saturated story into a stronger and healthier narrative that embraced her life, rather than keeping her stuck in the past.
There are a variety of techniques and exercises in Narrative Therapy to help people heal and move past a problematic story. In my practice, I combine narrative elements with visual art-making exercises to help my clients engage their senses and open up their brain’s innate capacity to integrate difficult experiences. (You need no experience of art to engage in art-making exercises.)
Putting together your narrative
Narrative therapists help their clients put together their personal narrative. This process allows an individual to find their voice and explore events in their lives and the meanings they place on these experiences. As their story is put together, the person becomes an observer to their story and looks at it with the therapist, working to identify the dominant, and problematic story.
Putting together the story of their lives also allows people to observe themselves.
This helps to create distance between the individual and their problems, which is called externalisation. This allows people to better focus on unwanted behaviours.
As people practice externalisation, they get a chance to see that they are capable and empowered to change their story.
In Narrative Therapy, people learn deconstruction techniques to help them gain clarity. When a problematic story feels like it has been around for a long time, people might use generalised statements and become confused, or stuck, in their own stories. A Narrative therapist would work with the individual to break down their story into smaller parts, making it more approachable.
When a story feels concrete, as if it could never change, any idea of alternative stories flies out of the window. People can become stuck in their story and allow it to influence several areas of their lives, impacting decision-making, behaviours, experiences and relationships or physical and mental health.
A narrative therapist works to help people challenge and shift their problem, while considering alternative story lines.
This approach can be useful for anyone who feels overwhelmed by negative experiences, thoughts or emotions. Narrative therapy allows people to not only find their voice and listen to it, but to use their voice to hep them become experts in their own lives and to live in a way that reflects their goals and values.
The narrative therapist takes care to hold three principles central to the process:
Non-blaming: there is no blame placed on the client as they work through their stories and they are encouraged not to place blame on others. focus is instead placed on recognising and changing unwanted and unhelpful stories about themselves and others.
Respect: People participating in narrative therapy are treated with respect and support for their bravery in coming forward and working through personal challenges.
Client as expert: Narrative therapists are not viewed as an advice-giving authority, but rather
as a collaborative partner in helping the client grow and heal. Narrative therapy holds that clients know themselves well and exploring this information will allow for a change in their narratives.
This type of therapy encourages people to not label themselves or seeing themselves as ‘broken’ or as ‘the problem’. Rather, it helps the client find a non-blaming perspective. They learn to separate themselves from the problem and look at it more objectively. This is followed by cognitive behavioural and creative exercises to incorporate these alternative points of view into their daily lives.
Things to consider:
This type of therapy is specialised and can be very in-depth. It explores a number of factors that can influene a person’s story. This includes gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, and sexual identity.
It involves talking about your problems as well as your strengths. A therapist will help you explore your dominant narrative in-depth, discover ways it might be contributing to emotional pain, and uncover strengths that can help you approach problems in different ways.
You will evaluate your judgements about yourself. Sometimes people carry stories about themselves that have been placed on them by others. Narrative therapy encourages you to re-assess these thoughts and replace them with more realistic, beneficial and positives ones.
It challenges you to separate from your problems. While this can be difficult, the process helps you to view your story more objectively, while you learn how to acknowledge yourself for making good decisions or behaving in personally beneficial ways. “The problem is the problem. The person is not the problem” (Michael White 2002).
Showing up for your story
Showing up for your story means focussing on it for long enough to map it out and give expression to it. This process allows you to find your voice, explore important experiences in your life and think about the meaning you make from these experiences.
Shaping your story
Shaping your story helps you to think about re-constructing your story into a stronger narrative, based on your values. This reflective methodology helps you to pay close attention to your inner narratives. This process brings greater self-knowledge.
Stepping into your preferred story
Stepping into your preferred story means figuring out how to make your re-authored storylines an integral part of your daily life. Narrative therapy teaches you specific techniques to change habitual, unhelpful thought patterns. This narrative practice allows us to re-train our brains to adopt different narrative patterns.
What can you expect from Narrative Therapy Sessions?
