Page 3

By Eric Greenleaf PhD & Angela Wu MFT

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 22 seconds.

Chapter One

Dear Dr. Greenleaf,

This is Angela from your class at MRI. I have a situation at home and I wanted to write to you because I sense you may be able to help me deal with it by using a story for the solution.

This morning my 3 ½-year-old son walked quietly into my room with his favorite stuffed pink pig and comforting purple blanket. Instead of his normal singing, shouting, and jumping in my bed, he looked tired and sad and crawled under my blanket to cuddle with me. I asked him, “Did you have a good night’s sleep?” He was solemn and I saw the thousand-mile distant stare in his big brown eyes. He had that stare when he was in a trance.

After a while, he turned to me, and I saw tears running down his cheeks. I kissed him and dried his tears.

He looked at me and said, “Mommy, I want (you) to read books (to me) about death. I do not under- stand death.”

I asked him, “What do you know about death?”

“Mommy, are you going to be old?”

“Yes, I will be old,” I said. “We all grow up and grow old, and it’s fun to grow up.” “When I grow up, then you will be old and die?” he asked.

“When you grow up, I will still be here to love you,” I replied.

“Mommy, I do not want you to be old, so I won’t grow up and you can always take care of me.”

“Bobby, I will always love you and take care of you whenever you need,” I said. No matter how big we are, we always need people to take care of us at times. We all take care of each other.”

“But Mommy, I don’t want you die, so I won’t grow up.”

“Bobby, it is so much fun to grow up. You can drive cars (he loves cars), and you can go out at night (he likes to play outside at night). And, I am still here to love you,” I told him.

Dr. Greenleaf, I cannot let this conversation with my son continue, as I am afraid I will be trapped with him on the topic of death. I try to distract him with toys and reading books, but what’s next? Is he going to need a story about death so he can feel happy about growing up?

Warmly, Angela

Chapter Two

I called Angela and told her that I didn’t know what she should say to her son, but I do know what I told my grandson when he was about the same age:

“Grandpa, you’re old!” “Yes, I am.”

“And you’re going to die.”

“Yes, I am. But I intend to live a long time. I want to live until I’m 100 years old.”

Chapter Three

Dear Dr. Eric,

Thank you for calling. The story of you and your grandson is very touching and loving, especially when it was told in your soothing voice.

Bobby and I have had more conversations about death and growing up, and he’s decided that if he doesn’t grow up, then I won’t die. He has not wanted to eat or sleep by himself.

“Mommy, feed me, I am a baby.” “Mommy, hold me. Hold me like a baby.”

“Mommy, I just want to be your little boy. I don’t want to be bigger than you.”

“Of course you are always my little boy, and I always love you,” I told him.

Last night at bedtime, I adopted your story of living to the age of 100, and then we started to count to 100.

“How big is 100?” Bobby asked. “Very  big  number…let’s count,” I said.

“One, two, three,” he counted with enthusiasm. He is proud that he can now count to 30.

“There are many more numbers after 30; let’s count to 100,” I said.

So he followed me, counting, and finally he realized that 100 is a very big number. It took him forever to count, and before he could finish, he fell asleep.

This morning, Bobby came to my bed.

“Mommy, I am very happy!” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because you love me,” he said.

Take care, Angela

Chapter Four


What a beautiful outcome for you and your son. I am so grateful that you called and shared your story with me. Waiting while Bobby found his own solution with the help of stories and conversation with you was just right.

Best, Eric

Commentary by John M. Dyckman, Ph.D.

It’s pleasing to offer comments; explanation is harder, and, as anyone who has ever tried to “explain” a joke knows, not so useful. A good story, like a good joke, draws power from creative ambiguity and is a pleasing departure from the ordinary or the expected. It touches the part of us we call “the unconscious”.

The first story the loving mother tells her son to reassure him does not work. In the childʼs view, the logic is:

If I don’t grow up, then mom will not be old; and if mom is not old, she will not die. No appeal to maternal love, or to the competences that come with growing up are successful for the mother in calming her son’s fears. So much for attempts to “correct” emotional logic.

Eric’s story is a parallel musing. He allies with the mother in an adult reaction to a child’s discovery of the connection between aging and death. Eric blurs the line between intention (“I intend to live a long time…until I’m 100 years old”) and reality–that he, or any parent, will live to the age of 100. This very confusion of desire and outcome is one of the typical characteristics of thought of 3 to 5-year-olds (see Fraiberg’s The Magic Years, 1959).

The mother brilliantly uses her son’s pride in his ability to count to get him to count to 100–which is such a high number that he is happily asleep long before he can get there. He awakes secure in his mother’s love, and, if we are to explain, with a new syllogism: One-hundred is old; mom is not 100, so I can grow up. But it would be a mistake to point this out to him, or to do more than enjoy the moment of happiness.

We all tell stories, and it is important to note that some stories have more satisfactory outcomes than others. People enjoy each other’s stories, especially when they feel that their own story has been accepted. Rather than challenging the logic of a story, we can find a way to utilize its elements in some new and hopeful combination.

By Steve Andreas, M.A. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 52 seconds.

