Part 2: On Deconstructing Identity Conclusions
What is a human being? Who am I? What is my deepest essence?
How can I become liberated from the constraints barring
my growth? How can I become my real self? In the 1970’s
and 1980’s these were burning questions for my professional
history. They still are. But today they are seen and given meaning
from a very different perspective.
As a young psychologist I passionately explored – like
others in my generation – many different practices of the
so-called humanistic psychology. These colorful “onion-peeling
techniques” or “inner construction projects”
with their birth and death experiences focused on finding and
revealing a person’s “true” nature. At the time,
I thought that the most important mission in my work would be
to help people recognize and remove inner constraints in order
to find a “self-expressing”, “mature”
and “authentic” self. This “real self”
had very different structures depending on the orientation I was
using at any given time.
The idea that our displays of life are manifest expressions of
different elements, forces or deep essences beneath our skins
or echoes of the core of our personality, our ”selves”,
would come to be called structuralism one day. At the time I did
not know that. I was equally unaware that there were also other
possible views on the subject.
The self as a property
Science as a way of producing knowledge is not separated from
the values of the culture: the so-called scientific view of the
world is constantly changing. The content of concepts such as
“human nature” or the ”self” has developed
differently in different cultures. With the liberalist theory
of society that emphasizes personal property, psychology also
created the idea that “self” is the expression of
an inner and personal property, and that different “digging
and drilling techniques” can bring out the resources of
this property. “The truth” about human nature became
universal and the psychotherapist became the expert-technologist.
It was the psychotherapist who, from the point of view of the
western scientific and social discourse, defined people’s
problems as consequences of repressed or oppressive inner forces
corrupting their true essence.
Ideas about so-called human nature have not always been similar.
Essential ideas about identity are relatively young even in the
western culture. An Australian aboriginal thinks he or she gets
his or her power from his or her forefathers. They constantly
walk beside him or her, holding his or her hand and helping him
or her with everyday problems. There are also many other cultures
where life and identity are understood in a non-essential way.
Resources are not the inner property of the individual or human
nature. They are not found in “essences” or “elements”
that form the person’s “core”, the self. They
are available for everyone in a non-dualistic connection or unity,
a network formed by the nature, the cosmos, and people born through
different generations, be they alive or dead.
As a solution-focused therapist, I am used to asking my clients
who-, what-, where-, and when-questions. It feels natural for
me, because these questions are derived from a dualistic metaphor
that is very familiar to western people. In this metaphor, a person’s
identity is defined through so-called inner categories (motives,
needs, resources, qualities, drives, skills, deficiences). I have
not given a lot of thought to the fact that the applause or positive
feedback, which is customary in the solution-focused approach,
can also be normative judgement coming from the outside. As a
result, identity conclusions will remain very thin and the alternative
story remains one-dimensional. In a truly appreciative communication,
a comment like, “Wow! What you did was really great!”
always requires an accompanying question, “What makes you
think that what Mikko did was great in his opinion?”
The fountain of meanings
The narrative approach is concerned with, besides the inner states
of consciousness, the so-called intentional states of the consciousness.
We constitute our psychological and social world, our own “reality”,
through the meanings that we give to our relationships and the
perceptions other people have of us. The meanings are related
through different stories, which are in connection with social,
cultural, economic and political macro stories. Values, dreams,
principles, commitments, and intentions have a central place in
In post-structuralist thinking, identity is seen as a continuing
process that is formed in the context of social meanings. We construct
our own “reality” in relation to other people by giving
and receiving different meanings for our experiences. The “me”
is formed each moment through interaction and the story that it
forms. One metaphor for this process is a fountain, which is reformed
each moment by the falling drops, their interrelations and the
ones which the fountain has at any given moment.
It is extremely interesting to realize how the ponderings related
to the narrative approach resemble the ideas of the ”self”
and ”ego” of old wisdom traditions. Buddha might have
been the first deconstructionist, when he argued that a reality
formed by separate and unchanging objects is an illusion of the
mind. There is no constant and unchanging “me”. The
“self” has no innate nature: it is, in this sense,
empty (anatta). Phenomena receive their meaning as a part of a
larger unity, just like a a swirl in a current only exists as
a part of the water masses surrounding it.
What if the roads lead nowhere? What if the world already is
completely free all the time? Only our experience of it is problematic.
