Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


<< back


Ratkes, 2/2005

Narrative vignettes
Part 2: On Deconstructing Identity Conclusions

Tapio Malinen

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 these stories.

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 with you?
- 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 something else?

To my surprise, he replied that they had caused good things in his life.

- ”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 you’ve experienced?
- 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 together.


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. Sage.

Lax, W.D. 1996: Narrative, Social Constructionism, and Buddhism. In: Rosen, H. & Kuehlwein,
K.T. (Eds.): Constructing Realities. Meaning-Making Perspectives for
Psychotherapists. Jossey- Bass.

Morgan, A. 2000: What is Narrative Therapy. An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich
Centre Publications.

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.


<< back