I was cleaning out some things from my fridge one day and I realized that I had forgotten about some leftovers stored in a Tupperware bowl. It must have been several weeks old because I could see the horrible greenish mold that had grown on whatever was in it. Nothing smelled bad in the fridge, so I had not noticed it before that day, but I dreaded the thought of removing the lid to throw out the contents, because certainly I would smell it then.
Well, I reasoned that it was just a plastic bowl and I could just avoid dealing with the mess of it and simply throw the entire thing away.
A bit later, I thought about how I had resolved to throw out a perfectly good bowl because it was, in my mind, now contaminated and disgusting. It was the easiest thing to do and it did make sense to me, but I found myself considering how the action I took is similar to that which we take with others in our lives.
I treated the bowl as if it was the problem rather than the molded food contents. I could have removed the contents in any number of ways and soaked the bowl itself in a disinfectant like bleach and added soap until I was ready to wash it out. In this way, I would have removed the problem from the bowl, which was never the problem.
Theorist and narrative family therapist Michael White is known for his idea of “externalizing the problem” which has to do with helping people to situate the problem, through how they talk about it, on the outside of themselves or others. In essence, the problem becomes a separate entity or external to people who are often viewed as the problem.
It was from this idea that I began thinking about the parallel between how I had handled the bowl with molded food and how we often view others in our lives. When we are able to see the molded food as the problem that has perhaps contributed to the horrible smell of the bowl, for example, then we are not blaming, attacking, or attempting to throw away the bowl as the “stinky bowl.” When we separate the problem of the molded food from the bowl, then we create opportunities for greater possibilities for not letting the stench of the old molded food take away a perfectly good bowl.
I believe that in our problems within our families and relationships as well as with ourselves, we would benefit hugely from this understanding. Rather than fight one another or ourselves, we would stand up against the problem recognizing it as an outsider seeking to invade our lives and rob us happy and satisfying relationships. We would not seek to throw one another away because of things we see as “problems in them.” Instead, we would work to change our relationship to the problem, which often means that we change something about how we respond to it. This might lead to a way of throwing out the problem and keeping the “bowl.”
The problem does not live inside of you; it is an illusion.
Contact columnist LaTonya Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.