Handling a Problem in the Room

“Sure,” you may say, “y’all are Feminist, Narrative Therapists, but what does that even mean?

This piece was written by me, with considerable collective input and editing support by my cohort and the ProChoices Team. Collage images were contributed by clients and the art piece by, Scott Murphy. Thank you to everyone.

Art by Scott Murphy
Art by Scott Murphy

“Sure,” you may say, “y’all are Feminist, Narrative Therapists, but what does that even mean?
How do you actually go about doing therapy?”

Perhaps, we can offer a contribution to this consideration, by reflecting upon how a group of Vancouver Feminist, Narrative Therapists considers the problems that can show up in the therapy room – including, their own problems. Problems, we are discovering here in our practice learning immersion at ProChoices, sometimes like company and can become aggravated in response to a client’s problem.

Overwhelm, nervousness, responsibility, feeling unsure of direction/or even lost, imposture syndrome, being in ethical conflict/dilemma, political bias, fear of the problem’s power, the habit of self-referential meaning making/assumptions, or a story of not being good enough, are just a few problems that my supervisor and I listed as having heard from during the learning therapists reflections, while meeting in her back yard garden. Such problems, we acknowledged, seem the kind of trouble that can visit the therapy room and invite relationships with the client’s problems, until that is – they are made unwelcome.

I would like to suggest here (supported and encouraged by the work that I am exploring with ProChoices) that problems tend to be more about our relationship with them, than the objective reality or actual make up the problem. I would like to propose here, that just because something is defined as a problem, this doesn’t have to prevent us from remaining curious about its capability, or to inquire respectfully into how it might like to transform. In fact, I am contending… that doing so might even be considered an accountability of sorts – if one were to align to the thinking that we cannot really know another’s experience, culture or meaning fully – and that these factors are what can be seen as holding considerable influence upon the very makeup of the problem.

So, I invite you to try your own experiment and research the meaning and the activity of any problem that might be interrupting you or a loved one’s peace or wellness, as doing so, I am learning – can offer a great deal of helpful and illuminating therapeutic information. I will be inviting you to do some problem research in a moment, in fact and I hope you will join me.

Site of learning in the garden with Hilda.
Site of learning in the garden with Hilda.

Any number of problems can show up in the room at any time, we are discovering here in our practice study with great detail. Some problems can even respond as allies to others, it seems. I have noticed as an example of this, that anxiety seems to like to hang out with depression, or as we just explored in our cohort, partnerships with our clients, the problem of negative thinking and stories of failure or shame can thrive in the company of each other. Perhaps the problem has been harassing the client for years, or even their whole life. Maybe these problems have been bullying people within a particular cultural context for eons, and perhaps the therapist might even experience a sense of intimidation, triggered by the power of the problem and its unannounced entrance.

Wherever the problem may come from and however it may have arrived, I am learning to look at problems in a very new way since being part of the ProChoices clinic. I have become curious about the problem and very motivated to learn more about its activity and its effects and I have become very interested in honing well-crafted questions that provoke rich responses. I am learning that sometimes the problem with the problem is that we simply have not yet discovered enough about it – and importantly, all that may be in its way.

My supervisor (and the creator of our ProChoices clinic), Hilda talks about problems in this interesting way – she doesn’t see the person as the problem, she sees the problem as the problem. This is actually a key principle in narrative therapy. I invite you here to think about this from a personal vantage point, for a moment, if this topic has your interest here.

Imagine for a moment, a problem you or a loved one may be managing right now. Maybe it is money, or arguments that seem to have no solution or a lack of focus that is causing you trouble. And imagine the problem as some sort of entity, perhaps a shape, color, person, even a teenage version of yourself. Does it have a name that connects to the image? What, if anything, do you notice about the problem when you look at it in this way? Can you notice the size or proximity of the problem to where you are right now? Do you experience any sensations, visualizations, or thoughts when you connect with this problem from this perspective? Is there anything that comes to mind as supporting its existence or that make it even more obnoxious or challenging??

If you are new at looking at a problem in this way, doing so can seem strange at first. For those of you new to these ideas, this is something we play with a lot in narrative therapy. It may seem simple or even odd, but every client that has shared a testimony with me, speaks to the incredible, effectiveness of working this way. In Narrative, again, for those of you new to these ideas, we describe this approach as externalization. In my experiential research here with externalization, I’ve noticed that when we find a metaphor for the current problem, it seems more responsive to the movement into preferred ways of being, and away from the problem story/problem identity.

