Miller Mair


PART ONE: Three Stories

1. On Myself: a series of statements

2. On Changes in the Psychotherapy Section

3. On changes in the NHS [National Health Service]

PART TWO: A Story-Telling Approach to Psychology

1. Assumptions about psychology and psychotherapy

2. Assumptions about ourselves

3. Assumptions about story telling

4. More about stories and the stories I have already told

Concluding Comments



I feel honoured to be making this presentation as Chairperson for 1988/89 of the renamed, redefined and reinvigorated Psychotherapy Section of the British Psychological Society. At this time of change for the Section it seems worthwhile to focus some attention on other more disorienting changes in our society which affect most of us as persons and challenge us as psychologists to question how we are to understand what is going on around us and through us.

What I want to say is in two parts. In part one I'll tell three stories ('On Myself', 'On Changes in the Psychotherapy Section', and 'On Changes in the NHS'). In part two I'll try to sketch something of an approach to psychology which has grown out of my psychotherapeutic experience. It is a story telling approach which attends more to our 'acts of telling' than to particular methods by which we 'get the facts straight' (Mair, 1988a, 1988b). My hope is that it will encourage others towards experiments in telling whereby we may come to know something of what would otherwise shape us in silence.


PART ONE: Three Stories

1. On Myself: a series of statements

Unless I keep close in to myself in what I have to say it will not work.

In speaking of 'psychology' and 'a changing world' it is my psychology and my changing world that I am speaking of and from.

I do not want to stand with either of the traditional ‘Big Psychological Parties’, but have fought all along to make other smaller parties possible, and also for a redefinition of basic issues which neither the 'Behavioural/empirical' nor the 'Psychoanalytic/psychodynamic' groups seem to have had interest in examining.

I am neither satisfied with the notion of 'scientific psychology' (though I value its puritan attempts at rigour) nor the 'psychodynamic' underworld (though valuing its subtlety). I need to chart a course of my own which has to find its relationships with others rather than have these given by group allegiance.

I do not live in a world where I accept a shape that has already been given. I have to find it and make it for myself. We are too ready, perhaps, to wed ourselves to visions which keep us safe from personal discovery.

I do what I do and seek what I seek because I need to. I do not do it as an abstracted intellectual judgement. It is not an even option which makes you 'choose' a Freudian, a Behavioural, a Kellian or any other approach. We are located somewhere, with certain strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.

What am I doing here as Chairperson of the Psychotherapy Section? I do not feel I really belong in this traditionally psychodynamic Section of the British Psychological Society. Certainly amongst those who have influenced me are psychoanalytic writers of distinction, including David Bakan, Herbert Fingarette and Alice Miller. Freud never specially attracted me (though the representation of some of his concepts in a more natural language, by Bettleheim (1985), was highly appealing).

I am not an altogether comfortable ally of the psychodynamic psychologist. There is a willingness to believe what I cannot believe, a readiness to abandon doubt in ways I cannot.

It is a personal involvement and personal responsibility that I seek so that we each stand for what we know, and then seek ways of testing what we can, contesting what we need to, acting from and on what serves our purposes and speaks most of and to our experience.

I have come to have a general and basic concern with the profound importance of metaphor, not a willingness to be tied down to particular metaphors as sacred cows.

I have a concern for a community perspective on the self, not just a family or bodily perspective.

I have a concern with feeling as essential to knowing, but not as a category to be distinguished routinely from thinking and doing. My use of 'feeling' is as an activity, more tacit than focal in our movement towards understanding.

I believe we are on a long journey to know and to ignore, and we must try not to be too blinded by local or more recent 'achievements'. We need a lively and courageous concern with the cultural webs and practices which shape us and give us whatever freedoms we enjoy.

I am concerned to try to listen and tell. In this I seek a psychological understanding which is more varied than the monochrome world of standard psychology, while not wishing to be sucked into any particular sub-cultural club. It is a story telling psychology that I seek which is concerned with rhetoric and value.

2. On Changes in the Psychotherapy Section

Since the 'Medical Section' was founded, much has changed in psychology and in the world. So also since the name was extended to include 'Psychotherapy'. There has been such growth of interest in psychological therapy (including psychotherapy) by psychologists and many others. The need for a Section to represent and protect the interests of a largely psychodynamic group of influential 'founding fathers' has gone. The dangers and battles are different now, though not unfamiliar.

