The narrative literature reads, “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the problem is social!”. What does this even mean? I was grappling to understand this concept since we make sense of psychological problems as something which is located in the person rather than in socio-cultural context. It is believed to be an intrapsychic phenomenon, and unless we therapist work with this understanding we wouldn’t be doing ‘psychology’, we would be doing ‘sociology’ or ‘anthropology’.
It takes me back to the classic debate about ‘nature vs nurture’. If we think of it, we are born as ‘blank slate’ and as we grow, life, incidents, and events happen to us and as we experience these events we keep developing a story about ourselves by assigning narratives to our identities, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, traits, qualities, values, and we begin to believe in these single-story narratives. Over time, we construct and internalise stories about our abilities, competencies, actions, struggles, desires, interests, ambitions, achievements, and failures.
Similarly, we weave stories about our relationships and life in general. These narratives take a life of its own by how we connect certain events together in a particular sequence with characters, a story line, situated across time, context, and the meaning we assign. We internalise stories which could either empower us or defeat us and can have great impact and influence on how we think, feel and behave. Many a times, our identities are fused with these problematic narratives that we tell about ourselves, which are largely influenced by our socio-politico-cultural environment. These dominant discourses limit us in many ways. Since we internalise and identify with these problem narratives, we begin to think that we are the problem, rather than the problem that we internalised being the problem.
Through an exploratory dialogue, externalising conversations help us to effectively create distance between ourselves and these dominant discourses and we can experience ourselves separate from the problem. Since narrative thought is rooted in postmodern social constructionism and critical psychology, the problem as seen is considered as constructed in process of interaction between the personal and the social and as one of the ‘truths’ among many ‘truths’. In other words, particular narrative among many narratives or dominant discourses. Externalising conversations help create space between our identities and these narratives by uncovering the ‘other’ preferred narratives about ourselves that are hidden from us. Externalising conversations help us separate and create distance from these problematic narratives by exploring their origins, how they took shape in our life, who all participated in shaping it and their effect on us.
Recently, I was seeing Raj, a 30-year-old male client. The problem was that Raj believed that he was worthless. Ideally, the therapist would promote the client to believe that a part of him could be worthless but not the whole of him, this may alleviate the distress to a large extent but worthlessness could still believed to be a part of the person and a sense of defectiveness could still persist. Through externalising conversation, Raj effectively managed to separate this ‘identity narrative’ which was causing him suffering as ‘Mr. Worthlessness’. We did this by exploring the origins of this story, how the worthlessness narrative took shape and what incidents and who all contributed in shaping this story, and the effect it had on him. Raj felt much relieved after this process and he could experience that ‘Mr. Worthlessness’ was separate from him and had little control over him.
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