This is just plain good advice! But unfortunately, oftentimes we make the person the problem – be it ourselves or others. Even something as clear cut as passing an exam or an assignment: if we do not achieve the desired result, we tend to think of ourselves as a failure, when in truth what happened was that we failed a test, which in itself is a singular one time event. This is just a simple example, but one that demonstrates quite clearly that we tend to go through life internalising our problems, and as a result feeling that we, or others, are the problem.
Life is constantly being punctuated with events and challenges, some good some bad. But it is of course the “bad” events that tend to mar our view of ourselves. However, the way in which we understand and interpret these events can make a huge difference in how they affect us. Not achieving a desired score in an exam could present a problem in so much as, for example, not being able to pursue further studies at that present moment. But in truth, that is the problem, not the person who failed to achieve the required score. The person and the exam marks are totally separate from each other, and the exam marks should not be made into an extension of the person, but rather something totally separate from the person.
Acknowledging that you have failed at something or made a mistake or messed up in a relationship, and perhaps admitting that next time you need to work harder or employ a different strategy, is not the same as believing yourself to be a ‘failure’, a ‘loser’, or ‘not good enough’. The story we give to the event makes a significant difference to how that event will affect our life and our view of ourselves. But people do not come up with these storylines and self-beliefs out of nowhere. These are shaped by many past experiences, discourses and influences. However, no one story or event can sum us up or define our identity. Our life is made up of many different elements and no one single event or circumstance should, or can, define us as a person.
Indeed, Michael White, an Australian family therapist, suggests that one way of externalising the problem is to give it a name, “If your problem was a project, what would you call it?”. So, if we stick to our example, then an appropriate name might be “The Exam”. This will enable the problem to be located within a storyline and outside the identity of the person. This problem can then be tackled for what it is, and it also makes it easier to engage the help of significant others who can help to combat the problem by offering support. When the problem is clearly identified, criticism, blame and guilt are significantly reduced as is negative labelling. Even if the problem is something more complex, like trauma, depression or chronic anxiety, externalising it and giving it a name will help to separate it from the person and will enable the person to look at it objectively and even trace its history in his/her life. This will help to make it clear that it is not something that exists within the person, but rather something that has developed over time and as a result of a number of factors.
Our lives are shaped by the stories that we create about them and these in turn underpin how we look at our life and how we tackle problems. If you find yourself stuck in a negative storyline, don’t hesitate to seek help. A therapist could help you to examine your ‘story’ and together you could find a way of how to reformulate a healthier and more helpful one which will enable you to face life and its challenges in a more positive way.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Charlotte Schembri has a background in psychology and education and has extensive experience in supporting students with different needs and their families. She is currently reading for a Masters in Family Therapy and Systemic Practice and forms part of the Willingness Team.
Carey, M., & Russel, S. (2003). Re-Authoring: Some Answers to commonly asked questions. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 3, 60.
Carr, A. (1998). Michael White’s Narrative Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy, 20(4), 485-503.
Tomm, K. (1989). Externalizing the Problem and Internalizing Personal Agency. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, 8(1).
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. Norton & Company, New York and London.