In general, though no great love is lost, it may be that 'Psychology' and 'Psychotherapy' are not quite so much like oil and water as before. The heat has gone from the clash between a 'scientific-behavioural-operationalism' and a 'psychodynamic-psychotherapy-based-discipline'. It is not that there have been essential comings together at a conceptual level, but various practical accommodations have been made. Now the relationship is more palatable, more like oil and vinegar, which adds some piquancy to our psychological diet from time to time.

Psychotherapy itself (or its-selves) is no longer quite the embattled and endangered species it was. While it is still not fully accepted it is remarkably widespread, even if in forms that the 'old guard' would not approve. Counselling is being sought and valued more highly than ever before, often being converted into packages of skills for use with managers, prisoners, patients and policemen.

It may indeed be time to question what is happening, to accept the reality of a psychotherapeutic/psychological presence in many contexts of life, and to ask 'What are we up to? What is going on? What are we doing?'

One of the good things (for me) in the old title of the Section (the 'Medical Psychology and Psychotherapy Section') was the combination of ‘psychology’ with ‘psychotherapy’. Within the British Psychological Society the pursuit of psychological knowledge and understanding should be primary.

In the renewed Section only the term 'Psychotherapy' remains. This is because the idea of psychology has been 'kicked upstairs’. Psychotherapy is to be seen as essentially psychological and its contributions to the emerging ‘psychology of human experience and conduct' is what we are to be primarily concerned with here.

In and around psychology there have also been changes. There have been changes in what we understand science to be, what we think of knowing and the place of language in that (no longer as the 'dress of thought' but more like the 'embodiment of being').

We in the Psychotherapy Section are a place where many roads to knowing cross. We are not a self-contained pocket of the British Psychological Society or society at large. There are many worlds passing through where we variously stand. We have to make some moving sense of where and what we are in this perplexing world of change and transition, criss-cross lines of influence and contradiction.

3. On changes in the NHS [National Health Service]

In the 'new management' within the NHS a hustle is going on. Many are being hustled into a place and a frame of mind in which psychological care is disqualified and made invisible. It is not that all care is abandoned but everything is being shaped by a market mentality so that care is attached to manipulation.

A moral issue of great importance is embedded here. What is to be assumed as of central value in psychological care? What kind of relationship do we want (and perhaps need) to reach towards?

A psychology that sells out to ‘market economy' relationships as its central valuation is surely selling people short. It is not that some relationships should not be 'marketable' but the pressure towards disintegrating any sense of a more generous basis of relationship is widely damaging.

I am increasingly unhappy about the way in which more personal issues in psychology are being sacrificed on the alter of managerial demands and the ongoing mixture of cruelty and fear. There is such a pressure towards 'packaging' people, feelings, activities, and largely ignoring all that is inchoate. So much of the present packaging of 'skills' concerning human ‘management’ is frighteningly assertive and sold with scandalously premature confidence as worthwhile knowledge. It is this present gaderene rush towards 'expert certainties' which fills me with horror. It is this that I'd want to banish from our personal approaches to psychological care.

The present managerial 'revolution' in the NHS has propagated its influence with terrible ease. Almost overnight the new system has pushed aside whatever values many of us thought we had.

A public space for psychological concerns needs to be created to defend the private space we seek still to enter in psychotherapy. In the new managerial world it is likely that private space will have to justify itself to a hostile outside world so fully that little will be left. In seeking a public psychological space we may be seeking for public recognition of the importance of psychological care, rather than leaving it as a preserve of the traditionally 'soft' and ‘private’ psychotherapeutic world.

It may be that unless we manage to create a public space for psychological debate concerning matters of personal, moral and imaginative importance then we will not be able to defend private space either. We are in danger of being left in the grip of the most mechanical, rationed and marketed versions of therapeutic manipulation (whether in various forms of cognitive therapies, counselling or skills training packages).

