top of page
  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

(April 2020) 8 Habits of Highly Effective Problems, Foucault and a personal reckoning.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

- R. D. Laing

I was told an amusing story this week by a good friend of mine who is very funny. My friend lives in relationship with a variety of values I admire like compassion, fair-mindedness, humour, humility, to name a few. And for well over a decade they have worked as a key person (some might argue one of a few key persons) in the poorest urban postal code in Canada with persons, who for many complex reasons, find themselves homeless. 

A while back, he was spending all his time figuring out ways to manage ground zero of the opioid contaminated drug catastrophe. It was here he experienced the death of hundreds of people that included a few good friends. Staying longer than perhaps he might - he eventually 'tipped' over. 

No longer able to go to work, his next step was to claim workplace compensation, which meant undergoing the procedures of 'assessment' and lengthy discussions with a number of psychologists.  Last week he had a final follow-up appointment with a new psychologist. And during this time of COVID-19 lockdown, he assumed it would be a virtual conversation. But instead, the psychologist asked him to visit his office. Upon arrival, my friend got the impression the psychologist wasn't necessarily taking the coronavirus as seriously as they might. 

Anyway, after taking a 'test' comprised of 350 questions, the psychologist interviewed him through a standardized PTSD interview. It didn't take long for my friend to realize the interviewing psychologist wasn't including the present context of the COVID-19 virus. Below is a fictionalized version of the interview from what I remember him telling me:

Psychologist: Have you been out of the house in the last three weeks.

Friend: Uh, no I haven't really except to buy groceries.

P: And did you talk with anyone while you were buying groceries.

F: Not really.

P: Have you had any inclination to visit with your friends?

F: Since when?

P: Over the last month have you had any inclination to visit with your friends?

F: To be honest, I haven't really thought about visiting with friends.

P: Have any friends wanted to come over to visit with you over the last three weeks?

F: Not that I know of.

P: Are you sad none of your friends have come over to visit you?

F: Sad? Definitely not.

P: Do you think your friends feel like you don't want them to visit?

F: That would be correct.

P: Was there ever a time when you socialized more than you currently do?

F: Absolutely!

P: Have you noticed any compulsive tendencies?

F: Like what?

P: Like a special need for symmetry and order, or a fear of germs, or washing your hands a lot. That sort of thing.

F: Yes, I have noticed I've been washing my hands a lot more.

And on and on the interview went. Funny enough by the end of the conversation, it turned out the psychologist didn't think my friend was suffering from what had been described as PTSD anymore.

Chitter-chatter: The 8 Conversational Habits of Highly Effective Problems

This time of lockdown and social distancing has afforded many of us time to play around and re-visit projects we could only wish we had time for before. I've been entertaining myself with a ton of different activities that includes time in the day to look back on a few narrative practice ideas, writing a little bit and stretching the ideas further. What you'll read below is a bit rough and unready and feels more like jamming than composition. So please – read at your own risk.

My primary intention for this newsletter was to fool around and find a way to extend my nibbles of understanding of Michel Foucault's writings on power/knowledge, subjectification, internalized cultural discourse and self-surveillance, into more purposeful expressions and comprehensions for everyday narrative therapy practice. The question I'd like to focus on is: How Internalized Cultural Conversations End Up Supporting Highly Effective Problem Habits.

A little background: My fascination with the specific workings of internalized conversational problemhabits first began during the latter end of the 1990s with women I was working with on an inpatient, adult eating disorder hospital psychiatric ward. Situating the 'voice' of the problem was always a part of my work; however, the Anti-anorexia context brought the practice into living colour. 

At some point during this work, I began to realize the women on the ward were using descriptions of a punishing internalized habitual language of anorexia and bulimia that appeared almost identical with what women were describing in other places all over the world. There seemed to be a common internalized 'international language' of anorexia. 

The question was: How was it possible that women from Iran, India, China, Croatia and Canada - women from different cultures, classes, values, religious beliefs and freedoms - could be sharing a parallel, intimate knowledge of the deadly internalized language of anorexia? Wasn't anorexia a Western phenomenon?