The Narrative Journey begins with an introductory session of one and a quarter hours. This experience is followed up by a course of five sessions, or more, depending on the person’s needs. During this time, you can expect to
1. Identify and externalise your personal narrative
2. Gain insight and clarity into the problem in your narrative
3. Break the problem up into smaller parts
4. Identify your habitual thought patterns around the problem
5. Learn alternative coping strategies to change your response to the problem
6. Develop a preferred narrative that reflects your values
7. Keep a journal of the process
8. Be encouraged to focus on a non-blaming approach to your problem
9. Become familiar with the power of metaphor
How to get started:
My private practice is based in Kalk Bay, an urban fishing village at the southern tip of Africa. You will also find me at the Corner Health Therapy Clinic, 19 Recreation Road, Fish Hoek, Cape Town. To make an appointment, call +27 (21) 782-6958. www.cornerhealth.co.za
To book an appointment for an introductory session, call +27 (0) 83 3925153 or send me an email.
Thank you for dropping in.
P.S. While my practice is based on indigenous and traditional forms of healing, including storytelling and art-making, I draw on the Narrative Therapy structure that was developed by New Zealand therapist, Michael White and David Epston in the 1980s as an empowering technique that is non-blaming and non-pathological in nature.
!nanni’s Sketchbook – annotations of loss and abundance celebrates a 19th century collection of children’s narratives, drawings and paintings made by the Namibian !kun child, !nanni and his three friends, Tamme, |uma and Da. This book illuminates their history and reconstructs the story of where they came from, how they were abducted, sold to various masters and ended up in the Cape colonial home of linguist Lucy Lloyd – where they made the collection with her. The author explores the children’s visual and verbal trauma narratives and demonstrates how the telling of their stories, their paintings and drawings facilitated their healing.
The !kun children’s archive is part of the larger Bleek and Lloyd Collection – entered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Manyeka Books firstname.lastname@example.org
In this remarkable book, Kapilolo’s Kulimatji – a !xun San storyteller’s memoir, Kapilolo Mario Mahongo recounts for the first time from an indigenous perspective, the heart-rending results for his family and San compatriots of their involvement in the independence wars against Portugal and South Africa in Angola and Namibia. Mahongo is one of the unsung heroes amongst indigenous San in southern Africa as they continue the struggle to survive and retain their identity, culture and languages far from the place of their birth.
Kapilolo’s Kulimatji – a !xun San storyteller’s memoir, told to narrative therapy practitioner and editor, Dr Marlene Sullivan Winberg, between 1994 and 2017 and accompanied by her own account of the circumstances that led to her 23-year friendship with Mahongo, is an emotionally charged book and a welcome new genre for southern African indigenous literature (Dr Janette Deacon).
Manyeka Books email@example.com
Text by Marlene Winberg
Photographs by Paul Weinberg
With an introductory essay by Achmat Dangor
In 1994, people began to return to land in rural South Africa they had lost under apartheid. This book chronicles that process and other related aspects of the South African government’s land reform programme between 1994 and 1996. It allows the voices of the marginalised people to be heard beyond their own communities.
The Storyteller is a collection of traditional narratives from the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango River villages in Botswana. It was made when groups of young storytellers gathered in D’Kar and Shakawe to perform and record their family stories. Twenty-three tales were written in Naro, Khwedam, ||Anikhwedam, Ju|’hoansi, Thimbukushu, Otjiherero, ShiYei and English.
This collection is a reflection of a changing oral tradition where cultures meet and integrate; where computer technology exists alongside traditional healing, where people work in their small offices and libraries in the desert, quietly creating their own educational futures. It testifies to a younger generation’s capacity to record, write and translate their elders’ oral traditions.
This little book, enhanced by the work of the San artists at the Kuru Art Project in the Kalahari, honours the Botswana tradition of storytelling and the diversity of its language heritage.
A fertility story narrated by traditional !xun healer Meneputo Manunga Manyeka. Translated by Marlene Winberg. Accompanied by !xun music.
This story narrates the birth of a traditional San healer. Translated by Marlene Winberg. Accompanied by !xun music..