I cannot see any clear way forward. Perhaps this is related directly to not sensing anywhere to be or to stand. The world in which I previously struggled to live has subtly been changing and now the world is quite unfamiliar. I am left knowing even less than before who I am or what I am about or what I 'should' be trying to do. I can't even describe (conjure up in words) what my world is now seeming to require. I feel less free.

It is so difficult to see and say what is being threatened in the new age of 'objectives' and 'evaluations'. Perhaps this suggests there was nothing there that was really worthy of preservation. Is it possible that I retain only a longing for privacy and undisciplined vagueness?

The 'softies' amongst us may find that our existence is undermined more thoroughly since our concern with the intangible, the unsayable, the imprecise, the possible and the creative are directly disparaged by those who previously might sometimes have neglected if they had not necessarily supported them. It seems likely that doubt, uncertainty, legitimate ambiguity will all be suppressed in the belief that things are so much better, clearer, stronger, firmer, bolder, tougher, truer if we banish all possibility of the uncertain. It is the whole realm of proper ignorance and indefiniteness that is being banished. We are to take the world as hard and clear. We are to act with positive decision and definitive enumeration. We are to believe that what is made to seem definite is all that is important. What is uncertain is to be seen as a temporary failure which better management methods will eliminate.

In the current situation I find myself somehow deprived of my 'old enemy' of objectivity, as a powerful political force sweeps all basic questioning and much evidence aside. Instead of being any longer accompanied by this 'older brother' I could trust and legitimately fight (and have my existence validated in part by his continuing and sustaining presence), I now find that much of what this brother (objectivity) stood for is similarly being rejected in the pursuit of partisan gains. I now seek to accompany that old enemy against much that is being thrust through the heart of a humane, if weary and weakened, attempt at social justice.

Choose your enemies well since they shape the heights and depths of your own life. Unworthy enemies make us unworthy too. It is necessary to begin to take the measure of what we must now oppose. We have to re-deploy our forces. Old enemies will become allies and others will become liabilities when the dangers come in quite different forms and from different directions.

Opposition to change as a retreat into 'blimpism' is no use. What is new has to be given its chance, but it does not have a right to be regarded as a fresh new world without comparison.

In the 'new' world there is a hardness of categories, a crudity of terms, a slickness of action, a disrespect for thoughtful consideration, a disregard for what is genuinely ambiguous. It is not that the old world valued the opposites of these, far from it, but some of them had some place of opposition which is now obscured.

Value has been converted into ‘value for money’. Quality has been bundled into quantitative packages which have political rather than moral or aesthetic referents.

A culture should be judged by the way it values what is - for itself alone - rather than putting everything up for sale.


PART TWO: A Story-Telling Approach to Psychology

My aim here is to focus attention on 'telling' rather than 'fact finding'. This theme will be sketched in four main sections.

1. Assumptions about psychology and psychotherapy

My 'basic bet' is that there is more chance of gaining worthwhile psychological knowledge and understanding through something like the caring and continuing relationships involved in psychotherapy than in the brief, impersonal, uninvolved, sometimes deceiving and distanced relationships in formal experiments, in questionnaire studies or statistical analyses. In saying this, however, I want to stress that it is not an either/or issue here or in any of what follows.

The study of psychotherapy has been bedevilled by warring schools and factions. Divisions in theory and practice have divided us more than they should. Our similarities (if we can grasp some of them) should help us to use our differences towards more constructive ends.

I believe that as we look from psychotherapy towards a psychology of human experience and conduct we have unique strengths which have scarcely yet been recognised. With our various involvements in psychotherapy we should be able to achieve much more than a back-water place of recognition in psychology.

We have something special to contribute.

2. Assumptions about ourselves

We seem to live, generally and within much of psychology, with a common-sense assumption that we are separated observers who can stand at a distance from the world around us and evaluate it in dispassionate ways. I believe this assumption is completely wrong.

Rather than being separate blobs of being we are totally immersed in our culture, place and times. We are historical, local, culture bound. We are all 'interested parties'. We have no privileged positions from which to look and say. We are located participants, not independent observers.

We are language bound, shaped and formed in language and language use. It existed before we did and gives us the means of saying and thinking, and therefore of remaining blind and incapable too. There is no dispassionate position of impartiality (though this must not lead us to dispense with attempts at relative impartiality).