It didn't take long to arrive at the shores of a frightening conclusion: the language, practice, rules and rituals of eating disorders were being exported worldwide through the global economy! Standing as a frontline witness to just how fast a pro-anorexic internalized discourse was travelling and killing its way through diverse social locations and cultures forever changed the framework and understanding of my narrative practice.

Years later, I began a more thorough investigation into highly effective internalized problem habits (eventually arriving at 8 primary habits). And this time around I pushed my interest through the looking glass of Michel Foucault's writings on Jeremy Bentham and a self-surveillance architectural design he called the Panopticon. I also found utility in spending more and more time trying to practice consistency and coherency with Foucault's ideas on power/knowledge, subjectification and internalized cultural discourse. 

So, my project set out to examine what the internalized discursive apparatus was all about. Several inquiries surfaced: a) How internalized culturally produced problem dialogues were operationalized; b) What the contingent histories of internalized problem dialogues were; c) What the common life support systems of injurious linguistic life were; d) How different conversational habits fit together and supported one another. and e) The many ways self-surveillance performs our lives through an adjudicating external audience with just enough judgemental 'gaze' for problems to grow forward and thrive. 

At the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy, I have the privilege and luxury to practice and explore whatever I please, so I began a project to relationally draw out specifications of what the internalized conversational problem habits were 'saying'; situating the internalized conversational problem habits in cultural discourse, and then exploring how people were, in turn, responding to what was being said. 

This wasn't a map I was seeking - it felt more like a criminal investigation.

And to be perfectly honest with you, during this time of my second and third round explorations on the conversational habits of highly effective problems project, I was personally enduring the convolutions that come with a significant breakup.  So - some of what follows here is sprinkled with the fairy dust of local knowledge and could be more than a bit autobiographical. 

As a side note to saying I'll be "perfectly honest with you". . .  please keep in mind a quote of Judith Butler's I am quite fond of: "Telling the truth about oneself comes at a price, and the price of that telling is the suspension of a critical relation to the truth regime in which one lives."

In the close up study and documentation on the productions of internalized discourse of problems, it became apparent the discourse of problems did not have one central place of origin. Nor one central starting place in history. Rather, problems have contingent histories – or what we might otherwise view as a historical process of 'problematization'. 

For Foucault, problematization is a form of analysis, where it seeks to answer the questions of "how and why certain things (behaviour; phenomena, processes) became a problem." The process of inquiry does not look at 'what a problem is', but rather, how, through a certain period of history, did the problem come to be culturally produced and performed. It was at this point when what I was doing became the Problematization Project.

For anorexia, the problem was late to the psychological diagnostic party (circa the late 1970s) and brought along many discursive sites of influence and self-surveillance/audience regarding cultural specifications of bodies, stipulations on personal responsibility, the tyranny of perfection, the male gaze etc. Discursive sites of influence and self-surveillance/audience are, of course, not just particular to the issue of anorexia, as discursive sites influence how we come to view and perform problems, values, intentions and relational acts of personhood. 

Let me try and say what I'm trying to say another way: From the cradle, we learn our culture codes through imitation from all we are relationally connected. We copy what we watch and hear. It is ritual observance. We learn from those who learned before -- to walk, brush our teeth, ride bicycles, spell words, make love, work jobs, speak language, and adhere to certain values and good manners.

It seems we fashion our talk and the ways we perform our lives and see the world through an internalized fragmented "Karaoke" of the other—while they are doing the same. We sing their songs of right and wrong and catalogue this in cultural verse. And within the generative discursive space of our living world, narrative possibility may be structurally determined, as Humberto Maturana points out. Still, it is not restricted nor restrained to exclude the multiplicity and fusion of alternative rhymes and reason. From the problem comes difference and creativity. The beat goes on – we move from bebop to jazz.  

From personal and professional experience, one idea kept emerging that was, in a manner of speaking, a rather simple one that I'd known before. As communal citizens, we partake in a practice of ongoing internalized conversations with ourselves (and imagined others) as a way of measuring ourselves against the external world. We try to determine if we fit in, if we are acceptable, wondering if we are "normal" (i.e., normal parent, employee, partner, person etc.) and perusing the imagined consequences if we are not deemed normal by the others looking on. Self-surveillance/audience.

