Music Therapy For Depression It Seems To Work But How Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

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Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy

Once was now, right now. The past is written in many ways, but the future remains blank and is the act of writing in the present. Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that uses narratives or stories to inform how we see situations in our lives. We are looking for a crack in the lens that tells us another way of understanding our suffering. Not to change the story, but to tell it from a different perspective. Narrative therapy respects these stories, but recognizes that each perspective predetermines the “correct” meaning of family, society, and culture. Existential therapy focuses more on the individual’s position, focusing on the “now” instead of the past or the future. This in turn explores limits and scope. The four primary areas of examination within existentialism are meaning (vs. meaninglessness), freedom (vs. imprisonment), death (vs. life), and isolation (vs. inclusion) (Yalom, 1980). Narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy help fill the void left by each other. Include past, present, and future tenses and give meaning to individual and collective positions.

The term meaning has fascinated philosophers for thousands of years. It has proven to be almost impossible to define precisely. Our way of using meaning is a thread that runs through most schools of psychotherapy. The view of narrative therapy is that meaning is not a given, nothing is imbued with meaning, but instead it is an interpretation of experience. This explanation goes through the theory of social construction of reality. Accordingly (“The Social Construction of Reality”, 2009):

The central concept of the “social construction of reality” is that people and groups interacting in a social system over time form concepts and mental representations of each other’s actions, and these concepts eventually become accustomed to the mutual roles played by actors. interacting with each other. When these roles are made accessible to other members of society, interaction is said to be institutionalized. In the process of this institutionalization, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is are embedded in the institutional structure of society. “

A more general way of expressing this is that through language, symbols, and interactive conversation, we give meaning to experience. First comes experience, and then that experience is filtered through these cultural transactions, which then create interpretation. Because we see the color blue, it is only “blue” because that is the specific meaning that has occurred within the cultural context. A quick formula for the value of narrative therapy is that explanation plus experience equals value.

One of the basic tenets of existential psychotherapy is Sartre’s statement that “existence precedes essence.” Meaning is more individually constructed than socially constructed. We are all going to die, and there are facts that we all have to face. Meaning is personally constructed within this context. Since we are going to die at some point in the future, what does this present moment mean? This meaning is believed to originate from the individual. When we accept this limitation and ask ourselves what we can do about it, we become more honest or authentic. First there is mere existence as it is now, then we create essence. The meaning of existential psychotherapy is “what is the meaning of life?” etc. are associated with excessive beliefs.

A key step in narrative therapy theory is to focus on what are known as shining moments. While the client is telling the story of what brought them to the therapy room, the therapist is listening to a part of the story that contradicts the main story. For example, if a client is talking about depression, the therapist listens for events or times when the depression was not present. Telling this alternative story in narrative therapy is called “rewriting.” The therapist can help with this by inducing a “remembering” conversation that focuses on discovering the identity of someone from the client’s past who has contributed significantly to the client’s life. It could be a friend, a lover, a parent, a musician or even a writer.

To help clients navigate this path, the therapist must remain unfocused and unaffected. They can do this by helping clients “thicken” the story line by encouraging the details of what is being said rather than a detailed description of the story. For example, instead of saying the weather is nice outside, ask why the customer thinks it’s nice outside. What is the smell, the air, the feeling, does it remind them of something? The therapist would do well to keep in mind the rich history of existential psychotherapy to help deepen the preferred way of being.

Existential psychotherapy has a rich history of learning about how we use what Howard Gardner called multiple minds. According to Wikipedia, these are corporeal-kinesthetic, interpersonal, lexical-linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, and musical intelligences (“Theory of Multiple Intelligences”, 2009). Howard Gardner proposed a ninth intelligence, the existential intelligence. Existential intelligence consists of the ability to question life’s big issues, such as death, life, and spiritual meaning (“Theory of Multiple Intelligences”, 2009). Narrative therapy also includes the concept of multiple intelligences, even if this is not obvious. The therapist is encouraged to explore the best way to communicate with the client. This could be music therapy, writing therapy, or art therapy. Existential psychotherapy, along with humanistic psychotherapy, has historically promoted a view of the whole self, including the perspective of inquiry. The therapist arises from an interest in the real person or a phenomenological approach, not from an expert role. To be fully consistent with this approach, the client’s best functioning mind should be the avenue of exploration for further development.

