Putting pressure on yourself to put pressure on the problem

David Epston
(published in Context)

Marie had forewarned me over the telephone of what I might expect when I met her husband, Jim, and Billy, their eleven year old son. Billy was in trouble in just about every arena of his life. He had been kicked out of his school class, after his teacher had previously taken to shunning him by either having him face the back wall or turning away from him on any other occasion. Jim, by the same token, had renounced Billy as his son and was now considering writing him out of his will. The Auckland Regional Authority, which runs the public transport here, was also going to the extraordinary lengths of taking legal action against him to deny him the right to travel on their buses. How could a young person be in quite so much trouble? Marie was so perplexed and distressed by the very telling of Billy’s ‘trouble’ that she began to sob inconsolably. I tried to reassure her as best I could that ‘nothing was impossible’ when at last sheʼd asked: ‘Do you think Billy is a hopeless case?’

Meeting them at my front door was odd. As Marie led her ‘family’ inside, Jim and Billy avoided each other as best they could, and again in my waiting room. I led them to my interview room. Jim rushed in ahead of everyone else and started scrutinizing the paintings on my wall. No one had ever deliberated over these paintings with such connoisseurship before. Marie followed, distressed and humiliated, taking her seat and then began to plead with Billy who was reluctant to enter my room. Finally, he did, sitting where his mother indicated by her side, but couldnʼt meet my eyes, or anyone else’s. It was only after Billy had committed himself to his seat that Jim immediately turned away from scrutinizing the paintings and deliberately seated himself so he couldnʼt ʻseeʼ Billy.

As is my custom, I commenced our meeting with as much hospitality as I could, given the pall that had fallen over the room. “Look, I donʼt want you to think I donʼt consider Billyʼs trouble as a matter of great concern.” I then turned towards Billy and said: “However, Billy, if I were you, I wouldnʼt want to meet a stranger my age through the trouble the ʻtroubleʼ has got you in. Jim and Marie, do you mind if I get to know your son through how you knew him before he got tangled up in all this trouble?” Billy, for the first time, raised his downcast eyes to meet mine and stared at me, somewhat bemused, through his Harry Potter glasses. Both Jim and Marie, not knowing quite what to expect, gave their consent for me to proceed with my enquiries.


“What would you like me to know about billy?”

I turned first to Marie. “Marie, what would you like me to know about Billy that proves to you that you are a wonderful mother, or at least the kind of mother you dreamed you would be when you were pregnant with Billy?” That caught Marie off guard and seemed to break her out of her dejection. Her response took some time and consideration. But when she did, she mentioned his kindness. “Could you tell me one story about Billyʼs kindness that would be worth 100 stories? That from such a story I would really understand what you mean when you say he is kind.” She responded quickly, telling a story of how when some Kosovar refugee children came to his school, he had gone out of his way to befriend a class-mate, despite the barriers of language. And he had even gone so far as to invite this boy home to meet his family. Her disconsolation now gave way to some measure of pride.

I refused to leave the matter there. Turning to Jim, I asked: “Jim, is he by any chance a chip of Marieʼs block?” His smile, tinged with pride, told me I had guessed right. Responding to my enquiries, he told of all “the lame dogs” she had cared for, including an elderly neighbour for whom she provided meals on a daily basis. When I asked Marie if it was an accident that Billy showed such kindnesses to his Kosovar class-mate, she was willing to admit that that was unlikely. In fact, when I asked Jim, he said that it would have been entirely predictable that Billy should grow up showing such kindness, having witnessed his motherʼs caring ways day in and day out.


What would you brag about?

It was early in the year and hot. Jim was wearing a very short sleeved t-shirt. Noticing a tattoo of a military regiment on Jimʼs shoulder, I asked if he had been in the military. In fact, he had and took great pride in his current involvement with young people in the Sea Cadets. ”Jim, do you drink down at the Returned Servicemanʼs Club every now and again? He did. ”You know when your mates are bragging about their sons and it comes around to your turn, what would you brag about Billy before he got into so much trouble?” He thought for a moment and said: “His creativity!” “Jim, by any chance did he inherit that from you?”

