The problem is the problem

by Bernadette Healy


Have you ever felt defined by one aspect of yourself? Have others referred to one of your attributes, skills, preferences or problems as if that is all there is to you, or described you in terms of an incident or stage in your life? If you have experienced any of the above, what was that like for you?

Imagine what it is like for people who have routinely been defined as the problem that they are experiencing in their life, possibly for so long that they can no longer see themselves in any alternative way. Many people are at risk of continuing to be defined and treated as if all that they are is reduced to the problem they are facing (there would be many such examples with people caught up in the legal system). Professionals who refer to their clients as my ‘10am restraining order’, tomorrow’s building dispute, my fraud case, my vexatious litigant etc, are at risk of helping to continue this trend.

One way of experimenting with a different approach is to prepare for each interaction with an individual as if you know nothing of them; actively taking a curious approach in your dealings with them; and putting aside what has been told to you by third parties as you approach and interact with them. This practice will lead to: increased engagement by both you and the other; an increase in the likelihood that the other person will share their story with you; and will energize you in your interactions. All of these aspects will enhance your professional performance.

Defining people as the problem can begin within the family of origin, that is, the family in which you grew up. It is also connected to the particular social, community and societal context within which an individual is located. This context contributes to determining what will be defined as a problem at any particular point in history and who will be more at risk of being so defined.

When families fix on one person as the problem in the family, there can be an implicit position something like if only x was not a problem, if only x could be fixed, then the whole family would be ok. Examples of problems which have become the definition of an individual are: the troublemaker; the slacker; the drug addict; the alcoholic; the anorexic; the attention seeker; the one who can’t cut it on their own; the difficult one; the disappointment; the poor money manager; etc.

If you or someone you know is increasingly becoming ‘bogged down’ by a problem that they are experiencing, to the extent that you or they are beginning to think of themselves as the problem, try the following exercise of addressing specific questions to the actual problem.

Specifically using the expression ‘the problem’ will help to create distance between you and the issue which is troubling you or which has come to define you. This will assist in re-framing your approach to one in which you can locate the problem outside of yourself, thereby externalizing it. This does not equate to avoiding responsibility but enables a richer definition of yourself to be seen as you consider the problem in a much broader context than that previously, including by enabling the application of a questioning stance in exploration of the problem.

For example, imagine that someone is so bogged down with avoidance that activity is crippled and the person is talking of themselves as if all they are is someone who avoids. In this example the problem is the avoidance and addressing questions specifically to this problem will enable distance to be achieved from the experience of being in the problem. Such questions might include the followingii :

Exploring the impact of the avoidance

  • How does the avoidance affect you? (it is important to spend time fully exploring this question)
  • How does the avoidance show its influence in your relationships? (that is, how does the problem with avoidance impact you in terms of your relationships with others or with other aspects of your life, such as your work, your leisure etc)
  • How long has the avoidance been around? (to source information about origins, age of the problem, original context)
  • When did you first notice the avoidance making its presence felt in a less-than-helpful way? (allowing for the fact that originally it may have had a positive or protective impact, perhaps being preferable to facing something which was potentially overpowering, )
  • What happens when the avoidance is having its way with you? (that is, when the avoidance is in charge?)
  • Are there times when the avoidance really takes over?
  • When the avoidance is dominating you, what happens to your dreams for the future?

Identifying the exceptions – when the avoidance did not dominate

  • Have there been times when you have been able to resist the influence of the avoidance? (identifying the exceptions, that is, the times when you have been able to behave differently)
  • What was different about these times, can you elaborate? (this question can assist in identifying factors which assist the person to behave differently than that which occurs when the avoidance is in charge)
  • Given the history of the avoidance how did you stand up to it and not let it push you around at these times?

This kind of questioning can be used for any situation in which you or someone else is at risk of becoming so bound up in a view of themselves as a problem, that they cannot find the space or energy to create a shift.

i   The concept of ‘the problem is the problem’ comes from Narrative Practices or Narrative Therapy. For information please see “Commonly asked questions about narrative therapy” on the Dulwich Centre website, or the “Ten Second Introduction to Narrative Therapy” on the Narrative Approaches website.

ii  These questions are from a Narrative Practices / Narrative Therapy model – see for example Epston, D. & White M. (1992) Consulting your consultants: The documentation of alternative knowledges. In Epston, D. & White, M. Experience, Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination. Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide.