1997. The Spice Girls and Hanson were top of the charts. Bill Clinton has just been sworn in for his second term as President of the United States. Titanic had just been released at the box office (for the first time). Me-I was a hard-working post-graduate student in my first (and only!) psychodynamic psychotherapy training programme.
What is psychodynamic psychotherapy? One can find more about it here, but in short psychodynamic psychotherapy is based on the idea that our unconscious minds harbour difficult and painful feelings arising from past traumatic events. We then develop defence mechanisms (such as denial, repression, rationalisation and so forth) in order to stop ourselves from experiencing these feelings. The goal of psychodynamic psychotherapy is to break these defence mechanisms down through a process of gaining insight into them. This then allows us to function in more effective, full ways.
Sound good? Well, it did to me (although to be fair, in 1997 tapered trousers also sounded good). The only problem with the theory however, is that most of what psychodynamic psychotherapy postulates is metaphorical. It does not exist. But I did not know this at the time. At the time I was a passionate psychodynamic psychotherapist. I would carry textbooks with me wherever I went. I would believe in things like self-objects, ego-states and object relations theory. I was participating fully, eagerly and passionately in the world of a therapy that I now believe to be at best misguided. At worst, dangerous.
So, what changed? Well, the light bulb moment came for me one day when I was having lunch with a friend and counsellor. This friend had just read a simple ten page article entitled “The Third Wave”. Written by American solution based therapist Bill O’Hanlon this article changed both my therapy practice and my life. So, what did it say?
In “The Third Wave” O’Hanlon describes the work of Narrative Therapy co-founder David Epston with a client named Marisa.
Born just after the Second World War, Marisa’s father was a family friend, aged 72, who was close to death at the time Marisa was born. One of 21 brothers and sisters, Marisa’s mother and siblings viewed her as a “lower form of life” and bullied her constantly. Sent away to work at 13, Marisa was sexually abused as a teenager. At 18 she emigrated to New Zealand, only to enter an unhappy marriage where for 20 years she was again treated as subservient and lesser than others. Possessing intelligence in abundance, but lacking confidence Marisa thought of herself as a “failure” and deserving little more than the unhappiness she was now familiar with.
Most therapists (and certainly all the psychodynamic psychotherapists I knew) would conceive of work with Marisa as being long-term and demanding. They would probably talk about Marisa’s lack of early attachment with childhood figures, her deficits in core functioning, her wounded self and her ego pathology. Although they would be well meaning, they would likely reproduce the idea (at least in their owns heads) that Marisa was a failure, that she needed help and that she had little knowledge of her own about what she need in life.
Not so David Epston. After listening to Marisa speak about her life in the first session, David wrote a letter to Marisa. In this letter David describes the hardships that Marisa has faced. However, instead of describing Marisa as a victim of these events, David describes Marisa’s resistances to these hardships. Rather than suffering from servitude, David describes how Marisa had responded to the events in her life with courage, strength and self-belief. It is a powerful letter and ends by David describing Marisa as a “heroine who doesn’t know her own heroism.”
David’s letter to Marisa transforms her life. No longer blaming herself for the terrible things that have happened to her, Marisa realises that she can leave her past behind. She understands that the stories she has been telling herself that she is a “failure”, “bad” and “terrible” are just that, stories, and that other stories are available. Having read and re-read David’s letter many times she could no longer deny the presence of her courage, strength and self-belief. Her life was changed forever, as was mine.
Reading “The Third Wave”, and the work of many narrative therapists since, was revolutionary for me. In the space of ten pages, I suddenly understood that therapy could produce effects that I had never dreamed about. Therapy did not need to be painful for clients. It did not need to be long term. Clients did not have to re-live traumatic childhood events. Instead therapy could be simple. It could be powerful. And it could change lives, fast!
I was hooked.
Thus ever since 1997 I have been working to increase my knowledge of Narrative practice and working with my clients to produce effects such as David Epston created with Marisa. While I am not always successful, even 50% of the effects that narrative conversations can produce is worth about 5000% (or more!) of any conversations with clients I had prior to my exposure to Bill O’Hanlon’s article. To paraphrase one famous quote regarding Narrative Therapy: “I finally realised that therapy can be therapeutic. Who knew?”
Bill O’Hanlon’s article can be found here:
I would love to hear what you think about it!