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  • Writer's pictureTim Robinson - Counsellor

Why the “Problem” is Often Not the Problem in Therapy

For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com


“Every problem has a solution; it may sometimes just need another perspective” – Katherine Russell


The more time I spend providing counselling sessions using Solution Focused Brief Therapy (71/2 years at the time of writing) the more I continue to learn and develop my understanding of the approach. It has highlighted something for me in a stark way that I always understood, but it didn’t shine quite as bright in my awareness as it currently is. The problem that brings a client to therapy usually isn’t the problem.


The problem that brings a client to therapy is often the experience of unwanted symptoms or behaviours they would like to be rid of. This is a perfectly acceptable reason to reach out for therapy. Symptoms do a great job of alerting us to the fact something is wrong, while unwanted behaviours often cause difficulties in our lives that motivate us to seek help. However, the problem causing those symptoms/behaviours is usually something different, something more profound. I think our self-perception especially if negative, shapes our experience of the world and in turn, a negative self-perception at the “pointy end” leads to unwanted symptoms and behaviours, anxiety, depression, anger to name a few.


I’ve noticed much of today’s therapy seems to focus on symptom management and diagnosing “problems”. It surprises me how often I hear about a “novel” diagnosis that didn’t exist a year ago but suddenly a set of behaviours we used to regard as a normal part of the human experience is suddenly labelled as a “disorder”. I question how helpful this is in the change process, especially if a client starts to identify themselves heavily with their “disorder” while ignoring their strengths, possibilities and potential. How important is a diagnosis really in the quest to help someone move in a direction they want to head? My role as a counsellor certainly doesn’t change because the client has a diagnosis. My role is still to assist them in being the best version of themselves they can be.


How much of what is diagnosed is just a normal part of the human condition? and how much should be labelled as a disorder?


I don’t have all the answers, but I think they are important questions to consider because as soon as we label something a “disorder” it can have quite an impact on how a person views themselves and having a healthy view of oneself is key to living a healthy life in my opinion. It’s the foundation upon which everything else in your life is built and I’ll do my best to explain why in this blog.


However, it isn’t always the easiest thing to explain as we live in such a “problem focused” society that going beyond that can feel strange or unusual at first. I think our “preference” for highlighting what’s wrong partly comes about because we are wired that way. Evolutionarily speaking it makes sense to look for threat. I think it’s also influenced by our education system and the way we have traditionally been taught to solve problems.


In addition, the nurturing process requires that we look to others to guide us rather than look within to find our worth, it’s a function of how we learn and grow. I’m not saying that is wrong, it’s just the natural order of things but if you don’t learn to look at things differently as it adult it causes problems because you never get to take back ownership of who you are, where you want to go and why.


If you’ve had a “rough ride” growing up, chances are you have trouble viewing yourself as worthy and as an adult when you finally have the ability to define yourself on your terms it’s a shame when people don’t recognise the freedom this provides. How can you, as a unique individual, expect to be happy if you live your life based on others’ expectations of who you “should” be?


 

In the First Half of Life External Experiences Shape Us

 

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt


In this first half of life (roughly up until the age of 40) we can’t help but be shaped by our external circumstances. We are young, vulnerable and easily influenced by those around us. We learn how to live in the world by watching our parents and caregivers and later are influenced by school experiences, peers, our community, our culture, authority figures (such as teachers or coaches), early work experiences, and early romantic experiences. These experiences go a long way in shaping our sense of self. The outside world very much shapes us in the first half of life. You have to learn about the world first before you can decide who you want to be in it.


We do bring with us a “template” if you like. That is our natural temperament, our biology, our genetics and personality to a small extent (although our personality doesn’t become stable until age 30). As we interact with the world as we mature parts of ourselves are either reinforced or discouraged depending on what our external circumstances require. In this way we live a sort of “borrowed existence” for the first 40 years as our sense of self is largely based on others’ opinions (especially parents or caregivers) and societal norms and expectations.


Unless you’ve stopped and made an effort to reconsider who you are at some point you could find yourself “living someone else’s life”. Around the age of 40 is where the stark reality of this becomes apparent and many of us (including me!) can go through a period of feeling lost and unsettled as we figure out (again) who we are and what our purpose is. Our adapted selves (as defined by others) meets the reality of an imperfect and harsh world and we are forced to reconsider who we are and what everything means. The goal here is to move from an adapted self to an authentic self (you know who you are and you’re able to be that in the world without fear or apology).


I’ve written about the impacts of a midlife crisis here: The Midlife Crisis and the Role of Responsibility (timrobinsoncounsellor.com)


I’ve written more about how our early life shapes us here: Our Early Life Shapes Us, but Doesn’t Define Us (timrobinsoncounsellor.com)

 

 

A Healthy Self-perception is Crucial to a Healthy Life

 

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain” – Kahil Gibran.

 

A healthy self-perception is crucial as it not only impacts how you see yourself; it also impacts how you view other people, the world around you, how you feel, how you react to your circumstances, how capable you feel and influences how others interact with you.

There’s quite a simple way you can test this out. Imagine yourself having a really bad day. Would that change how you see yourself and interact with people around you? Are you likely to be open or closed minded? Defensive or accepting? Compassionate or critical? Confident or insecure?


This is important because if we feel insecure it narrows our field of vision. When heightened we don’t see all sides of the story because we feel threatened so we are in a state of fight or flight. How often have you been heightened, thought you were being attacked in some way, only to find when you had more information that the reality of the situation was quite different? That maybe nobody was attacking you at all it just felt that way from your perspective, so you behaved in ways consistent with your perspective.


Now imagine you’re having a great day; everything seems to be going well. How do you view yourself now? How are you likely to respond to those around you? Are you likely to be open or closed minded? Compassionate or critical? Accepting or defensive? Willing to hear other perspectives or unwilling?


All that has changed in these situations is your self-perception. A certain event may have triggered you to view yourself differently in a particular moment but objective reality has stayed the same. However, your self-perception informs your reactions to external circumstances.


In a sense nothing changed. The world didn’t change so you could have a good or bad day. Reality didn’t alter to allow you to have a great day, your self-perception changed. Now, in these cases if you’re not conscious of it it’s likely something external happened that influenced your self-perception.


You might perceive yourself as accomplished or competent because of how you performed at work that day for example. Alternatively, maybe you were late for work, lost your keys, it was pouring with rain and everything seemed to go downhill from there. That’s allowing the external to dictate how you feel and we all do it to an extent especially if we are under pressure and stressed.


However, by the time you reach adulthood you don’t have to keep basing your worth on the external, you can start to treat yourself like you’re worthwhile. Why? Because you are. We are all worthwhile and have something to offer to the world it’s just that as we grow up in a sometimes harsh and unforgiving world and lose sight of that. You can see yourself as worthy as a starting point and that will influence your experience of yourself, those around you, the world at large and your experience of life.


I’m not saying that just because you view yourself as worthy everything will be rainbows and kittens, far from it. Life will be as unforgiving and harsh as it has always been, even unfair and punishing at times. At other times it will be beautiful, joyous and incredible. At others boring and mundane.


Objective reality will not change but viewing yourself as worthy will mean you are more resilient and forgiving of yourself should failure or misfortune come your way. Life is far more about rising up and overcoming when you fall down than it is about having an idealistic life. Who hasn’t failed or had heart break by the time they reach 40? Life will continue to serve up problems whether you decide to see yourself as worthy or unworthy, but each perspective will give you a different experience of life.


Pain and suffering come from denying this fact, liberation comes from acknowledging that life isn’t perfect, and people are not perfect. In every life well lived there is an alternate story of pain and suffering, we can’t escape that fact as hard as we might try. As unfortunate as it sounds “life is a prolonged farewell” as the counsellor John Bradshaw puts it.


The sooner you become comfortable with this fact the easier it becomes to ride life’s wave with acceptance and humility. You’ll also become more compassionate and forgiving of yourself as you’ll realise it’s ok to fail. That takes a lot of the pressure off. Failure is a part of life. If you’re not failing, you’re not living. To live freely and openly always opens us up to failure but we also get to enjoy the fruits of our success when they do happen, and the taste is so much sweeter.


Improve Yourself Instead of Trying to Change Others

 

“Stop trying to change the world since it is only the mirror. Man’s attempt to change the world by force is as fruitless as breaking a mirror in the hope of changing his face” – Neville Goddard


I think many of us try and either change our world circumstances to validate our thoughts and feelings or we try and change other people to either be more like us or treat us in the way we wish to be treated. This comes from a place of insecurity. This means waiting for the external world to validate you rather than the other way around. At its worst, it comes off as controlling, manipulative and authoritative and at the lesser end it proves a futile exercise. It will end in frustration. If you choose to see yourself as valuable, the rest of the world can carry on as it pleases and you can still live a fulfilling and rewarding life because you’ll know your worth, you’ll know who you are.


I must stress by all means call out bad behaviour when you see it, have boundaries and standards in what you expect from other people and yourself, but don’t expect others to live for you, to validate your existence or make you feel ok. That’s not their job, it’s yours. Ideally your parents would have given you a sense of this but we don’t live in a perfect world. Once you’re an adult as unfair as it may seem, you’re the only one that can improve your life but that’s also quite empowering and a good thing. It’s much easier to change yourself than spend time trying to change other people.


The longer you wait for others to change in order for you to feel validated the more you will prolong pain and suffering. You can’t deny reality, it will always be there staring you in the face and one day you’ll be forced to acknowledge it. If you don’t, you’ll end up frustrated, disillusioned and like there is no way forward. I know this from my own life experience (as I made the same mistakes when younger) and from listening to men’s stories over a number of years while observing the outcome of their behaviours. The more they try and “twist and bend” the world to meet their needs the more pain and carnage they create. The more anxious, angry and bitter they become.


In making the choice to see yourself as valuable you don’t have to make the world fit you so to speak, instead you’ll find your place in the world. That’s far more achievable and will be much more enduring than the alternative because it’s coming from within. You’re being authentic and will attract likeminded people in the process. In other words, you don’t need the world or others to change in order for you to feel ok, you can decide to do that for yourself and then see what happens. In fact, as soon as you start to untether your worth from external circumstances the better your life will become.


 

How we Interpret External Events Creates our Reality

 

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely”-Carl Jung

 

Continuing on with the theme of self-perception it’s not events themselves that impact us in a direct sense, it’s the meaning we give to those events and what we decide they say about us that is important. If we already have a low opinion of ourselves and someone makes a disparaging comment the impact is made even worse by an unhealthy self-perception. On some level we either agree with the statement or fear it might be true. We personalise it. If we see ourselves as unworthy, why wouldn’t we believe a disparaging statement? Alternatively, if we ourselves as worthy a disparaging comment is far less likely to impact us as the comment doesn’t “fit” with a person that sees themselves as worthwhile.


To illustrate my point, suppose I was to call you a funny name but the name had no relevance to you and you had no idea what it meant anyway. You’d probably think I was a bit strange and move on with your life. However, if I was to call you something especially if it hit on something you were already insecure about, that is likely to affect you. You can’t be affected by something you yourself are not invested in. Sadly, many of us have grown up believing we are unworthy. It’s not the fact you got called a name that is the problem (although it’s shitty behaviour on my part) it’s what you decided it meant about you that’s important. If you believe you are worthwhile, this goes a long way to buffering any attacks on your sense of self. It doesn’t mean disparaging comments won’t hurt; you are just more likely to deal with them in such a way that they are less impactful.


So, the old saying “I didn’t make you feel that way, you made yourself feel that way” is actually true. It’s just that some use this saying as an excuse to behave badly and alleviate themselves from all responsibility for their behaviour. I don’t believe that is how the saying was intended. You still have a right to call out bad behaviour and have boundaries and standards for how you wish to be treated. That is all part of treating yourself as worthy. You don’t have to put up with bad behaviour.


In coming back to healthy self-perception, the healthier your self-perception is the less likely it is that what other people are doing has much importance to you because firstly, you won’t look at them to validate who you are and secondly, you’ll be so busy doing your own thing you won’t care what others think anyway. That doesn’t mean you’ll be insensitive to the needs of others, you’ll just know who you are and what you want. In my experience those who are truly authentic are more compassionate and forgiving of others, not less, because they have humility and full acceptance of themselves. Given they are human just like everyone else this acceptance and humility tends to extend out to others. We are bonded by our “humanness” that is one thing we have in common. Those who are being truly authentic recognise this. They see themselves in others.


In my opinion when we react strongly to someone’s actions it’s usually because their comment or behaviour caused us to feel some of the following: insecure, vulnerable, scared, ashamed, embarrassed or terrified. In a very traditionally masculine society, we tend to avoid these emotions like the plague, even though they are a normal part of the human experience. It doesn’t actually make any sense to deny an emotion as the more we “push” it down the harder it pushes back.


 I think as human beings we do our best to guard against these feelings as they can be sign of a threat. Either a threat to our sense of self (an emotional threat) or a threat to us physically. This is when we tend to go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode if we haven’t learned to be conscious of the fact we are doing it. Sometimes these reactions are entirely appropriate (in the case of real danger) but oftentimes it’s our interpretation of an event that causes this reaction rather than a real danger to the self.


I think much of the symptoms we see in therapy such as: anger, anxiety, depression, sadness, numbness, felling lost, are really a sign that something has gone awry with our sense of self; our self-perception. I think most often this comes about due to our experiences with others early in life and that then informs how we interpret situations in the future.