A recent return to my ever-growing fascination with the performance and our response to internalized conversations brought me back to Michel Foucault's writing on the Panopticon. For a brilliant discussion, see philosopher Todd May speak on Foucault, self-surveillance and the Panopticon on recent lectures.

In brief, the Panopticon was an architectural form developed by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. Bentham proposed this architectural form as an "ideal" model for the organization or arrangement of persons in space in a way that would effectively "forge" them as "docile bodies"; bodies that could be more easily transformed and used. He considered it ideal in that it would maximize the efficiency of persons while simultaneously minimizing the efforts required to supervise them (in offices, classrooms, prisons, etc.). The Panopticon was envisioned as a model for an efficient and economic form of power.

As an architectural form, the Panopticon featured a circular building with a courtyard at the centre or a series of buildings arranged around a courtyard. The building could have several levels, with each level the thickness of one room only. Each of these individual spaces faced an observation tower that was situated in the centre of the courtyard. This tower housed the 'guardians', and its levels corresponded precisely with the levels of the circular building. From this tower, the guardians of the organization could have an uninterrupted view of all the activities taking place in the individual spaces. The guardians' view was facilitated by the backlighting of each space. Nothing could escape scrutiny. The persons in the spaces were to be the objects of perpetual observation. However, the guardians were never visible to the persons in the individual spaces. The tower was designed so that those individuals could not see into the tower.

The point of the Panopticon was that persons in the spaces could never detect whether they were being observed at any particular point in time. Such persons had little choice but to assume that they could be the subject of a guardian's gaze at any time. They experienced themselves as the subjects of the ever-present gaze. This mechanism of power had the effect of "inciting" persons to act as if they were always being observed, always being judged and watched.

At the end of the days of therapeutic co-research with client experiences and personal observation, I eventually encountered 8 Conversational Habits of Highly Effective Problems.

The 8 Conversational Habits of Highly Effective Problems favourites I chose are: 1. If-surveillance/audience, 2. Illegitimacy  3. Fear, 4. Negative imagination/invidious comparison, 5. Internalized bickering, 6. Guilt, 7. Hopelessness, 8. Perfection. By listing the 8 mentioned, I realize a very good argument could be made by many to include other internalized problem conversations such as anger, worry, shame and a boatload of countless others. 

My desire is not to overload you today, so I've decided to share a short discussion highlighting my experience working alongside one highly effective internalized conversational habit: self-surveillance/Audience. I have, however, spent time writing on the other 7.

1. Self-surveillance/Audience - A quick and easy summation of Michel Foucault's third mode of objectification analyzes how human beings turn themselves into subjects which he identified as subjectification.

From my layperson's perspective, subjectification involves those processes of self-formation where the person is active. Foucault is primarily concerned with isolating those techniques through which people initiate 'their own' active self-formation.  Foucault contends that this self-formation has a long and complicated history as it takes place through a variety of operations on people's bodies, thoughts and conduct.

These operations characteristically entail a process of self-understanding through internalized dialogue mediated through external cultural norms. Foucault suggests that people monitor and conduct themselves according to their interpretation of these set cultural norms. And as far as I can tell he views the process of internalized personal discourse – the conversations we relationally internalize from culture into the performance of ourselves - as an act of self-control guided by set social standards

It seems that this experience becomes problematic when we encounter an internalized relational questioning process involving surveillance/audience that goes something like: I think that you think that others think that I have done something wrong as a person, partner, son, worker and so on. 

It is the internalized imagining of what the others observing gaze might mean that joins together with a growing experience of several interwoven negative imagination/internalized conversations (i.e. Self-surveillance/audience might be joined with guilt and negative imagination etc.). 

I think I'm willing at this point to go so far as to say that without an internalized negative self-surveillance acting alongside a dialogic injurious audience of support, a problem has great difficulty surviving. And if this proposal were found to hold any weight, it may be wise for narrative therapy to consider this politic a little bit further.