In what ways, if any, does the problem make itself known? (Art by Scott Murphy)
In what ways, if any, does the problem make itself known? (Art by Scott Murphy)

Every client’s experience is unique, as is, every therapists and every collaborative therapeutic relationship. When we stay attuned, maintain an appreciative and curious practice, and our Feminist, Narrative orientation centers reflexivity and our clients insider, authority and agency, (as we are learning here guided by our supervisor – thank you Hilda and from each other – thank you cohort team) – we begin to really listen and our support translates to well-informed and meaningful responses that invite transformation. When I brought this topic to a group mentorship meeting, we had a good feminist narrative collective chat about it. One learner described encountering the very tangible problem of relationship conflict in a session. Although her own problem of being unsure of what to do showed up, she engaged Narrative to consult and asked such questions as: “what does the relationship say about that?” and “how would the relationship respond to what just happened there?” These questions seemed to allow her to be curious and the problem to express its ‘needs’ and expose its tactics. In this instance, the therapist resisted assuming responsibility to block or save from the location of expert and she was excited by the results.

In Feminist, Narrative practice, we avoid telling, explaining, instructing, assessing, analyzing and diagnosing and detraction from the clients inquiry and exploration. This is not so easy to do in fact. For this therapist, she describes exploring a new trust in the process and that she is beginning to feel supported by curiosity and a creativity that offers choice in how to respond or to not respond to the problems expectations.

What I am learning more and more from my study here, is that clients who come to our clinic, and arguably, most people in general, really do have this natural capacity to heal themselves and that problems tend to fester and become bigger and scarier in isolation. I am discovering that working together to get to know the systems of the active problem story allows more space and can invite counter story to emerge and I am learning, that it is well-crafted questions that support this and that it is the therapist’s humility that supports those questions to come.

Therapy to me, isn’t about imposing my beliefs and strategies upon the client, rather it is a collaborative experience of inquiry that can engage a person’s own innate capacity to reexamine, to re-story, to transform, or to simply be with something that was previously difficult to be with. Reflexivity is the Feminist, Narrative Therapists greatest support and keeps humility active, and as we develop our dexterity with it, as I am discovering – the problems in the room become more manageable and our work more effective and this is our commitment.

I am heading towards the end of my first practicum term and Level 1 of the certificate program with ProChoices and I am finding the Feminist, Narrative ideas even richer and more dynamic as I have lived them and engaged relationally with them. I am recognizing that I am more able to transform my less than supportive therapist habits, when engaged within a collective learning environment. The cohort seems to support a deep embodiment of the new learning and allows me to follow the client’s process and the emergent and to inquire creatively into the problem stories without imposing assumptions. I sit here now, in my home for the next week, sunlight trickling through my window onto a prayer plant and landing warmly on my toes. A white rose pokes just above my windowsill, reaching toward the sun and exploring new ways to climb. I sit here in this environment consumed by gratitude for my teachers, clients, fellow learners, and I am beginning to see that there is not so much of a difference between these titles, as I had once thought.

In appreciation, love, and gratitude. Happy spring 🙂


Some quotes from my cohort quotes in discussion on the problem in the room:

“Naming a problem can be a problem – it just becomes so personal – but it can also be so helpful because it can be messing with people. We are naming a problem so that we can work with it.”

“By asking a narrative question, I didn’t have to block or save.”

“ You can always ask the same question again, at a different time. . . “

“There is a power in naming something that has otherwise been invisible in the story. I’ll sometimes have a session or two with someone who has a hidden problem that’s just so ready that it’s just the naming – boom – thank you so much, we’re done with our work here!”

“Instead of becoming an all bad thing, a problem that’s asked questions becomes multifaceted, which leads to not just a problem story, but also a counter story.”

“When trauma shows up in the room it’s like BANG, and someone’s nervous system starts to react – I get this a lot because we’re dismantling things. This is a good time to check in with yourself. What am I feeling? What’s activated in you? Are you thinking you might be responsible and needing to look after this and intervene? Is that thought getting in the way of your questions?”

“I also like to not rush to name the problem, but allowing it to be named.”