I’m a divorced, alcoholic, eating disordered, depressed, domestic violence and incest survivor...all of that sounds incredibly shitty, right? Most of those words I don’t even want to say. I certainly don’t sum up my life experience that way and most importantly, none of those things are ME. They are not the story of my life. They aren’t even a fraction of the picture of who I am. In this episode I want to talk about the fact that we are not our problems and how we can get into the practice of externalizing problems either through therapy or on our own to stop creating identities around our issues.
So, as humans, we want to give language and meaning to things. We want to name and put things in categories. It’s the first thing we teach children, "Which of these things are not like the other?" Our culture supports this kind of naming, objectification and marginalization of people, of course historically by gender and race based on “science” and that word science is in quotes, but even now, with words like dysfunctional, disordered, or negative stories around being poor or homeless. Categorization, separation, and distancing in this way is part of human psychology, however, it can be extremely damaging at the individual, familial, and societal level.
Unfortunately for those of us who suffer any kind of "problem" or issue (which by the way is literally all of us), we can become the truth of this existence. Alternatively, we might create false narratives around our own lives to avoid association with these kind of labels so that we don’t have to fit into these categories. I can say in my own life, I desperately avoided the word "alcoholism," which I talked about in this episode. I also didn’t like other words that could describe my experiences- depressed, incest, divorce. Once we start internalizing the stories that our culture has produced about these issues or situations, it can be difficult not to see ourselves as inherently problematic.
I want to talk about how to approach our problems, situations, issues, defects, griefs, losses, whatever we want to call them. I am calling them problems as a shorthand, but we shouldn’t take for granted the language that we use. In the narrative approach, we don’t always assume that what we are dealing with is negative or positive, or that it automatically falls into some categories. We want to dig deep into your experience so we can get a fuller picture of how you describe what you are dealing with, and more importantly what is that experience really like FOR YOU. In what way is it impacting your life? How is it affecting your relationships? What does it FEEL like? In your own words...
I think depression is a good example here. You could walk into your therapists office and say, "I’m depressed. You know, help" But there is so much more here. As someone who has suffered depression, I can say that the experience is so multi-layered. For me the experience goes beyond feeling sad, I feel very confused, isolated. It has the feeling for me of being trapped and hopeless. I also don’t feel like I can make decisions or think clearly. So this is an example of rich description, but it can also go even deeper. You might even ask, whether there is anything that you like about being depressed, which sounds like the wrong thing to say, but maybe there is room to explore this, so for me. I don’t like being depressed, however, my depressions do give me a different perspective on life, sometimes, they make me realize that the things I am worried about in the day to day are unimportant, or it gives me the desire to connect with something deeper. In some ways depression drives me to understanding and depth. I have also felt extremely connected to something spiritual in my depressions.
So, that is not to say we don’t want to fix the "problem," but what it does is gives you the power of description and the power of naming around your problem. This is the proper kind of distance you need to really look at the impact it is having on your life. It is important that we also don’t say, ‘I am depressed.” Because that is still an internalization of the problem. Think of the difference between saying I AM depressed and “this is what depression does to me.” We want to really talk about the ways that depression impacts you. Sometimes it helps to personify the problem
“What does depression say to you?”
“How does depression impact your relationships?”
“What do you wish you could say to your depression?”
These kinds of questions can help you look at your depression as something that is not a part of you, but even more importantly, as something that you can talk about, describe, and eventually look for ways to deal with it. One of the things that narrative does is it really broadens the scope of potential and the language around personal conflict. Sometimes the stories we tell about a problem can take over the self. Or alternatively, we might avoid conflict-oriented or troubling narratives so that we can rely on a more comfortable version of the events.
In my own life, the language that described my problems felt very shameful. The word alcoholic, depression, domestic violence, incest. That last one is especially troubling so in this case it is even more important not to simply rely on the word, but to really dig into the impact of the experience. We don’t want to rely on clinical words and descriptions. Narrative is about going beyond these typical descriptors so that you get to have control of your own narrative around the situation. It also ensures that we don’t package our own situation around preconceived notions.
I will also say that sometimes putting a label on things can help. Naming our problems can be empowering. We just don’t want to rely on labels to understand our experiences and their impact.
This practice reminds me of the work of Brené Brown on shame. In this instance, how separating ourselves from our problems can also release us from the belief that something is inherently wrong with us. I could see how this approach could essentially help individuals or families to deal with issues like addiction, trauma, depression, and other disorders. I have been (self) and professionally diagnosed with alcoholism and through addiction recovery, I’ve learned coping tools and strategies in healing, however, there is still shame attached to the diagnosis. On a bad day I think, “Is this who I am?” feeling bad about this fact of my life even though, it was hereditary, culturally imposed, and in many ways happened by no fault of my own. By separating myself from my addiction or diagnosis, it is easier to see it as something that I have to manage and cope with, but in no way self-defining or representative of who I am, how I feel about myself, or how I choose to live my life.
So what is the answer. The answer is separating ourselves from our problems. It is having the inherent trust, understanding and belief that we are not our problems or the stories we have associated with them. Narrative therapy is essentially the practice of separating people from their problems, an act which directly interrogates the cultural practice of objectifying people.
If you want to learn more about narrative therapy and how it can help you face a diagnoses, understand the impacts of anxiety, depression, or addictive tendencies, or explore alternative ways to combat grief and other conflicts, please feel free to reach out. I am happy to provide more information about my practice and the benefits of narrative therapy.