Let me try and explain the self- surveillance/audience experience another way. Imagine the following scenario -- you are a professional therapist hired to work in the field of 'mental' health. You may have studied couples and families in university for over a decade of your life and worked very hard going to workshops, trainings and sitting in the therapy chair for thousands of hours learning a particular craft of couple and family therapy. This has brought you to the shores of an otherwise excellent reputation among your colleagues, family and peers. 

Then one day in history along comes deep suffering, suffering inspired by a complex event. In this case, we will use the crash of an intimate relational breakup. You know 100% the breakup is for the best. However, you still find yourself experiencing new encounters with levels of sadness and worry and levels of a not-knowing confusion like you have never before experienced. There are gaps opening, treacherous rifts you warn yourself not to fall into. Changeabilities. Back and forth-ies. More gaps. Bewilderments. You tell yourself to Mind The Gap, but somehow you've forgotten how. 

Into these gaps enters a negative judgemental thrust and imagined audience who you experience looking directly on. In your most private vulnerable place, there is an imagined audience saying 'I think that you think that I think that you think I could and should have done better.' It becomes a frat party of negative imagination! Undesirable voices, memories and opinions, and internalized experiences engaging various institutions, legacies, memories, discourses and individuals. 

It's not paranoia. It's worse. 

Imagine: You suddenly find yourself living on a train without breaks, hurtling back and forth through a spin-cycle of sleepless nights, not being able to hold on to a thought before another slip-slides its way forward, rapidly replaced by another and another. Your first encounter waking up is ten people hovering and chattering over the bed, "wake up sleepy head."  Some are long dead, some living up the road, and your favourite Uncle appears - even he(!) is questioning what side of the 'is he an asshole' line he stands on. Others you've tried to remember to forget squeeze into the space looking for a place to dig in. People you respect could have had the decency to back off and afford a little privacy. Huddled all together for some strange cosmic reason in the same vacant room, they voice theories on relationships and values and moral imperatives and responsibilities and Catholic priests (where the hell did they come from). The 20-year-old you is shouting marriage is just control and corruption of intimacy by the state, something you could never quite get across to your mother, and ex-girlfriends are reminding you over and over of histories where you messed up. Still, you know this is not a fair and equal rendering, it never was, but there they are standing in the prime timeline of speakers corner alongside your best friends who don't know whether to laugh or cry or what to say to calm the seas, fishing around for the you they know and love; politely asking for you to somehow find your cool again. Kind of Blue. The birth of cool. Miles Davis is the one and only person not here this morning.

And all this senseless, mind-bending internalized chitter-chatter before the first morning light and the first coffee sipped, and you wish deep down - you really wish – you were sipping on cocktail hour. But then, just then, concerns are mailed in about looking after yourself and keeping yourself healthy, of yoga classes missed and, here we go again, about the years of smoking and the life memories of fitness despite late nights because that was always the rule all paired up for this morning's one-sided debate featuring Deepak bloody Chopra and the lost youthful dreams of becoming a professional hockey player that slingshots the conversation screeching around the hairpin turn of uncertainty and losses and headlong into worst-case scenarios as some sketchy voice in the back row shouts "you'll never work in this town again" with a chorus of clients, students, mentors, and colleagues giving their sad nods and their tut-tut-tuts, saying he had such a bright future, he could have been a contender . . . and some wee voice out of nowhere calls 'the gloves are off', but I've no idea where to land the counter-punch as my father taught me for hours and hours and hours. There is a pause. The coffee is brewed, and there is nowhere to run. And so it continues. In the dead time of hope in the morning.  

Welcome to the social life of internalized problem conversations, my friends. And what you heard was the Disney version. Ha!

Without a purposeful and imaginative undoing project to face the injurious speech of internalized conversations, there is a good chance I may have spent more time than I needed to in the suffering. Enter the process I created called Counter-viewing questions. There isn't space to give too long an account so - briefly:

1) Counter-viewing is an intensely critical mode of reading conversational systems of meaning and unravelling the ways these systems work to prevail and negatively name.

2) Counter-viewing views all internalized problem conversations as ways to lure persons into taking certain normative ideas for granted and privileging specific normative ways of knowing and being over others.