We are story bound. We are born into ongoing stories of many kinds. Our lives are shaped in stories. Mostly we act our given and unrecognised parts in stories which live us more than we live them. We tell each other stories of the stories we live, from childhood onwards.

In psychotherapy, as in every aspect of our lives, we listen and tell. We create contexts and offer elaborated languages and images within which stories can be told, yarns can be spun, which 'knit up the ravelled sleeve of care' as comfortingly as sleep.

We also know more than we can say. We are not ignorant and psychologically naive till the blessings of science are brought to us from the psychological laboratory. We are more or less competent beings, local ‘experts’ in our corner of society and culture, its stories, beliefs and practices.

Most of this knowing is enacted and lived out rather than attended to with focal awareness. Because of this a major task of psychology is to help us to learn something of what we already do. Our knowing is mostly 'knowing in the doing' and we do not initially know what we know.

3. Assumptions about story telling

Our worlds are structured in metaphor and images. We can only tell stories from conjured images of what we suppose we are and what we suppose we know, within the language and assumptions of our place and time.

Every telling (whether in psychotherapy, science, the market place or the lovers bed) is a composition with personal intentions. Every telling is partial, suffused with personal interest.

Every telling has to be in some manner and style. Even when we seek to be plain and blunt we are using stylistic devices for signifying plainness and bluntness.

Science has tried to be 'the story to end all stories’, or a story trying its hardest not to seem like a story at all, but the way things are. Every group has its own sanctioned ways of telling for different purposes and contexts, its ways of listening, ways of evaluating. The 'hard' approaches to science have their own ways of telling set up in such a way as to seem and claim to be above and separate from mere telling, beyond any contamination in the telling itself.

But stories are partial and political. We all have vested interests in our psychological and other tellings.

In stories it is the telling which is telling. Words and all other forms of telling are not obedient containers of meaning. They are active participants too, each with its vested social and historical interests, seeking to lead us off towards what they want to say.

Telling is a major means by which we inquire. In telling we ask as well as state or play. Telling is not a second class citizen in relation to the procedures of data collection. Telling is not just a messenger of thought and knowledge. It is itself active in creating what and how we know and do not know.

4. More about stories and the stories I have already told

First, all stories and tellings are conversational and contextual.

There are always listeners and tellers, and listeners within the tellers and listeners within the listeners. What is told and how it is told is shaped by the occasion, the conventions and the dangers of the moment.

Consider this in relation to the story of myself with which I began. I was not feeling comfortable or confident enough of my position in the eyes of my potential audience and so made of myself a collage of statements without qualification, leaving many gaps, not seeking a cohering pattern. What I presented were hints, fragments, leaving much unsaid and much said in ways that would have been different for a different time and place.

What I can say here is created between us. You, the listeners and the readers, have been with me for months as I've felt the anxiety of this presentation. In preparing to address the audience of my imagination I have been left to cope with my own demons and giants, a world which is not necessarily at odds with the world 'as it is'.

In psychotherapy we all know that we create and sustain (destroy and banish) possibilities of telling and hearing. This knowledge can be stated in a more general form. We create realities in the forms of relationship, or conversational practices, we undertake. To explore the possibilities of gentleness we have to be gentle with each other. If we are harsh we create only what is amongst the possibilities and realities of harshness.

The scientist in his experiments also creates realities (and banishes others) in the kinds of conversational practices he engages in. No wonder it is difficult to draw implications from one realm of psychological discourse to another. They are speaking of and from different forms of reality, not just using different methods in a common world.

As psychotherapists we are professional conversationalists, not just speaking together in words, but creating habitations for the protection, nourishment and growth (or diminishment) of forms of human life. It is these forms of life, unique in some respects in every conversational context, that we need to conjure into stories to tell of who we suppose we are and what we suppose we are involved within.

Second, stories tell of selves and worlds, of selfworlds.

All stories are implicated in 'selfworlds', even when they seem to be focused on self or world. The choice of excluding self reference is a device to achieve ends. In any story you can (and sometimes must) look in both directions, towards what is implied for both self and world, or for selfworld relations. All this is, in some respects, familiar to the psychotherapist.