“Sally” hated a man she had once admired because as it turned out, he hated women, and had repeatedly accused her and criticized her in front of others. She came to realize she couldn’t trust him; felt she couldn’t defend herself; and felt unsafe around him. They both lived in the same small town, and although she tried to avoid him, inevitably there were times when their paths crossed. Whenever she saw him, she felt tightness in her chest, and intense anger and disgust—“almost on the verge of tears.”

I asked her to think of someone she had hated in the past, but now felt okay about. Then I asked her to see her image of that person, and her image of the man she still hated at the same  time, compare them, and notice the differences in her internal experience. The image of the man she hated was straight in front of her, about two or three feet away. The image was of his upper torso and face–“big, clear, and in vivid color.”

The image of the person she had hated in the past was about 15 feet away, 20 degrees to her left and full body–“faded, foggy, in muted color.” There was no sound with either image, but she felt the image of the man she hated “held a quiet menacing anger.”

I asked her to take the image of the man she hated, allow it to move to 15 feet away, become faded, foggy, and in muted color, and then shift to the side until it was about 20 degrees to her left. When I asked her how she felt with the image in this new position, she said it was somewhat better, but her feelings of anger “dragged along with the image”–an indication this was not an appropriate change for her. I thought there might be something about her resource experience that didn’t quite fit, so I asked her about the person whom she had once felt anger toward, but now felt okay about.

“What was it about that person that allowed you to let go of your anger?” I inquired. She said she had come to care for him and trust him. Then I asked, “It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to care for and trust the man you still hate, would it?” She heartily agreed. This told me we needed to find a somewhat different resource memory.

“Think of someone you once hated, but were able to let go of your anger, and you still don’t care for him or trust him,” I said. When she paused thoughtfully, I said half-jokingly, “Surely there must have been at least one or two of those.” She laughingly agreed, and thought of someone. This person was again about 15 feet away from her, and also faded, foggy, and in muted color, but the location was straight ahead of her, down about 30 degrees from the horizon.

When I asked her to move the image of the man she hated into this position, and allow it to become faded, foggy, and in muted color, she  immediately felt the tension in her chest release; she could breathe easily, and her anger drained away completely. When I asked her to imagine seeing him in some likely place in her town, she  reported,    “My    internal    reaction is, ‘Whatever; he’s over there; it’s okay.’ I don’t want to have anything to do with him, but I don’t have that reaction I used to have. This feels better.”

Then I asked her to imagine several other scenarios in different locations in her town where she might encounter him, and simply notice her reaction. These rehearsals both tested her new response, and also programmed it in, so it would be automatic when she encountered him in the real world. She had no significant emotional reaction to any of these, so I asked her to send me a follow-up email after she had actually seen the man she hated.

About three weeks later, Sally emailed me: “I saw him today! It used to be that if I saw him from a distance I would get a sudden adrenaline rush, followed by the type of anger where you can’t think straight, and then I would ruminate about it for 10 or 15 minutes. Today I glanced up, saw him, had the thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t even want to talk to him,’ so I looked in the other direction and kept walking. There was a tiny blip of irritation and then I was over it in about four seconds, and I didn’t even think about it again until now when I thought about emailing you. That’s fantastic! Thank you”

By, Michael Hoyt, Ph.D. & Michele Ritterman, Ph.D. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 17 seconds.

During the December 2011 International Congress, we took a taxi to visit the Erickson home and on our way had a conversation with our driver. At first it was pleasant chitchat, but then we engaged on a deeper level and asked the driver how he came to live in Phoenix. He told us about his unhappy divorce–how several years earlier his wife, who he thought was the love of his life, had abandoned him in order to take a job in another state. When he admitted he felt “puzzled and sucker punched” the atmosphere in the taxi became tense and quiet.

Michele asked the driver if he knew who Lenny Bruce was. He did not. She then told a story in which a waiter in a Chinese restaurant who had served Lenny and his girlfriend for years asked Lenny one night, “Where’s momma?” And the waiter also raved about her. When Lenny replied that she had left him, the waiter said, “Oh, well, you’re better off without her.” Our driver chuckled a bit, but said he was still grieving his loss.

As we were driving, we saw Squaw Peak Mountain in the distance. Michele asked our driver if he had ever climbed the mountain and he said, “No.” Sensing he would never do it on his own initiative, she recommended he climb just for the view–an idea he strongly rejected. (In brief therapy, always offer an initial suggestion that can be rejected.)

As we were getting closer to the freeway exit Michelle took advantage of the moment and asked, “Have you heard the one about the taxi driver?”

“No,” our driver predictably answered.

“Well,” she continued, “he was driving along when a cop pulled him over. The taxi driver begged the cop, ‘Please don’t give me a ticket,’ and the cop said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you can tell me a good story, I’ll let you go.’”

“The taxi driver replied, ‘My wife ran off with a cop. When I saw you, I got scared you were him and you were bringing her back!’”

Now our driver laughed wholeheartedly. The rejection he had felt from his wife switched to his relief. Despite the pain over losing her, he realized that he might not even want her back.

When we got to the Erickson home and Michael was paying the fare, the driver said, “I’m going to remember that story,” and laughed again. Michael smiled and gave him a $10 tip to remember us and the joke.

As Dr. Erickson so wisely taught us, context and sequence are important for a brief intervention to have a maximal chance to take hold.

After a session of brief therapy in a taxi, we visited the Erickson home, and it was lovely.