separating you and the ‘problem’
Consider the difference between saying ‘I’m a perfectionist’ as opposed to saying ‘Perfectionism is giving me a hard time today.’ In the latter case, you are, in language at least, separating you – the person – from the problem. The separation opens up different ways of talking about the problem and helps bring to the surface different options for responding to it.
Of course, you can think of impediments to productivity as a manifestation of your basic essence, your basic nature. The impediments may be your intrinsic laziness, slow-wittedness, or clumsiness showing through. On the other hand, you can externalise these impediments, think of them as objects or agents that are distinct from you and with which you have a (sometimes troubled) relationship.
When problems are externalised, it’s much more natural to think of them as coming and going, sometimes being strong, sometimes weak. It is much more natural to ask when they arrived on the scene, to ask whether they might leave, and to ask whether and how you might change your relationship with them.
If something is holding you back, you can seek to find a name or other means of referring to the problem, a means that makes it separate from you. Sometimes just putting a ‘the’ in front of it will work, e.g. ‘The Perfectionism’ or ‘The Block’. There are no right answers here. The point of the technique is to find a name that means something to you. And if your first couple of tries for a name don’t feel right, you can always try others.
Names people have shared with me for problems that have interfered with achieving their goals in a sustainable way include: ‘The Critic’, ‘Perfecto Man’, ‘The Pressure Cooker’, ‘The Boulder’ and so on. Having a name for your particular problem, one that means something to you, helps create the separation between you and the problem. For some people, the business of naming a problem can seem daft. And for very many people naming a problem can be both fun and a helpful first step in loosening its grip.
Finding out more about a problem
Once you have a name for your problem – and even if you do not – you can find out more about it. How does it like to operate? When is it most active? Does it have a gender? Does it have a colour and a shape?
When is the problem in charge and when are you in charge? What aspirations does the problem have for you in the short and in the long term? What do you like about it and what do you dislike?
What positive intentions does the problem have (even if, overall, it does not play a positive role for you)? What consequences does the problem tend to bring about?
Exceptions and unique outcomes
Problems and the problem-talk that they promote, often like to generalise recklessly. They are very fond of words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘not once’, ‘every time’ and so on, e.g. ‘Every time I start to write I get blocked. I will never finish this report.‘ If this is your experience, it’s worth gently probing your history to see whether such statements really stand up to scrutiny.
You might, for example, get curious as to whether there are any occasions where the problem has not got its way. What was different on such an occasion? Can you find a common thread that links together a series of occasions where the problem did not interfere in a way that you would rather it had not?
This line of inquiry is not about denying the power of the problem. It’s not about pretending that it is not an issue. Rather, it’s about opening up some space for another story thread. If, as can sometimes happen, the dominant story thread is one of being stuck – ‘I have terminal
writer’s block, I’ll never get finished‘ – then this can sometimes drive out exceptions. Learning more about the exceptions, especially if you get stuck a lot, can be a route to renegotiating your relationship with a problem.
At the same time, adopting different and richer ways of describing your relationship to a problem, can help prepare the path for changing the manner of that relationship, e.g. ‘On Tuesday morning, The Block started to work on me just as I was making coffee and didn’t let go for the rest of the day. But on Friday, after lunch with Emily, The Block was just absent. I didn’t even think about its presence or absence until now.’
You are not the problem, the problem is the problem
Externalising emphasises that you are not the problem. Rather, the problem is the problem. Getting some distance from the problem can help you see your abilities and competencies, can help you see the differences between what you want for yourself and what the problem wants for you. Having this space can often help you renegotiate terms with the problem or, in some cases, break off relations with the problem altogether.
Externalising has it origins as a subtle technique that is used by narrative therapists. For the best DIY results, read up more about it and work with another person who has also read up. If what you try works, keep on with it. If it doesn’t, stop and try something else.
Origins and understandings
Narrative therapy, and the technique of externalising, was developed by Michael White and David Epston.
Generalising recklessly is a topic addressed within Transactional Analysis therapy in relation to the concepts of ‘discounting’ and ‘grandiosity’.
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- A very approachable introduction to narrative therapy, including externalising conversations, is What is Narrative Therapy?: An Easy to Read Introduction. Extracts of the book are available at www.dulwichcentre.com.au site, which is an excellent first port of call for anyone interested in these ideas.
- A fairly short but very effective text on narrative therapy (and solution focused therapy) is Brief Counselling: Narratives and Solutions. The authors’ have a great slogan – ‘if it works do more of it, if it doesn’t do something different’ – which they put to use throughout their book.
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