Jim was pensive and then shook his head, before some sort of gleam of recognition came to him. “Not from me, but from my brother. You wonʼt believe this, but he makes his living as a potter and sculptor selling ceramic sheep shit!” “What?” I asked, but immediately considered the 50,000 million sheep in New Zealand, roughly how many sheep pellets a sheep produces per day and how the Ministry of Research and Development might consider turning these into a very fast buck. I speculated about this and everyone laughed. Jim brought me down to earth on this get rich quick scheme for New Zealand. “No, he lives in Yorkshire and people buy these ceramic sheep pellets as some sort of joke. And you know it brings in enough money for him to be a sculptor.” Well, we all to admit that this certainly bore all the hallmarks of creativity, and by now even Billy was joining in the fun. I then pursued the earlier matter regarding Billy, but once again referencing my questions to Jim. “Jim, how does Billy take after his uncle in terms of family creativity?” Jim no longer shunned Billy, but spoke kindly of the story-telling and paintings that he had been doing since he was ʻjust a toddlerʼ. “Have you saved any of his early works?” I asked. Jim looked chagrined as he told that in his repudiation of Billy as his son, he had recently thrown them all out.

“Iʼve just stopped all my trouble”

Billy, for the first time, interjected and what he had to say first confused and then stunned us into a momentary silence. He said: “Letʼs go home. This is over. I have just stopped all my trouble. There will be no more of it”. Marie and Jim both turned towards Billy, looking as if they were hearing things, and continued to stare at him. I tried to save the day by asking Billy what he could possibly mean by making such assertions. “Billy, are you trying to have your mother and father believe that you have renounced trouble? After all, Billy, there is not much more trouble an eleven year old could get into from what your mother told me over the phone. By the way, what trouble did you get into to have the Auckland Regional Authority taking you to court? A court case surely must be costing them thousands in lawyerʼs fees. Billy, tell me, how far did you travel on a bus and how often?” He told me he bussed to school every day. “How far?” I asked. “About a mile and a half,” he said. “Billy, how much trouble can you get into in a mile and a half?” I asked. “Screaming!” he told me. Marie nodded her head to reassure me that Billy could and did scream. Billy looked at me as if I wasnʼt getting his point. “Yah, itʼs over, Iʼm not going to do it anymore.” I turned to Jim and Marie: “Surely, Billy has got quite a job on his hands to prove to both you and his school-teacher that he means it?”. They agreed that this would be quite an undertaking on Billyʼs part. “Billy, do you think everyone will just take your word for it, or do you think you will have to prove it to them?”. Billy admitted that it was certainly unlikely that either his father or his school-teacher would believe him, although he thought he had a better chance with his mother. I then asked Billy if he was serious, would he be willing to write a letter to that effect to the teacher who had recently expelled him. I assured him that I would be only too happy to give him a hand preparing it. “Billy, Iʼll ask you questions and type up your letter. Marie and Jim, would you be willing to act as witnesses to such a document?” Billy willingly joined in such a project; his parents were still baffled, but agreed to go along with it.

Letter to Mr. Smith

The first queston I asked was: “Billy, does your teacher know about this appointment?” He did. “Can we start the letter like this?”

The letter began:

Dear Mr Smith, As you know, I, my mother and father went to meet David Epston.

My next question was: “What do you think we should tell him about what we discussed here today?” Billy described to me his behaviour, but added his hatred for it, followed by how he might improve it. I then enquired if he had tried to already, even if his efforts werenʼt entirely successful.

At the beginning of the year when I met you, I thought this year was going to be really fun. You were a new teacher. I was at a new school.

I asked if he believed he had left his reputation for being what he and his parents referred to as a ʻclass nuisanceʼ behind.

And I believed I had left my reputation for being a class nuisance behind me.

I asked if he was surprised that it followed him to his new school.

I wasnʼt surprised though when the problem came with me to Brownʼs Bay Intermediate School. I tried to stop it, but failed.

My next question to Billy had to do with what made him now believe that he could succeed.

But now I am almost twelve and feel I am starting to grow up and I now want to get a good reputation and be a good student.

Billy seemed so earnest that I thought it prudent to provide some room in his good intentions for trial-anderror. For this reason, I asked him if this meant he would have to try to turn himself inside out and be humourless or a nerd.

Donʼt worry, I have too good a sense of humour to become a nerd.

I went on to ask Billy exactly what kind of reputation he was seeking.

The kind of reputation I want is just not a kid who is always bad. Still, I donʼt want to be squeaky clean either. I started off good this year and I wish it had stayed that way but it didnʼt.

I asked Billy if he had any ideas why his teacher had given up on him.

I realise too my annoying habits look like they have made you give up on me. I didnʼt realise how bad they had got.

”Billy”, I asked: “When did you wake up to that?”

