Part 1: Re-authoring (and renewing) conversations
Words are the world. So take a careful attitude on how you talk.
Words that fly by us all the time contain whole universes. Our
conversations are sacred: they are where people create themselves.
Some months ago, a mother called me. She wanted to discuss her
son Jaakko, a 12-year-old sixth grader, who refused to go to school
after the autumn break.
”He feels sick just thinking of going to school…
Jaakko got anxiety attacks in the school cafeteria and now he’s
even afraid of seeing our friends with me… He just stays
indoors and feels miserable.”
The parents had contacted a doctor, who had examined the boy
without finding anything specific. The mother had read about “panic
disorder” and wanted to know if her son was suffering from
it. In the beginning of our first meeting, in my office outside
the school, I asked Jaakko and his mother to participate in a
”Let’s assume that our meeting is now over and
Jaakko is happy and thinks that coming here was worth it, something
moved in the direction he wants things to go. What do you think
he would answer, if I then asked him what thing was the most useful
to talk about?”
I asked Jaakko the same question concerning her mother. They
both guessed each other’s expectations and goals. Jaakko
and the mother both thought the most useful thing would be to
discuss “feeling bad”. It appeared in the family every
morning before school.
”How long has this problem been bothering you? Has
it become easier or more difficult with time? What do you remember
about the time before feeling bad? How broad are the effects of
this problem on your life? Does it affect how you feel about yourself?
Has it had an effect on your relationships with your friends?
How does it affect your parents? How much does it weigh on your
mind? What part of your body does it live in and how does it feel
exactly? Do its effects vary or do they stay the same all the
time? Are the effects good, bad, or something else? Why?”
Jaakko told me that, among other things, Feeling Bad made him
feel that there was something wrong inside him and…
”Right now it doesn’t want me to go anywhere,
but two days ago I did go to the kiosk and rented a video.”
”Do you think Feeling Bad threatens something that is very
important for you?”
Jaakko told me that he appreciates ”freedom” and
”independence” in his life, and that Feeling Bad was
stopping him from seeing his friends and doing the things he enjoys
”What do freedom and independence mean for you on a
“Well, they mean that I can go see my friends and no one
is pushing me around.”
“Why is a lifestyle like this important for you?”
“Well, because no one wants to be pushed around, of couse!”
“When you went to the kiosk and rented the video, did Feeling
Bad try to control you or were you able to do things freely at
“I had other things to think about, and everything went
“How did you prepare yourself for this step? What was on
your mind? Did you hesitate? Did you possibly tell yourself something
that helped you in taking this step?”
“I just thought that I wanna watch a video tonight, and
then I went to the kiosk.”
“What skills or qualities did you use in keeping Feeling
Bad away from this situation?”
“I just kept It inside and was strong and powerful and walked
on, and It went away.”
“Was this something new or have courage and inner strength
been in your life before?”
Jaakko told me other stories about situations where Strength
and Courage had helped him do things.
“Is there someone among the people you love who also
possesses these qualities?”
“I think my Dad and Grandpa also have these qualities.”
I then guided Jaakko to change roles with both his father and
his grandfather, and I interviewed him for a moment as his father
and grandfather. Freedom and Independence got their voices heard
in many ways through three generations: in the war story of the
grandfather, the work story of the father, and in Jaakko’s
“What do you think your father and grandfather think
about how you’ve defended freedom and independence against
the tricks of Feeling Bad? What do you think your actions mean
“I think they would be proud and happy about these things.”
“What do you think they’ve seen you do when you were
younger that told them that one day, you would defend your freedom
and independence so bravely?”
Jaakko told me a story of going fishing with his father when
he was five years old. After catching a big perch, he had been
determined to pull the fish out of the water all by himself and
had refused his father’s help. He could still remember the
look of amazement on his father’s face and the powerful
feeling of taming the fish. When we departed, we decided we would
meet again at school in two days, and that his father would come
Jaakko and his father came to see me at school, like we had planned.
