The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem
– Michael White & David Epston
This is my favorite quote and a huge part of my therapeutic philosophy. Michael White and David Epston are founders of Narrative Therapy which is an evidence-based therapeutic approach and basically suggests “we are the stories that we tell ourselves”. Language matters. How we talk to ourselves helps us to make meaning about who we think we are.
Let me explain what I mean with examples.
Many depressed people might say something like, “I am depressed.” However, this is an incomplete statement. Not false, or inaccurate, but just incomplete. White and Epston remind us of the fact that “You are not your depression. Your depression doesn’t define you. You are a person with depression problem. You are smart, resilient, caring, loving, family-oriented person with depression problem. You are a daughter, wife, an amazing cook, singer, mom with depression problem”. You are not your problem. You are not your disorder. You are not your dysfunction. You are not your limits, mistakes, and failures. You are you with every other qualities, skills, strengths, interests, desires, dreams and achievements.
Similarly, I hear the following statement from parents frequently: “My child is ADHD”. I encourage my clients to say instead, “My child has ADHD”, because your child doesn’t only have ADHD. The second statement is slightly better than the first one, but once again both statements are incomplete. My responsibility as your therapist is to remind you of the fact that “Your child is a curious, intelligent, observant, active, friendly, fun and creative child with ADHD problem”. We are so quick to diagnose and label ourselves and our loved ones. “I am fat”, “I am a failure”, “You are a liar”, “My child is ADHD”, “My husband is an alcoholic”, etc. These statements are part of what we call “a communication problem”, but at the same time, they go beyond being just a communication problem. We create our own reality and we believe in the stories we tell ourselves.
So, let’s re-word!
“I am fat” → “I gained weight”, or “I am struggling with losing weight”
“You are a liar” → “You lied to me, and I wish you wouldn’t. It hurts”.
“My child is lazy” → “My child is struggling to find motivation and managing his time”
If the stories you tell yourself and others are doing more harm than good, you should seek counseling. Together, we can re-write your stories.