We interpret certain events as threatening when they are not, but because they remind us of a time where maybe we really were in danger, so we react the same way. Objective reality has changed but our self-perception has not, so we get the same result. We usually recognise this after the fact and think to ourselves: “Why did I react so strongly to that?”


In my view It makes sense in therapy to focus on improving a client’s self-perception to be balanced, healthy and realistic. As I keep saying that doesn’t mean you will never face hurt, danger or vulnerability ever again it just means that if you do you will have a realistic self-perception and will be able to deal with things much easier from that perspective. You will also be less likely to ruminate or be unable to “let go” of an experience.


I think Solution Focused Brief Therapy does a wonderful job of helping someone reach a healthy level of self-perception. Unlike most therapy that seems to focus on symptom management and problem solving I believe SFBT done well goes much deeper in inviting a client to see themselves differently, at their very best, and this changes how they view themselves, the world around them and their hopes for the future.

 

How Worthwhile Do You Feel?

 

“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude” – William James


Would you describe yourself as worthwhile? Worthy? Does it make you cringe just hearing those words? A large portion of us didn’t grow up feeling worthwhile, important and that our voices had a right to be heard. You may have even been taught that to see yourself as competent, loveable or worthwhile was to be arrogant or selfish.


Here is the difference. An arrogant or selfish person sees themselves as better than other people. They also don’t consider other people; they only want things their way. A person who see’s themselves as worthwhile sees themselves as equal to other people but acknowledges their own unique perspectives beliefs and talents while respecting those of others who differ from their own. They don’t need others’ opinions to match theirs to make them feel ok. Therefore, they have the space to be more accepting and the humility to listen. We could definitely do with more humility in the world today.


 I’m not saying go out and be selfish and arrogant, I’m saying learn to see yourself as worthwhile because a person who knows their worth will treat others with respect, kindness and compassion. They have no reason not to. They are not desperate for validation. They don’t take pleasure from stepping on others. They don’t need to push others down so they can rise above them. “Their cup is already full” so to speak.


I’ll try and illustrate this with an example although it would be much more effective if I was actually working with you. I am asking you to imagine seeing yourself as worthwhile so even if you don’t believe it yet, just go with it for the purpose of the exercise:

Think of a situation that is troubling you maybe one that is not too complex at first. It might be a situation you have trouble moving forward on or deciding your next move. Now ask yourself this:


Suppose, I truly saw myself as a worthy person and I completely believed this about myself. How would I approach this situation differently? What would change as a result of seeing myself as a worthwhile person?


How would it change my life if I viewed myself in this way more consistently?


My guess is, coming from a perspective of worth you will have viewed that particular problem quite differently. Or if you were undecided on a decision, you might have more of an idea of what to do. People usually know exactly what they need to do, they are just held back by fear, insecurity or vulnerability and those feelings in my opinion circle back to the question: How worthwhile do you feel?


There’s nothing magical happening here you just changed the way you approached a problem by changing the way you viewed yourself. It’s hard to simultaneously focus on a problem while also focusing on a solution. They just don’t seem to gel together; they are different ways of thinking. One is more open, the other more restrictive and less creative. Personally, I’d rather spend more time being open and creative and that comes from a solution focus, not a problem-solving mindset as many other therapies lead us to believe. I’m not saying those approaches don’t work, my personal opinion is that they are less effective.


Broadly speaking, I think most mental health problems come back to a few simple questions:


How worthwhile do you feel as a person? How well do you know yourself? (your wants, needs and values) How free do you feel to express yourself? Are you living authentically? Are you being your true self or living a borrowed existence? (what others expect you to be). How would your life change if you felt free to be yourself and were unafraid of failure?


I think most mental health issues come back to a question of worth and a question of freedom, and by that, I mean psychological freedom. As soon as we feel restricted and held back from being ourselves, unworthy of doing so, we feel dissatisfied. That’s when anger, anxiety, sadness and depression seem to work their way in. When we feel free to be ourselves without fear of being abandoned, mocked or belittled we typically feel content. We feel we are living our purpose, and we feel empowered to do so.


Do we Approach “Human Problems” the Wrong Way?

 

“The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known for long” – Ludwig Wittgenstein


In my opinion as a health profession, we went a bit “off course” at some point. Our sole focus became symptom management, and a thorough understanding of problems and very little time was placed on what a client wants and what a client is capable of achieving.


To some extent a diagnosis doesn’t really matter. Regardless of a client’s starting point I believe the end goal should be the same. The client reaching their full potential whatever that looks like for them. They don’t need a diagnosis to do that, and I don’t need to know every aspect facet of their problem to achieve that. I need to hear about a client's skills, traits and abilities because that is what they possess that will help them reach their potential. Any client can benefit from reaching their potential regardless of their diagnosis, regardless of their starting point.


