“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.”
— Michael White, Co-Founder of Narrative Therapy
Like many of us counsellors, I arrived in this beautiful profession after many chapters (with twists and turns) in my life story. One of these chapters is my background as an academic researcher studying queer theory and feminist film theory. And a larger theme that is woven throughout my story is that I identify as a queer woman (whatever that means… the definition shifts over time). These experiences and perspectives greatly inform my approach to counselling and what it means to be a helper, collaborator, and co-conspirator.
We are all, in one way or another, looking for words to describe our experience, our identities, our Selves. We are looking to belong to something — a group, a perspective, a community, a narrative. As I began my journey as a counsellor, I noticed how much the stories we tell about ourselves are intimately connected to not only our sense of selves but our relationship to the world around us. I noticed that, much like queer theory, which challenges us to interrogate and dismantle learned “norms” that we take for granted, narrative therapy can assist us in re-authoring the stories of our lives.
Part of why we go to therapy is to feel understood. We have so much going on in our internal world — thoughts, emotions, sensations, stories — that feel so personal. In fact, we feel these internal happenings are so intensely personal that we tend to attach to them. And, over time, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves actually become who we are. Abraham Maslow (yes, the hierarchy of needs guy) wrote in 1966, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In other words, if we view ourselves as an anxious person, as though anxiety is an inextricable and inherent part of us, we tend to neglect, ignore, or discount the possibility that we could ever be at peace. Likewise, if we are very attached to the story that we are a depressed person, it becomes hard for us to envision ourselves as someone who could experience hope for the future. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we become the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
You might be feeling some discomfort about this idea so far. (That’s okay. That’s attachment. Notice it with a warm curiosity. Then let it go.) You might be asking yourself, what’s the upside? Well, the good news is just that: we become the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In other words, if we can shift the stories we tell about ourselves, we can shift our relationship to these stories and, in turn, our relationship to the larger world.
So how do we start to shift our narratives? The first step is through the practice of a narrative therapy technique called externalization. The process of externalization helps us actively separate “problem-stories” from our sense of self so that we can see the possibilities that open up when we start to detach ourselves from problems. We can easily practice this by shifting the building blocks of our stories: our language.
Let’s try this together. Pick a word you use to describe yourself (an adjective) that represents a problem. For example, if you find yourself constantly worrying and ruminating, you may describe yourself as anxious (e.g. “I am anxious” or “I am an anxious person”). Other adjectives that could represent problems could include critical, angry, dramatic, insensitive. Now that you have your word, ask yourself the following questions, replacing “X” with your word:
- How long have you been X? (e.g. How long have you been anxious?)
- What are you most X about?
- Why do you think you’re X?
- How do you feel about being X?
- What other problems come from being X?
- Did you learn to be X from your family?
(Questions from Julie Tilsen, Queering Your Therapy Practice, p. 66)
What do you notice about the answers the above questions invite? What limitations or restrictions are implied in the asking? What type of answers might the above questions prevent? If you don’t have a good grasp on this at the moment, that’s okay. Let’s come back to them in a minute.
Ready for a grammar shift? Now, take the word (adjective) you used above to describe yourself and change it to a noun (an object or thing). So, anxious (description) becomes anxiety (thing), critical becomes critic, angry becomes anger, insensitive becomes insensitivity, etc. Take it a step further and capitalize all the letters in those nouns — give them a proper name, make them into a person you can stand in front of and talk to: Anxiety, Captain Critic, Miss Anger, Insensitivity. Now, ask yourself the following questions, which are the above questions just rephrased, by replacing “Y” with your new proper noun words.
- When did you first notice Y making trouble for you? (e.g. When did you first notice Anxiety making trouble for you?)
- Are there certain times or places where Y is more likely to show up?
- What does Y get you to forget about yourself so it can make trouble?
- Who does Y get you to be when it’s pushing you around? Who (or how) do you get to be when Y isn’t pushing you around?
- Why do you think Y feels like it gets to have its way with you?
- When have you been able to put a stop to Y, or keep it from having as big an impact on your life?
(Adapted from Julie Tilsen, Queering Your Therapy Practice, p. 67)
What do you notice about the answers those questions invite? What possibilities are opened up by the second set of questions? What other differences do you notice?
As you can see, even shifting the tense of our language (from adjective to noun), we can create a profound shift in meaning. When we think and talk about “our anger” as though it belongs to us or is an inextricable part of ourselves (e.g. “I am an angry person.”), it limits us. It limits us in the way we view ourselves (i.e. as the passive victim of Anger’s power) and it also discounts the myriad resources we have at our disposal to respond to Anger (e.g. deep breathing, yelling into a pillow, removing ourselves from a situation to calm down, mindfulness, calling a friend). When we view problems as part of us it makes it easier to succumb to powerlessness — to throw our hands up and say “well that’s just how I am” — rather than to step into our power over them.
Externalizing problems from ourselves helps us to better see that we are in relationship with problems. It helps ease the burden. It gives space for self-compassion. It shifts us into a more empowered and active role when encountering challenges that cause us pain or difficulty. It helps us ask ourselves the question, “If I couldn’t use any adjectives to describe “who I am,” what possible stories could unfold around the actions I take?”
We are our own authors — our stories are ever-unfolding. The more you examine your stories, the more power you have to rewrite them. What narratives are you presently exploring in the book of your life?
Learn more or contact Malory Beazley at In the Margins Counselling.
Abraham Harold Maslow (1966), The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance.
Julia Tilsen (2021), Queering Your Therapy Practice: Queer Theory, Narrative Therapy, and Imagining New Identities.
Maggie Carey & Shona Russell (2002), “Externalising – commonly-asked questions.” https://dulwichcentre.com.au/articles-about-narrative-therapy/externalising/
Michael White (1988), “The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives and relationships,” Dulwich Centre Newsletter, Summer.
“Narrative Therapy” (2018), GoodTherapy.org. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/narrative-therapy