I woke up to it on that day when you sent me outside and came out and had a talk to me about how my behaviour has got to stop.

I enquired if that had got through to him.

That got through to me and I tried to improve, but it still didnʼt work.

Tears came to Billyʼs eyes, as he retold of his unsuccessful attempts at making amends to his teacher. I then asked if he thought he might have to put pressure on himself to put pressure on the problem. Despite the somewhat arcane question, Billy jumped at the proposal even when I added: “Billy, who do you think should put pressure on- or your teacher?” And added “Do you think your teacher will believe you?”

Believe it or not, I need to put some pressure on myself to put pressure on the problem. And whatʼs more it should be me who puts pressure on me, rather than you having to do that.

By now, Marie and Jim were warming up and willingly joined us in what I referred to as our planning. Billy had no trouble coming up with a number of ways to put pressure on himself in order to put pressure on the problem.

Hereʼs what I am planning to do and wonder if you would lend me a hand here (thatʼs all I ask!). First of all, could you decide how many slip-ups you can put up with in a week and let me know the number? Please remember that I have a good sense of humour and lots to say so donʼt expect me to be perfect overnight. I believe that, although it wonʼt happen overnight, IT WILL HAPPEN!

Say I go over the limit you have for me slipping up (do you mind letting me know privately how I am doing and how many slip-ups Iʼve done), I will donate 50 cents per slip-up to the class money jar from my allowance. At least if I am going to be a class nuisance, I can make amends by paying the class back. And if I canʼt face up to doing this myself, just contact my parents and they will send you my allowance.

Although Billy seemed very satisfied with the prospect of this proposal, I worried that this might not be sufficient: “Say, Billy, you spent all your allowance to pay back your class for any nuisance, what might you go on to after that to put pressure on yourself to put pressure on the problem?”

After the 10th slip-up and my allowance is all gone, I will need to put even more pressure on myself to put pressure on the problem. I think it is far better to put pressure on myself than on you and the class. This pressure will need to be fierce! You know how much I hate running! Well, I want you to see to it that I run twice around the field for every slip-up. That should do it!

I interceded again in the face of Billyʼs growing confidence in his prospects. “Billy, I am just a worry wart so forgive me. But what would you do next if that didnʼt work? I say that hoping that it will work”.

If it doesnʼt, I will do a further 2 mile run. Can you see how I am really serious about not slipping-up?

I decided to press Billy further to ensure that he was willing to back up his good intentions with putting pressure on himself. His parents really seemed to appreciate this, if their lifted moods gave anything away. “Billy, I know you might think I am overdoing it here, but hey, this trouble has really got you into trouble. Just say you havenʼt broken these habits yet, what would be your final act of putting pressure on yourself to put pressure on the problem?”

If, which I cannot believe will happen, I havenʼt broken these habits and slip up again, I will apologise in front of the class.

For the first time, Marie and Jim sought to join our conversation, which was producing this document as we went along. I was writing it up in long hand on my pad and having Billy verify every line of the document. “Billy, let me read back to you what I have just written down and see if you approve of it. How does this sound to you? Are you happy to put this in your letter to take to your teacher?” Jim, however, volunteered some ideas of his own and Marie, when asked, said she independently had a few of her own. I requested them to hold on to their ideas for Billy to put pressure on himself. “Billy, do you think you need any more ideas or do you think youʼve got enough of your own?”. He confirmed this with a head nod and his parents agreed to give him a chance.

My parents have more ideas but I have told them I donʼt need them. I donʼt need them to put pressure on me; Iʼll do it myself.

I will be meeting with David again in a monthʼs time. Would you be so kind to provide me with a letter to take back to him, so he can know if I have put enough pressure on myself. He asked me to tell you that he too has many more ideas for me to put pressure on myself, but has refused to tell me what they are. He believes I mean business this time, so he canʼt be bothered telling me what more pressure I can put on myself if I need it.

Yours sincerely,


PS Although David typed this letter and asked me most of the questions, the answers are all mine.

Witnessed by Jim and Marie on March 21, 2003 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Marie and Jim dutifully signed the document when I sent them a copy before Billy took it to school to give his teacher.

Letter from Ms. Jones

We met a month later as planned. This time the family entered my premises in concert with Billy who was flourishing a letter in his hand. He couldnʼt wait to hand it over to me. However, matters hadnʼt turned out as I might have hoped. Mr. Smith refused to read Billyʼs letter and continued his shunning of Billy. However, Billy had been placed in an alternative classroom with Ms. Jones. And consequently, it was a letter from her that Billy was brandishing.

