Externalizing the problem


My daughter’s been going through a bit of a temper-tantruming phase. (She’s six years old – isn’t this supposed to be over by now?). Recently, when we were trying to give her a bath and get her ready for bed, she lost it. TOTALLY lost it. I’m not exactly sure what the trigger was, but one moment she was reasonably calm, and the next moment she was screaming at the top of her lungs and flinging herself onto the floor. Later, when I asked her what had upset her so much, she very calmly said, “Mad Voice got control over me. I couldn’t stop him.”

Mad Voice. I’m sure she didn’t realize this, but that phrase was an invaluable gift. She didn’t personalize her anger at all. Instead, she gave it a name, envisioning it as entirely separate from herself. People call this “externalizing the problem.” You identify the problem (anger), give it a name (Mad Voice), and then construct an entire persona around it. Doing that one simple thing opens up a world of therapeutic possibilities. Now my daughter and I can talk about how to handle Mad Voice when he shows up (or how to recognize when Mad Voice is creeping up on her). And that is incredibly empowering.

I sometimes use this technique when I feel stressed, upset, or angry. Here’s an example: At work, there’s this thing we talk about called “workload creep,” which refers to the ever-growing number of responsibilities added to our jobs, without additional compensation or release time. It’s enormously stressful, as you might imagine, and many of us feel as if there’s little we can do about it. So what do I do? I identify the problem (workload creep), give it a name (Workload Creep), and create a character. (Workload Creep looks a bit like Freddy Krueger.) And then I can deal with it. I can tell Workload Creep to take a hike. If Workload Creep speaks through my computer (e-mail is one of his favorites), I can shut down my e-mail program and silence him so I can get some things done. Amazing, huh?

Now, I did not come up with this terrific technique on my own. That credit goes to Australian psychologist Michael White and his colleague from New Zealand, David Epston. Together, they wrote a book called Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, which introduced the concept of narrative therapy to the United States. One of the core foundations of narrative therapy is the idea that the person is not the problem – instead, the problem is the problem. Once you can separate the person from the problem (“externalizing the problem”), you can look at it more objectively, and you can be far more productive in identifying how to handle it.

A great example of narrative therapy in action can be seen in the book Life Without Ed, in which author Jenni Schaefer names her eating disorder (Ed, for Eating Disorder). The book description says this:

Jenni had been in an abusive relationship with Ed for far too long. He controlled Jenni’s life, distorted her self-image, and tried to physically harm her throughout their long affair. Then Jenni met psychotherapist and author Thom Rutledge. He taught her how to treat her eating disorder as a relationship, not a condition. By thinking of her eating disorder as a unique personality separate from her own, Jenni was able to break up with Ed once and for all.

By externalizing the problem, Jenni could treat her eating disorder like an abusive partner (Ed), which then opens up the possibility of leaving Ed.

Now here’s a question: What do Mad Voice, Workload Creep, and Ed all have in common?

Answer: Mad Voice controls my daughter. Workload Creep controls me. Ed controls Jenni Schaefer. They control us, and take away our sense of personal power. On top of that, they have this uncanny ability to make us believe that there’s something wrong with us. The icing on the cake? They do a pretty good job of making us feel utterly lousy.

Hmm. Sound familiar? Think about all of us in the LGBTQ community who have internalized our culture’s oppressive attitudes in some way. So often, these internalized attitudes surface as mental health issues – depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual acting-0ut (or inhibition), eating disorders, relationship problems – the list goes on. About a third of LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at some point, which to me is a blatant example of internalized oppression. Just the other day, I read that 42% of transgender individuals have made a serious suicide attempt. Forty-two percent. That’s a huge number of people who see themselves as The Problem.

But we’re not The Problem. If we believe that we are, it’s only because we drank the big jug of heteronormative, cis-sexist Kool-Aid. We internalized mainstream societal attitudes about what’s normal and acceptable. When we externalize the problem, we take our power back. We can see that we are not the problem. Rather, the problem is rooted deeply in oppression. Once we can see that Oppression is the problem, we can heal individually, and fight against it collectively.

The other day, at my daughter’s school, a boy was taunting her and calling her silly names. “Stop!” she said. He continued. “Stop!” she said again, a little more loudly. Still no effect. Finally she walked up to him, literally got in his face, and shouted, “YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW, OR YOU’LL BE SORRY!” He withered at that, and walked away.

In the car, I said, “Good for you! You got him to stop.” With an impish smile, she said, “Mad Voice helped me out.”

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