This time we talked a lot about the values, hopes, and dreams
of Jaakko’s family, particularly those of the male family
members. Jaakko’s father was proud of his son for being
a link in the long chain that had defended Freedom and Independence
in many different ways. After this meeting, Jaakko came to school
regularly. We decided to send a letter to his grandfather and
tell him what the boy had done; how he had kept the tradition
of his family alive.
During the third meeting, where his father and mother were present,
Jaakko told everyone he was feeling well and had been going to
school for over a week.
- What does this development reveal about you, the legacy
of your family, and the lifestyle you have been defending lately?
What does this reveal about what you want from life? If the
things you value now would support you in the future, how could
As a sign of his independence, Jaakko told me he no longer needs
these sessions. When asked how he would like to name the story,
where the family’s tradition had shown itself in his life,
he replied, “This has been a life-defending story.”
His father promised to call me in two weeks and tell me how things
were going. When the family left my office, I sat quietly for
a long time. Gratitude, joy, and the feeling of amazement at what
it is to be a Finnish man stayed in my body for a long time.
As so often happens in meetings with other people, who come to
us for different reasons, Jaakko taught me something about life.
It would seem that our inner reality is shaped through the meanings
we give to our experiences. They are related in the form of different
stories, which constantly shape our lives and views of ourselves.
Our feeling of self, our identity, is therefore not something
solid or innate, but rather a dynamic, cultural process. Absent,
yet implicit stories are also a part of our lives.
Jaakko also taught me that so-called truth statements about human
beings and the human nature are often formed with the support
of social and historical powers. And what is built in this way
can also always be deconstructed. The best case scenario is that
this deconstruction makes something exotic out of everyday experiences
and challenges the taken for granted ideas that lurk in our social
practices and disguise as the truth or reality. It reveals the
effects that discourses born within the community have on a person’s
identity, and it opens up alternative conclusions about who and
what we are.
Canonized, problem saturated stories that have been constructed
socially and historically are always full of gaps. Unique outcomes
in these stories open gates to the alternative territories of
human life. A rich and thick description of these outcomes also
often contains the knowledge and skills that are needed in facing
one’s problems. Narrative therapy reunites a person with
the beginning: it returns the fossilized experiences, words, values
and dreams to the person’s life and into a living dialogue
with other people’s words, bodies, values, and with loved
ones. Exploring the history of unique outcomes is also, as an
experience, a completely different process than a one-dimensional
or thin pointing at positive things.
Something strange is happening in my mind. Studying narrative
therapy is making me look in the mirror more and more these days.
According to one of the basic assumptions of the narrative practice,
we create our identities all the time, not so much by searching
for the meanings of the prerequisites of our behaviour, but by
deconstructing the formalities, through which we examine and categorize
our experiences. The union of knowledge and power is a part of
all “self techniques”, and this is also true of narrative
therapy. While possessing my new practice, I am currently pondering
on this question: does the discourse I use not become a part of
the therapy process, too? I cannot escape myself or my part in
constructing that process, for my questions are never neutral.
Like all other practices, the interview maps of narrative therapy
also consists of what Stephen Madigan calls “the unholy
trinity of power, knowledge and rhetoric.”
So what do my new questions reveal about the direction my work
has had up to now? What is their meaning? Why do I like these
questions? What am I searching for while asking them? What social
discourse is most supported by my questions? Do I ever –
in my excitement – question my work while making these questions?
Where do these questions about these questions, which also create
the silence I need to raise my voice, actually come from?
Madigan, S. 1998: The Politics of Identity.
In: Madigan, S. & Law, I. (Eds.): Praxis. Situating
Discourse, Feminism & Politics in Narrative Therapies. Yaletown
Morgan, A. 2000: What is Narrative Therapy?
An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. 1995: The Narrative Perspective in
Therapy. In: White, M.: Re-Authoring Lives:
Interviews & Essays. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. 1992: Deconstruction and Therapy.
In: Epston, D. & White, M.: Experience,
Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination. Dulwich Centre Publications.