by Rabbi Yosef Cornfeld, M.S.W.
Invariably when a person comes in to therapy it’s because they have a problem or series of problems bothering them. This problem may be so overwhelming that they can’t see anything else positive about their life. It may be so overwhelming that it takes over their life. They may even think that they are the problem. They may have made the problem as part of their identity.
In Narrative we attempt to gently steer the conversation in a slightly different direction. The person may indeed have a problem, but the problem does not define the person. We view a person’s identity as seperate from the problem. The first thing that we gain from this approach is that we give the person their dignity and worth as a person. The person has his or her own identity independent of the Problem. When a person comes into our office it can be difficult for them to see that. The Problem can sometimes be so overwhelming as to take over the person’s identity. So it is important for us to see the person as a person as an individual, with their own values, strengths, and beliefs. Even if the person doesn’t see it at first, everyone has a life independent of the problem. We strive to get to know the person for who they are, not just what the problem tells them what they are.
In Narrative this view is often summed up by the adage: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” The person is first and formost a person. We want to start to get to know that person. And we want to convey the message that the person is much more than the Problem that is bothering them. And this adage also emphasizes that the person is good and worthy, and not a problem or problematic.
One way of emphasizing this is that in the intitial visit we may ask something like: “Before we start discussing the reason that brought you in here today, could you please tell me something about yourself so that I could start to get to know you?” This can already start the process of empowering the person in strengthening their identity in the face of the Problem.
For instance, we would not refer to the person as depressed, but rather as a person that is affected by depression. This is the concept used in Narrative of “Externalization”. By externalization we mean that we discuss the problem as an entity outside of them person acting on them. We want to think of the problem as if it’s an object acting on the person, and not an internal quality of the person.
We see this approach of externalization of problems used by the Rabbis in the Talmud. In a discussion of how to deal with the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination) it states: “It was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: “My son, if this disgusting creature (the Yetzer Hara) meets up with you, drag him into the study hall. If he is a rock he will dissolve, if he is iron he will explode.” (Kiddushin 30b) Here we see that the Problem, called by the Rabbis the “Yetzer Hara”, which denotes any improper desire or lust, is something that meets up with you and you can affect it by taking the proper actions. It is not described as something internal to the person, or a defect in the person.
So the axiom that “the person is not the problem” can be understood that the person sitting in front of us has their own identity independent of the problem that they came in for help with. It can also be understood that the person is not the problem, in the sense that they are not at fault. We strive to be careful not to assign blame to the client or anyone else in their life. We don’t view our role as one to be the judge of who caused this problem. Our job is to empower the client to mobilize their strengths and resources to overcome this problem.
We can start this externalization process very early in the conversation, even without telling the client that this is what we are doing. We listen for how the person describes the problem. Then we use that word for the problem not as an adjective, which would be a description of the person, but as a noun. For example, say the person says “I’m depressed.” If we would respond to that by, “Can you tell me about being depressed,” this would reinforce the person’s identity of being a depressed person. Subtly switching the language to, “Can you tell me about ‘depressed’” already switches the Problem from a description of the person to an object that is affecting the person. Maggie Carrey has an elegant way of making this switch. You add the word “this” before the problem, and the word “thing” after the problem, as in, “Can you tell me about this depressed thing.” Or a couple comes in and says, “We’re stuck.” So your question can be, “Can you tell me about this ‘we’re stuck’ thing?”
So “the person is not the problem”, but rather the person is a worthy person. The Problem (this depressed thing, this we’re stuck thing, etc.) is the problem. Our job is to help to put each side of this equation in their proper place – the person as a worthy and empowered individual with all their strenths, abilitys, values, and beliefs. And the Problem is the problem her that’s causing trouble for the person. We want to turn the tables on the problem, and instead of the Problem causing trouble to the person, we want to cause trouble to the Problem.