I think we use a very “functional” (for lack of a better word) problem solving technique for “human problems” that are nuanced, subjective and involve perception in a way that many other problems in our lives don’t. If I wanted to fix my car, I’d figure out what the problem was, potentially buy a new part, change it out and the car would be fixed.

Similarly, if my knee was sore, I’d go to the doctor he would figure out why it was sore and prescribe a treatment of some kind. Traditional psychological therapy follows the same model.


However, we are not machines, we have unique histories, beliefs, ideals, hopes and dreams. There is much subjectivity in what we each feel and think. It strikes me as unusual on reflection that we approach human problems in such a functional way and expect it to work. That is coming from someone who was awarded a Master of Psychology and used to very much believe in the medical model. Why? because we were never taught any other way. Given the so called “mental health crisis” we keep hearing about, traditional therapy obviously isn’t working out very well. I'm so pleased I ended up learning about Solution Focused Brief Therapy as it taught me an entirely new but still evidenced based way of thinking.


Unlike traditional therapy models Solution Focused Brief Therapy instead asks: 


What would you like to be different and how will we get there? What do you have within you that makes that possible? How will you know when you get there? And how would you need to be viewing yourself differently in order to make this happen? 


As I briefly pointed out SFBT puts a direct focus on self-perception because we believe that is how change happens. A change in self-perception is the one thing that can change all areas of one’s life because it’s the filter through which we see the world. Additionally, change doesn’t happen independent of other people. It happens within the context of our lives as individuals (something you can't find in a textbook) the interactions we have with others, the meaning we take from those experiences and how we choose to view ourselves as a result. Solution Focused Brief Therapy specifically asks about the meaning contained within our interactions with others, especially those most important to us and focuses heavily on how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world. I think that's a great place to start.


As far as I can tell knowing every aspect of what is “wrong” with you gets you no further along the change process. It might make the therapist feel more knowledgeable, or more comfortable, but Does it really bring about change? If change is to occur at all I think it happens within the client and is impacted by helping them change their world view and their perspective on themselves.


Also, as I’ve explained earlier, looking externally for validation by the time you are an adult doesn’t seem particularly helpful. If a therapist or psychologist for example, takes a position of “expert”, I think they are perpetuating an externally focused way of looking at the world. When I look at that more closely, I think:


What makes them more likely to be able to solve your unique problem than you?


You have the best seat in the house, and you know yourself better than any psychologist or therapist can pretend to. The best they can do is assume based on what they see in others or patterns across large groups of people but that is no guarantee it will work for you. I'm not saying their approach doesn't help people, it does, it even saves lives, I used the medical model for many years, but on reflection, since learning about SFBT, I personally would much rather get the clients perspective on their own life and go from there.


I think that’s the most logical way to help them improve their self-perception which in turn changes their life experience as I've previously stated. SFBT facilitates a client to be the expert in their life and helps them to understand themselves and their life from their own unique perspective. I think that is what they will need long after I or any other therapist has "left the building". To stand on their own two feet, understand themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses and move forward confidently in their purpose. In taking a "non-expert" stance I leave the space for them to learn to do that.


 Solution Focused Brief Therapy sees the client as the expert in their own life and in doing so empowers them to create change in their own unique way. I think SFBT does a much better job of facilitating the act of individuating that I have been talking about in this blog than many other types of therapy.


However, this is just my opinion at the end of the day. In my view, in therapy you don’t need my perspective on your life. How could I possibly have all the answers when you consider how varied and nuanced, we all are?


In my experience clients usually have all the answers within themselves they just might not feel courageous enough to express them yet or haven’t been given the time, or been asked the right questions to help them articulate who they are and what they want yet.


My role as I see it is to foster the confidence in a client to come out freely and express their own unique perspectives, beliefs and ideas, to see themselves as worthwhile and then to let them go about living that in the real world and see what they discover about themselves and others.


I think we all know who we are deep down. The question is: Are we courageous enough to stand up and be that person in the world? Will we have enough humility, compassion and understanding to let others do the same in the process? I think with a healthy self-perception we can do just that and in doing so we empower others to do the same.


“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others” – Nelson Mandela


If you would like to learn more about Solution Focused Brief Therapy I’ve written more about it here: What is Solution Focused Brief Therapy and How will it help me? (timrobinsoncounsellor.com)

 

Warm regards,

 

Tim Robinson - Counsellor

 

MCouns (Distinction). Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Behaviour Change)

 

Registered Provisional Member with NZAC

 

 


 

For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com

 

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