We exist forever in the now, but we are always focused on our plans, worries, hopes, and even dreams for the future. Similarly, when we are not focused on the future, we focus on the past. The past focused on our worries, shame, and even doubt. This tends to be the field of narrative therapy. It connects the sequence of events in a certain time and gives this meaning. Narrative therapy grapples with the present moment. It refers to the position of center or self, as opposed to the Buddhist concept of no-self. I refer to this human position as the observer studying or remembering the event. The concept of self-abnegation contradicts this position, it has no observer, but it is now in time. The concept of existence is the present or present state (like a flower opening up to what it could be). Existential psychotherapy honors the past and possible futures, but the primary source of time is the present. James Bugental calls it the living moment (Bugental, p.20). This existential position can be very informative in the process of rewriting and condensing the story line within narrative therapy. It can also be used in the saturation phase of a storytelling problem. If the client seems stuck on the effects or conclusions of a particular event, ask what the current emotions, thoughts, smells, etc. are to clear the block. Now, to remain in time, many aspects can be explored, such as the present kinesthetic experience. This is one possible solution to the stuttering problem.

Existential psychotherapists tend to narrow down four different frameworks for creating meaning. These are freedom, death, isolation and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980). Each of these states can be built on a continuum. Freedom will have two extremes. At one end of freedom, any freedom will be completely restricted. There are no options like being shackled in a dungeon. The other end would be the total freedom inherent in the libertine philosophy of all things with no restrictions. Existential psychotherapists believe that each of us falls somewhere on this continuum. In order to be able to move and find relief from mental illness and suffering, we need to understand as individuals where we are right now, where we are going, and what we want to be. For example, if we feel that we have too much freedom without restrictions, we may move a little on this continuum to be more relaxed to help us find balance. There is no right or wrong answer, but what the individual feels is appropriate. This theory may seem limited in what it means to help thicken the preferred way of engaging in narrative therapy. This meaning is created by the therapist and the client, but I argue that if we use it as a map, it helps us focus.

This opinion piece is not meant to be a fully theoretical position. The author acknowledges that both narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy have very rich but very different philosophical origins. There have been a few philosophers who have attempted to explore the similarities between postmodernism and existentialism. If one is looking for connections, those connections can be looked at in a little more detail, but each philosophy is a completely different project. The therapeutic stance, or pou sto, is something entirely different. Narrative therapy doesn’t just use postmodernism as its philosophical foundation, and existential psychotherapy doesn’t just use the strict philosophy of existentialism. Instead, these philosophies are ways we can use these different therapeutic positions to help us heal from mental illness. As Foucault said in his last known interview (William W. Spanos, P.153), “Heidegger has always been an important philosopher for me… My whole philosophical development was determined by reading Heidegger.”

What are the future directions for integrating narrative therapy with existential psychotherapy? The first narrative treatment would do well to explain more precisely what it means to thicken a preferred narrative. What does it mean to make the story more realistic or to focus on the grand narrative? Both forms of therapy emphasize the creation of meaning, but they come from different perspectives and projects, and thus require a more philosophical discussion of meaning. The question can also be raised as to whether these two different treatments are compatible, as this author suggests. If not, why not? And is there a way forward?

As this story (theoretical position) ends, it is important to remember that these are questions, not absolute truths. A story can be changed by adding subtle details and removing distractions. To say the same thing, narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy are strangers walking the same path.


1. Bugental, James FT (1999). Psychotherapy is not what you think: bringing psychotherapeutic interventions into the lived moment. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig Tucker & Theisen Publishing.

2. Social construction of reality. (July 8, 2009). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved July 8, 2009, 10:46 p.m., from

3. Spanos, Williams V. (1993). Heidegger and Critique: Reconstructing the Cultural Politics of Eradication. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

4. Theory of multiple intelligences. (2009, August 4). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from on August 4, 2009 at 4:07 pm.

5. Yalom, Irwin D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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