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  • Andrew Scott

The most elegant example of Shifting a Story...

Current Psychotherapies (Corsini & Wedding)

In Current Psychotherapies, Raymond Corsini recounts what he calls 'the most successful and elegant psychotherapy I have ever done.' It also strikes me as the most elegant example of Shifting a Story that I have ever encountered.

At the time, he was working as a psychologist in a prison in New York, and a prisoner who was being released on parole made an appointment to see him. The prisoner said: I did not want to leave until I thanked you for what you had done for me. When I left your office about two years ago, I felt like I was walking on air. [...] I changed form a cushy job in the kitchen to the machine shop where I could learn a trade. I started going to the prison high school and I now had a high school diploma. I took a correspondence course in drafting and now have a drafting job when I leave on Thursday. [...] I now have hope. I know who and what I am. I know I will succeed in life. [...] Thanks for changing my life.

Corsini 'listened to this tale in wonderment' as he had no recollection of ever talking to the man. His records showed that he had given him an IQ test two years before, and that was all. Corsini continues the story:

Are you sure it was me? I finally said. I am not a psychotherapist, and I have no memory of ever having spoken to you. What you are reporting is the sort of personality and behaviour change that takes many years to accomplish. - and I certainly haven't done anything of the kind.

It was you all right, he replied with great conviction, and I will never forget what you said to me. It changed my life.

What was that? I asked.

You told me I had a high IQ, he replied.

With one sentence of five words I had (inadvertently) changed this person's life.

In further discussion, it became clear that the prisoner had an unhelpful story about himself: that he was stupid and crazy - words often applied to him by his family and friends. He knew he was different from those around him, and had concluded that he was both unintelligent and insane. Corsini's feedback offered another explanation, a more helpful (and more true) story was suddenly available that helped him to reinterpret his past and reinvent his future. As Corsini puts it: His interpretation of my five words generated a complete change of self-concept - and consequently a change in both his behaviour and his feelings about himself and others.

It seems to me that all three elements of the ManyStory approach are evidenced here, albeit implicitly (indeed Corsini had no intention of this being any kind of change intervention!) But the prisoner had clearly identified the unhelpful story - believing it as a truth about himself until presented with the feedback that called it into question. That feedback both helped him to recognise it as an inaccurate account of his reality, and adopt a more helpful story. He then diligently set about enriching the plot of that new, more helpful story, with the extraordinary results that he reported to Corsini. As I said at the start, the most elegant example of Shifting a Story that I have ever encountered....

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