In my story of myself, a world of danger is implied. It is this world which helped to shape both what and how I said what I did, and left unsaid what I did. It is a world of threatening disparagement which takes over unless you find where you stand and learn to stand in such a way that it cannot so easily damage or destroy you. It is not a cosy or an easy world.

In my story of the NHS world, self is implied. In my sense of danger from the crass, the simplistic, the brutal and the forceful, my timidity and vulnerability can be seen. I am not brave and have to work hard to brace myself toward a fight.

In my story of the Section a habitable place is worked towards (a possible 'psychology of experience and conduct') wherein I can find and claim a justification of a kind for being where I am. I stack the cards in my presentation, my telling, to give myself a right of entry to a Section I would not previously have felt was a place for me.

In psychotherapy we have tended to be one eyed. Too often we read 'self' from story, without necessarily listening to 'world as world' (rather than as a figment of self). In this way we have remained blind to society and some of our social responsibilities. We have too often been dismissive of what people say of their real pain and public places of humiliation.

Third, stories create fictions which tell truths.

Our aim in psychological story telling is often (though not always) to get to whatever truth there may be. To do this both fictions and facts are needed (not either/or). Thus, for example, ambiguity and clarity combine in and create the importance of metaphor wherein we tell lies to tell the truth.

Sometimes we need to be false to be true, and can be true to the facts in such a way as to create falsehood. We need a much more elaborated understanding of 'truths', learning more easily to distinguish between historical, narrative, poetic, formal and other kinds of truth.

Reality is rhetorical! I signalled at the beginning that I was going to tell 'three stories'. Were they true? Were they merely devices to hide and deceive, to present a certain face towards this particular momentary world? Were they merely shaped as ammunition for what I later wanted to justify?

In each presentation falsehoods have been created, links have been made without justification and gaps have been left to hide differences. Things have been affirmed when silence might have been more truthful, though silences of different kinds create their own ambiguities of rhetorical effect.

This whole presentation was empty and exposed, insipid, without substance till a certain rhetorical device presented itself to me.

"If I were to tell my somewhat naive and separate scraps of thought as stories this would allow them to be said and might allow me to create 'substance' (in that they will become exemplars of what I am moving towards saying). At the same time I can create both coherence and ambiguity. 'Coherence' may be achieved in that my initial scrappy thoughts would now be carried within the cloak of storyhood, and 'ambiguity' in that it would now become uncertain as to whether what is being said in these brief tales is to be taken at face value or examined with more uncertainty".

My sense of emptiness was converted to fullness. The device created some strength and tension, movement and balance of a kind within the whole presentation. It created within the narrative itself a more complete conversational context, a place of activity and struggle, where previously only scraps of former thoughts were lying limply side by side.

Does this device falsify or offer a more telling tale?

For me there is great attraction when what is said is both a claim and an exemplification of what is being claimed. Statements in psychology should both exemplify and be themselves.

Concluding Comments

We have, I believe, to take serious account of the indeterminate, shifting and historically shaped material of psychology rather than being trapped by the common assumption of 'endurance behind appearances'. Both the Behavioural and Psychodynamic approaches focus on 'real' structure. I suspect things are otherwise, and a story telling approach to psychological understanding would embrace a greater recognition of the shifting sands of our selves and our worlds.

I believe we need a psychology for speaking of selfworlds based in a psychotherapeutic type of relationship of continuing care. Such a psychology would be committed to a participant, language-related knowing. Its speaking would recognise its location within particular relationships in place, time and intention. It would show persistent concern with story telling, conversation, questioning. A story telling mode of doing psychology would stand as a companion to other more formal and distant manners of inquiry.

Such a psychology need not be a second class citizen in the psychological world but should be questioning the credibility and setting the frame for other approaches to asking and telling.



Bettleheim, B (1985) Freud and Man's Soul; Fontana, London

Mair, M (1988a) 'Psychology as Story Telling'; International Journal of Personal Construct; Psychology (in press)

Mair, M (1988b) 'Kelly, Bannister and a Story Telling Psychology'; International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology (in press)


Paper presented as Chairperson's Address, The Psychotherapy Section of the British Psychological Society, London, January 1988.

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