Unpacking worrying and patience
”I could call it The Worry”, replied 13-year-old
Niko, when we were negotiating an experience near name for the
problem that had brought him to see a psychologist. The parents
of the family had divorced a couple of months earlier. Niko had
stayed with his father in their old home, while his two older
sisters had moved elsewhere with their mother. His father had
called me asking for a meeting, because “I think Niko is
depressed about all that’s been going on in our family.”
- How long has The Worry been in your life?
- When did it appear?
- Has It been the same all along, or do its effects vary?
- How broad are Its effects on your life?
- Does It only stay at home, or does It also come to school
- What has It made you think about yourself?
- Where in your body does It live and how does It feel exactly?
- What was your life like before It?
Niko told me that the Worry had given him tears. It had made
it harder to concentrate at school. Sometimes It had stopped him
from sleeping. It had also affected his relationship with his
mother and his friends. Niko was especially concerned about his
mother, her mental health and financial situation.
After mapping the history and effects of the problem, I asked
Niko to evaluate,
- Are these effects on your life pleasant, unpleasant or
To my surprise, he replied that they had caused good things in
- ”Why?” ”Well, because The Worry is
there, I know I care about my mother, and she knows it too.”
Thus, through externalizing conversations, we unpacked some
negative identity conclusions Niko had brought into our meeting.
Furthermore, he told me that the Worry does not like it when the
matter is discussed outside the family. It also does not like
tears or the observation that Mom does not cry as much anymore
and is not as concerned as before.
When we met for a second time, Niko told me he was feeling better,
sleeping more, felt more energetic, and was able to concentrate
better at school. I asked him how he explains the fact that he
was able to make the Worry lose power and gain more himself. Niko
replied, “I think it’s because of patience.”
The questions I then asked him are one way of deconstructing the
identity conclusions connected with the concept “patience”
and constructing the alternative story to be as thick as possible.
- When your patience is most prominent, what kind of impact
does it have on what you do?
- How does it affect your way to be?
- What does it enable you to do in your relationships with other
people, especially with your mother?
- How would you like to use patience in your life?
- What does this tell you about what you value in life?
- How have you kept your contact with patience during all that
- Has your patience appeared earlier in your life?
- What hopes or dreams are related to the things that matter
to you in life?
- When you were younger, what things did you realize you could
think or do, things that already back then told you that you
could use patience in the future?
- Which one of your loved ones would be the least surprised
to hear what you have done?
- What would he or she tell me about what kind of person you
are and what you value the most?
- What do you think he or she thinks about what you have done?
- If your values and beliefs would support you in the future,
how would you know it?
Niko told me that he wants to use his patience in the future
for learning new things, such as new languages. This would be
important, because he values all the possibilities that studying
languages can open in life. When asked what dreams this value
is connected to, Niko told me he wants to become a world famous
golf player one day, and the skill of patience would serve him
very well in this endeavour. What kind of lifestyle did this dream
represent for him? He replied that he was prepared to strive for
a happy life and everything that is included in it.
In a re-membering conversation, Niko again joined his father
and grandfather in the club of his life, where patience had been
respected and valued through several generations.
I will continue to see Niko and am looking forward to our conversations
in this intentional and multi-storied space that we have opened
Words receive their power in the situation in which they are
spoken or written. They have no power in themselves. The words
written here were probably born when my world met the words of
Michael, Alice, Niko, Timo, and many others. I am not sure who
created them and where they were born. I only know that they are
alive, from that experience of connection, openness, curiosity
and unpredictability that they evoke in me.
Our identifications always control us in some way. When I acknowledge
that even my professional identity is the result of a historical
and social process, I can today – if I wish to do so –
go beyond what has been given me. I can deconstruct the thin conclusions
related to my life and work and create my personal and professional
history again instead of only “reminiscing” it.
Combs, G. & Freedman, J. 2004: A Poststructuralist
Approach to Narrative Work. In: Angus,
L.E & McLeod, J.(Eds.): The Handbook of Narrative and Psychotherapy.
Lax, W.D. 1996: Narrative, Social Constructionism,
and Buddhism. In: Rosen, H. & Kuehlwein,
K.T. (Eds.): Constructing Realities. Meaning-Making Perspectives
Psychotherapists. Jossey- Bass.
Morgan, A. 2000: What is Narrative Therapy. An
easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich
Thomas, L. 2002: Poststructuralism and therapy
– what´s it all about? The International Journal of
Narrative Therapy and Community Work. No. 2, Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. 2001: Narrative Practice and the unpacking
of identity conclusions. Gecko, No.1.