Psyched! (1): Peseschkian’s Stories

The book: Oriental Stories as Tools in Psychotherapy, by Nossrat Peseschkian (1986, first edition in German: 1979)

The approach: positive psychotherapy & storytelling



My reading interests have always been broad, and although I’ve mostly shared reviews of fiction and poetry on this blog, I’ve read a number of psychology books that I thought were really interesting. This is one of them. For one thing, it introduces the basic ideas of positive psychotherapy, which was developed by Peseschkian starting in the 1960s and 70s. It also contains not only a collection of stories but also descriptions of how he used these stories with clients.

The main thing you need to know about positive psychotherapy is that unlike many approaches that preceded it, this approach does not focus so much on the illness / the dysfunction or what is wrong but rather tries to see the strengths and skills that are already present in the client. Simply put, it looks at what is ‘right’ with the client, rather than just focusing on what’s ‘wrong’ with them. This humanistic approach assumes that there is such a thing as a basically good human nature, and that often, we already have much in us that can help us overcome our problems.

While he studied and spend most of his working life in Germany, as an immigrant from Iran, Peseschkian , a member of the Baha’i faith, had first hand experience with different cultures and traditions, and an intercultural approach to psychotherapy was important to him.

In one of the stories, a man is stuck in a quagmire. Only his head is still above ground, and he’s calling for help. Another man arrives and tells him, “Just give me your hand! Give me your hand and I’ll pull you out!” but the man in the quagmire just keeps calling for help. A third man, having observed this, say, “You need to give him your hand, then you can pull him out.” (“Give him your hand”)

I think this is a good example of how these stories can work – they reframe a problem and leave it open to the listener to identify with one or several of the characters. The story could be read as a commentary on how to ask for help, or advice on how to offer help more effectively.


While every culture has its own treasure trove of stories and fairy tales, in some cultures stories are more important, more present in daily life, even after childhood, than in others. Telling a story can be an effective tool to achieve a number of different effects: therapist, counselor, or anyone might tell a story in order to give a client time to cool off, emotionally, to distract from a strong, immediately present emotion (anger, anxiety, pain, fear), to allow the client to refocus and reframe a situation and look at it from a different perspective.

This is why it can be useful, I think, to use stories from another cultural context than the client’s: the story is more likely to be new and unfamiliar, maybe even surprising (or, like in some of Peseschkian’s examples, amusing). Peseschkian shares the case story of a client with psychosis, where after listening closely to her apparently confused, disconnected speech, he was able to identify a central motif that connected all of what she was saying: a sense that there was injustice that needed to be put right. He shared with her a humorous story that had the same theme (“A Wise Judge”). In later sessions she would refer back to the story repeatedly, because it allowed her to look at her own fixation on this injustice with more compassion for herself. Of course this did not make her psychosis disappear, but it did help her in two ways: she was able to look at herself from a new perspective, and she realized that her main concern had been understood, rather than just ignored as psychotic ramblings. I can imagine that the latter part did just as much to help client and therapist work together as the first part did.


The version of the book I have on hand here is the German (23rd) edition from 1999. It contains a wealth of stories, many of which are very short, and most of them are open-ended in some way, i.e. they can be understood in different ways by different people. A few had me thinking, I would not share that story with someone I’m trying to help!, but of course these stories should be chosen depending on the people telling and hearing them.

I’ve realized I do not know a lot of these kinds of stories – other than, of course, Grimm’s faerie tales and the usual suspects that have made it into popular culture, so I’ve decided to read up on stories and tales. One book in particular I’ve got on my pile of books-to-read: Japanese Fairy Tales (ed. Yei Theodora Ozaki)


You can learn more about positive psychotherapy here:



About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Alice Miller (3): On Contempt | Outside of a Cat

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