Still, we decided it was reasonable to address the letter that documented this meeting to them both. The letter was composed in the same manner as the first, although this time Jim and Marie played a far larger part and I authored it and subsequently signed it.


Dear Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones,

I met with Billy and his parents, Marie and Jim on April 19. I would like to thank you both for your respective contributions to Billy taking both himself and his reputation seriously, both at home and at school.

Billy, Jim and Marie all approved the above.

Mr Smith, from what Billy had to say, he understands that he had worn out any welcome with you. He regrets that, but nevertheless, it seems a blessing in disguise. Why I say that is that I believe his wish to redeem himself in your eyes was behind what I take to have been quite a come-back, if your letter of April 15 is anything to go by, Ms. Jones. My only regret in all this is that you, Mr. Smith, were not able to witness this turn-around in Billyʼs behaviour.

I then quoted from the summary of Ms. Jonesʼ hand-written letter:

“I have seen no evidence of 1) back chat to his teacher, 2) out of his desk distracting others and 3) arguments with other pupils. I am enjoying his company in Room 15 and find his academic work well up to standards set here.

I then asked Billy if he thought Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones had a right to know how this turn-around came about. Billy was only too happy to provide them with this information.

I think you both have a right to know (and Billy, Jim and Marie had agreed to hand over Billyʼs account of how this came about to Ms Jones in person). Believe it or not, he reported that he sweated all weekend anticipating his transfer to Room 15. In addition, he was determined to break up with Teddy, whom he considered to be a friend to his trouble, even knowing there could be some repercussions from that. I understand from him that he weathered some defamatory comments and allegations and did so with a measure of dignity and self-respect. When we first met, he lamented the fact that he was friendless save for Teddy, whom he recognised as a bad influence on him. He reported that he now has quite a few friends, including Matt, who in the past had been his antagonist. You might be interested to know that both Jim and Marie report a 50% improvement in his home behaviour and accordingly are quite delighted. They described him as “calmer and happier”. What really thrilled them is that once again they can reason with him and feel that he “has opened up”. You may not be aware of the fact that Jim had become somewhat desperate about his son, and was considering severing his relationship with him for good. Marie wept, commenting that she felt she was getting Billy back. Jim and Billy seem to have reunited and are once again enjoying each otherʼs company. Billy had been aware that ʼhe (Jim) didnʼt want to do much with meʼ.

I suspected that Billy was pretty determined to redeem his reputation when we met around a month ago, but I would not have predicted it would have shown up as quickly as Billy claims it did. He himself puts it down to : ʻIt happened on the second day. I was trying to start off good and carry on being good. And Iʼve done it so far!ʼ. I think the best explanation Billy had for this was his realization that ʻI was trying to fight my habit. I sometimes automatically did but when I was going to go off the deep end, I held myself back and it worked. The next day, I tried it again and it worked. I was quite pleased I had the power to stop my irritation getting out. I was able to carry on with my work when someone was annoying me. At times I have been able to say no and walk off and go to the library. I have stopped screaming, because they know I can get into trouble if I scream. They are starting to lose interest and leaving me alone.ʼ

At this point in our conversation, Jim and Marie were insistent on adding some further considerations that they had had around Billy over the past month. Everyone realized too that Billy has lived in the shadow of his sister. As Billy put it, ʻI want them to know me as me and not my sisterʼs brother.ʼ Ever since this realization, Jim and Marie have noted there are fewer fights with his sister.

According to Marie and Jim, what has impressed them most about the developments relating to their son is that he has opened up and talked. Billy confirmed this quite proudly: ʻI can now talk openly to my parents….with them I am trying to be good. This means I can open up to them more.ʼ Marie commented that ʻIt was lovelyʼ; Jim concurred: ʻIt was as if someone turned the light on!ʼ.

Billy had the last word in our discussion and it certainly was a thoughtful one:

ʻTurning twelve changed me. I said to myself, letʼs try to make the most of the term, so I can leave a good reputation behind me when I go to new school next year.ʼ

I would like to thank you both for your help in this matter, even though you both went about it in different ways. Mr. Smith, I believe taking Billy as seriously as you did woke him up; Ms. Jones, I believe your welcome made it possible for him to redeem his reputation, something that he had decided he wanted for himself.

Yours sincerely,

David Epston.