Detoxifying Anger: A Narrative Therapy Approach
Dr Robert Rich

Paper presented at a Conference on 'Restoration for Victims of Crime'

9-10 September, 1999

Organised by the Australian Institute of Criminilogy and Victims Referral and Assistance Service


   People can become unable to complete the process of grieving because some ongoing process prevents them from progressing through the natural stages of healing. With the victims of violent crime or their relatives, anger and the desire for vengeance is the most likely bar.

   Narrative Therapy is an ideal tool for attacking this problem, as shown in three case studies.

What is Narrative Therapy?

   There is no such thing as Narrative Therapy. Or, more exactly, there are thousands of Narrative Therapies.
   You see, Narrative Therapy (White & Epston, 1990) is not defined by its techniques, but by a belief system. It's as much a philosophy as a form of therapy. This is why writings about it tend to be so difficult to follow. The best book I know is by Freedman & Coombs (1996), and I struggled with that. And this is why probably no two practitioners of narrative therapy do the same thing. (I have heard Michael White say so, and I agree.)
   Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy (eg., Judith Beck, 1995) has been used to develop a manual for helping people who suffer from depression. No such manual is possible for Narrative Therapy. A mechanical use of 'Narrative techniques' such as externalisation is almost guaranteed to lead to failure.
   And yet, once you get the feel for it, Narrative Therapy is easy to practice, and fun for both client and counsellor. I introduce myself to child clients as a 'Professional Monster Hunter', and of course that is perfectly correct. All you have to do to be a Narrative Therapist is to take a certain ethical stance, and to accept the implications of some well-known facts about human perception and cognition. The techniques grow naturally out of these beliefs.

1. The ethical stance can be expressed in many ways. My favourite form is:

A person never IS a problem
A person HAS a problem

   This has several implications. If everyone acted in accordance with this belief, we would never experience shame or guilt, we would not damage our children with put-downs, and of direct relevance to my topic, we would not assign blame, practise vengeance, poison our existence with anger at another person.
   It is important, however, to distinguish blame from responsibility. Suppose I was an epileptic, and during a fit I broke something precious to you. I was unconscious at the time, so no way can I be blamed. Just the same, I was responsible for causing damage, and in all decency should make suitable restitution. Taking just this attitude, Narrative Therapy does not excuse irresponsibility such as acts of violence committed while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
   If you are violent towards me, your problem is that you haven't controlled your violence, not that you are 'a violent person'. This apparently trivial distinction makes all the difference in the world. If violence is part of your nature, well, you can't do much about it, can you? But if it is a problem you are struggling with (or ought to be struggling with), then you have a chance of beating it.
   Conversely, my problem is not you, but the violence that has come from you. So, I don't need to hate you or fear you. I need to stop you from doing nasty things to me.

2. It is a well-established fact that perception and memory are creative acts (for a summary, see Cade & O'Hanlon, 1993). Six reliable witnesses to the one event will report six different, and often conflicting accounts. Each one has taken the same set of data, and has constructed a different reality out of it.
   Inevitably, my construction of my reality will be influenced by my:

   Sense data, memories and conclusions that are not in line with the reality I have constructed:

   Don't believe me? Get a depressed person to have an enjoyable experience, and see what they say about it afterwards.
   This is fine in most cases. Most people are reasonably happy in the world they have created for themselves, and their friends and relations are not unduly distressed by their actions. A problem arises if my reality makes me unhappy, or leads me to cause problems for others.
   This is where the power of Narrative Therapy emerges. It is 100% certain that you have had experiences that do not fit your current view of the world and yourself within it. By patient and sometimes ingenious questioning, a Narrative Therapist can make you aware of these occurrences. Once you are aware of them, you are forced to create a new reality, one that includes these events as well as the information you previously acknowledged.
   Like other good therapists, Narrative Therapists avoid 'laying down the law', but lead the client by questions. Advice, lecturing, hectoring may get a person to change 'in the head', to accept a new intellectual awareness. Such a change does not lead to a change in feelings or behaviour. Change implemented by oneself does, and it is the only thing that does.
   And that's all there is to Narrative Therapy.

   In my practice, I think and talk the language of Narrative Therapy, but use the techniques of a wide range of approaches. To return to Beck's Cognitive Therapy, he talks about a client's 'automatic thoughts'. Instead, I ask, "What are the thoughts Depression usually pops into your mind?" or "Have you always believed the lie that you are a worthless person?"

Anger as a toxin for a grieving person

   Now we move on to grief.
   When relevant, I tell my clients that grief is like a broken bone. It hurts; in fact there is something wrong with you if it doesn't hurt. It takes time to heal, and the injury often leaves scar tissue. There are distinct stages, but you can get stuck in a stage if something goes wrong, and while you are healing you are vulnerable to a relapse, a new injury.
   On this analogy, anger is like an infection in the wound. It prevents healing.
   It is entirely natural and proper to feel angry at a certain stage of grieving for a loss. It is definitely one of the stages. But sometimes the sufferer hangs on to the anger. The result is invariably unresolved grief. The loss stays a festering wound for years.
   This is a particularly high risk for the victim of a crime, or for a person close to one. Hate and anger can eat up a person, preventing the normal progress of grief. Narrative Therapy is an ideal tool in such situations.


   Continued: Three brief case studies.