Are you curious to know the most popular song in the world right now? Of course, you might not have been able to miss it.
This autumn, a musical milestone was achieved by Taylor Swift, who has become the first musician to claim all ten top slots of the US Billboard Top 100. Of her ten conquering songs the one that’s found most popularity with streamers is Anti-Hero, with its choral refrain, ‘I’m the problem, it’s me’.
And this phrase has been reported as being rapidly taken up in social media trends almost as an anthem for our times. The promotional video accompanying the song depicts multiple versions of Swift portraying a character riven by internal conflict, struggling to relate to others and self-medicating with alcohol to cope.
Clearly, apart from its evident musical catchiness, something in the central message of this song is resonating with fans of an artist whose online followers number more than 100 million, mostly young, people. Is it that the singer’s conflation of her very identity with her problem seems to fit their own experience?
So what’s ‘the problem’?
The word ‘problem’ has been defined as ‘a situation, person, or thing that needs attention and needs to be dealt with or solved’. Just to speak the word involves compressing the lips twice to form the first syllable with its explosive ‘p’ and ‘b’ in a verbal stumble, almost expressive of something being expelled. It’s derived from the Greek ‘proballein’, a combination of ‘pro’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘ballein’ meaning ‘to throw’. And perhaps there is an ancient wisdom in the root of this word in its suggestion that we experience the need to ‘throw’ a perceived problem out of us.
Working with ‘the problem’ in therapy
This has recalled me to thinking about the uses of therapy as a means for practitioner and client to work purposefully together in addressing the recurrent phenomena of ‘the problem’.
Narrative therapy offers a framework for supporting families and individuals who present accounts of their life experience as ‘problem saturated’. Where someone has concluded they are the problem, in locating the problem inwardly in this way, they have formed what is called a ‘dominant story’ about themselves, one that could become powerfully restricting in narrowing possibilities for them to uncover other meanings or perspectives on their lives. It’s argued that this way of seeing only supports and sustains the presenting problem.
Linked with the original meaning of the word as ‘throwing’ something away from us, narrative therapy invites us to separate the person from the problem. Therapist and client engage in a collaborative search for an ‘alternative story’ that will challenge a person’s dominant story through techniques of ‘problem externalisation’. This starts with the contention that ‘the problem is the problem’ and focuses instead on the relationship between the person and the problem.
In therapeutic practice, fruitful ways of externalising any problem often involve using language creatively in naming it and even placing the problem where it may be visualised in the room and personified in its own right as an entity with its own curious qualities. So depending on the nature of the difficulty, practitioner and client might be working together to discover more about what the client them self names as, for example, the ‘Anxiety Wave’, the ‘Constant Conflict’ or even, in the case of Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero, the ‘Monster On The Hill’.
This is an approach that honours the deep distress experienced by many individuals for whom a problem has become an inextricable and debilitating part of themselves. Through supporting them to separate from their problem, alternative stories can emerge that surface previously unacknowledged – or discounted – personal skills and competencies, revealing new capacities for agency.
Arguably Taylor’s song has done a service for those who most identify with her protagonist’s dominant story of problem internalisation. I hope it leads them to ways in which they might find their own alternative stories to effect preferred positive change in their own lives.
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by Chris Horton –