3) Counter-viewing is an unravelling of cultural works through a kind of anti-method which resists a prescription. It is looking for how a problem is produced and reproduced rather than wanting to pin it down and say this is really what it is.

4) Counter-viewing looks for ways in which our understanding and room for movement are limited by the lines of persuasion operating in discourse.

5) Counter-viewing leads us to explore ways in which our understandings of problems are located in discourse.

6) Counter-viewing allows us to reflect on how we make and remake our lives through moral-political projects embedded in a sense of justice rather than sets of normative truths.

Somewhere in the dark room, where the negative accusatory pictures are made, a rising up occurred above the fray to consider personal counter-viewing questions such as: By what methods is the problem turning you towards a negative paparazzi view of yourself? How has the problem created a horrible campaign of gossip about your life? What are your thoughts on gossip and gossipers? Why would this injurious conversation want to separate you from your best knowledge of yourself and the persons that love you? Do you think the breakup has changed every aspect of who you are as a person? Has it somehow turned every single person who once loved you - against you - including yourself? Are there any outstanding ideas that you have grown up with concerning relationships that are presently holding you back from a different and perhaps more philosophic/realistic view of your situation? Are there any particular, popular knowledge's about relationships that seem to be supporting this negative view of yourself? If I was to let persons know what the negative self-surveillance has been saying about their view of me – what would they say?

As a narrative therapist, I consider the following Counter-viewing questions before the session:

1. What constitutes an audience/a spokesperson? 

2. What does the chitter-chatter of this conversation say?

3. How does it work informing its argument?

4. By what means is the surveillant audience supported?

5. Who is involved in this specific problem audience?

6. What/who constitutes the alternative supporting audience?

7. What are the major discursive influences affecting your internal self-surveillance system?

8. When is self-surveillance most self-supporting?

From personal experience, the negative identity conclusions raised through harmful self-surveillance/audience are disconnecting of persons from alternative relational identity conclusions. Implementing a rich process of relational reconnection towards belonging, difference, protest and re-memberances of counter-stories persons tell about who they are, who they have been and who they might become, are crucial for change to occur. 

Well, that was fun now, wasn't it? Ha!

Thank you for spending time with the newsletter today and please feel free to write me directly if you have any comments, critiques or questions

Take care of yourselves. Stay safe and watch out for the self-surveillance/audience during this most vulnerable time spent inside the lockdown days.


PS: Spending time locked down in Vancouver has also afforded the moments I've been dreaming about - working on the finer points of our online interactive all Narrative Therapy learning site is designed for the narrative therapist who sits in the therapy chair day after day. Because the experiences we have from sitting and listening and working with clients day after day are not experiences 'civilians' can fully understand. 

And it's OK civilians have no way of understanding because we have one another who actually do understand the experience of sitting in the therapy chair day after day.

Over the last couple of months, membership has gone through the roof. 

Thanks and welcome to the party!

Last Wednesday, the members got together over Zoom. First, we watched a 13-minute video clip of philosopher and VSNT faculty Todd May teaching our February 2020 Foundations course about essentialism, individualism and Michel Foucault. After the clip Todd, myself and the membership had a stirring 45-minute live conversation on the finer points of Foucault's work, and it's relationship with narrative therapy.

On Friday of last week, I joined VSNT faculty members Helene Grau, co-director of Narativ Praxis in Copenhagen, and superstar David Nylund from Sacramento in a Zoom discussion in our Developing Questions Series. We began by showing a 12 minute long 1991 video workshop by Michael White discussing the structure and meaning of Relative Influence Questions and Landscape of Action and Identity Questions. 

What followed was an in-depth, 60-minute discussion with members participating from South Africa, Norway, Argentina, Spain, Denmark, Canada, and all over the USA. We discussed the history and influence of these ideas on Michael's practice, the historical progression of meaning, politic and use of these narrative questions. We shared recent case examples from our practice and outlined the mistakes we've all made in the therapy room, trying to learn these bloody questions. 

Helene, David and I continue our Developing Questions series on Friday, April 17th.

323 views0 comments


bottom of page