The problem story
Last January, I transitioned from retail assistant in Wollongong to intern at a digital media start up in Spain, in the space of a few weeks. In this new role, I undertook digital marketing activities for the growing brand, We Love Martha. Conditions were not ideal; I was forced to work in what barely qualified as a co-working space, in the dead of winter. This “co-working space” was a half-converted factory with no windows, no heating, and no joy. Worse yet, my “mentor” knew nothing about the area in which I was supposed to be gaining experience.
Needless to say, after weeks of the blind (mostly just myself) leading the blind (also myself) through research and analysis projects, a rewrite of the website’s copy, and the creation of a rusty social media plan, I was frustrated and annoyed. It didn’t help that my roommate snored all night, which meant I fell asleep at about 4-5am every day (lucky me!), but thats another story.
I had wanted to write about this aspect of my time abroad for months, but was always halted by my bitterness toward it. More than that, I felt so lost that I simply did not know where to start. However, when I came upon late Australian social worker, Michael White, and his work on what he terms ‘narrative therapy’, my internalised story began to unfurl.
You see, in White’s practice of narrative therapy an individual is encouraged to ‘seperate themselves from their problems’ (Walter 2018; Edwards & Walker 2019); and oh boy I had a problem—it clung to me like a parasite. My time in Spain was supposed to be a life-altering, self-reinventing experience that I would look fondly upon as the start of a successful career. Instead, it morphed into a memory of festering resentment that made my stomach churn.
White’s ideas are built upon by his contemporaries and successors who will also be referenced in this abridged version of a narrative reflection. The work of Carey, Walther and Russell (2008) is drawn upon frequently; two of whom were faculty at Narrative Practices Adelaide, the offspring of the Adelaide Narrative Therapy Centre opened by White in 2008 (Carey, Russell & Hall n.d.).
The concept of the ‘absent, but implicit’ pervades White’s method of narrative therapy. It encapsulates the thinking that it ‘is not possible to talk about anything without drawing out what it is not’ (White 2006). For example, my problem experience interning in Spain was not one that catered to my preferences for structured, relevant skills learning in a positive and supportive environment. This hidden story of preferences and values is what Carey, Walther and Russell (2008) term ‘subjugated meanings’.
To identify these subjugated meanings, a process called ‘double-listening’ must be employed (Carey, Walther and Russell 2008). This listening process gives attention to both the visible and invisible layers of the problem story, probing at the veiled ideas implicit in an individual’s self-expression (Freedman 2012).
According to Fleming (2003), by examining subjugated meanings an individual can ‘broaden their frame of reference, develop new meanings about their life, and become aware of new possibilities.’ Freedman (2012) expands on Fleming by describing this aspect of narrative reflection as a ‘gateway into that realm of experience where people’s most cherished hopes, aspirations, and commitments live and breathe.’
Thus, in surfacing the subjugated meanings which underlaid my problem story, I created fertile ground to re-author my experience for my future self (Courtois n.d.). I have revealed not only my preferences and values, but also possibilities as to where I can take my next steps forward (Walter 2018).
Upon further reflection, I had already been unconsciously attempting to re-author my professional identity since my problem experience occurred. This is evident as I relentlessly vied for another internship for months after my return, and I recently volunteered as the Vice President of the Digital Media Society. All of these experiences are ones that unconciously embody my values of positivity and creativity, and my preference for a comfortable working environment.
However, since I have now consciously deconstructed my problem story, I am better equipped with the awareness to answer a question that started rattling around my head when I left Spain in January…
“Where to next?”
Carey, Walther & Russell (2009) identify this moment as the final step in scaffolding narrative development because it connects a ‘person’s actions and experiences across the dimension of time.’ This step allows an individual to craft forward momentum in their life, and gives rise to an ‘experience of personal agency’ (Carey, Walther & Russell 2009).
Header image credit: photo of myself shared with permission from Ava Gomez and Janika Gaona, January 2020
Please find references on page two.