BPD Superpowers

BPD Superpowers

BPD Superpowers: What the borderline makes possible (clickable link to PDF)

o   The Superpower of Community (and community care)
o   The Superpower of Showing Up
o   Resilience
o   Endurance
o   Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
o   Empathy and Compassion
o   The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
o   The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
o   The Ability to ‘Chameleon’

From the document:

This document follows a conversation, facilitated by Osden Nault and Tiffany Sostar, whose goal was to center the voices of folks who identify with BPD (either diagnosed by a professional or self-claimed), and to shift the dominant narrative about Borderline Personality Disorder. This document includes quotes from participants as well as quotes from BPD folks who were not at the event itself.

This event was the result of both Osden and Tiffany noting the lack of BPD voices in the resources available about, and especially for, the BPD community. So much of what is available includes harmful stories about what kind of people have BPD, and how difficult and even dangerous it is to be in relationship with them. These stories obscure the complex lived experiences of BPD individuals who have valuable insider knowledges into how to navigate big emotions and the ongoing effects of complex trauma.

Because we live in such a complex, overwhelming, and traumatizing social context, we hope that this resource might also provide help and insight for folks who do not identify with BPD but who have experienced complex trauma or are living with overwhelming Feels.

We also hope that this resource will help folks who are facing the injustice of inaccessible mental health supports. We recognize that the BPD community faces intense stigma and is also significantly underserved by medical and mental health professionals. If you have found this resource because you haven’t found anything else, we hope that it helps. You are valid, your experiences are valid, and no matter how much you may struggle with your big feelings at times, we know that you also have skills, strategies, superpowers.

There’s so much more that we could have put into this document, and we hope to continue this work both within the BPD Superpowers group and through engagement with other folks who identify with borderline personality disorder (either through self-identification or through a formal diagnosis). Maybe there will even be a book!

For now, here’s what you’ll find in this 43-page PDF.

  • A note on this moment
  • Making space for borderline wisdom
  • Borderline Stories
  • Deconstructing the Discourse of Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Experiencing BPD by Osden Nault
  • Navigating systems
  • Getting better?
  • BPD and the Mythology of “Letting Go” by Kay Fidler
  • Borderline Communities
  • Empathy on the Borderline
  • Borderline Chameleons & Identity Flags
  • A Strategy from Narrative Therapy: Escaping from Normal
  • Support and Solidarity
  • Suggestions for Everyone
  • Suggestions for Friends
  • Suggestions for Partners
  • Suggestions for Family
  • Suggestions for Service Providers
  • Who we are
  • Art by Osden Nault

A note on this moment

Acknowledging the political climate in which we are releasing this work and the intersections of oppression and mental illness / neurodivergence.

At this moment, Black people in the USA and marginalized groups worldwide are mobilizing against white supremacist, racist, and anti-Black violent systemic oppression. We are unequivocally in support of this ongoing struggle for more just futures. In releasing this document at this time, we wish to acknowledge the compounded effects of anti-Black racism, white supremacy, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and many more forms of violent oppression and marginalization on individual mental health and neurotypes.

An Indigenous participant has shared:

One of the first definitions of BPD I saw described it as resulting from a “genetic predisposition” and trauma. I immediately thought about my own family’s intergenerational trauma. At a point in time when we know ancestral trauma affects us to a genetic level, I wondered how the history of colonial violence plays a role in my present day neurodivergent experience.

We see the effects of violent oppression on physical and mental health, spanning generations and present today. In what Angela Davis has referred to as a “very exciting moment,” and about which she says, “I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of a global challenge to racism and to the consequences of slavery and colonialism,”[1] we acknowledge that there is a great deal of ongoing work and healing to be done. We release this collective document with free access and the hope that it will aid in the future and ongoing well being of oppressed individuals and communities.

With love and solidarity, The BPD Superpowers group

[1]   Angela Davis: ‘This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced,’ Channel 4 News, youtube.com. 

Find earlier posts from this work:

Recognizing BPD Superpowers

Recognizing BPD Superpowers

The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given on August 24, 2019. The second part of this event was an interview with Kay and Sam, which will be shared next week. Both of these posts are shared in celebration of BPD Awareness Month. The image is a still from the presentation., with Kay on the left, Tiffany in the middle, and Sam on the right.


Welcome to “Recognizing BPD Superpowers”, on the topic of sharing and celebrating the hopes, skills, insider knowledges, and experiences of folks who identify with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. This includes people who have claimed the label for themselves, people who have had the label applied to them, and people for whom both are true.

I want to note up front that this presentation will include references to self-harm, suicidality, and to some of the stigmatizing and pathologizing language that is often applied to folks who are identified with BPD. This has the potential to be triggering. If, at any point, you need to take a break – that is a-okay! Also, it’s a long post! Sorry!

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you to my co-facilitators.

Kay D’Odorico is a queer, neurodivergent human of Indigenous and European descent. They advocate for Sex Workers and own and operate their own perfuming business full-time here in Mohkinstsís.

Sam is just a human pursuing her best possible self. She is passionate about her recovery, her intersections, and wishes to hold space for others while creating it for herself.

Both of these humans have been phenomenal supports and collaborators, and I’m honoured to have shared this space with them. The narrative interview with these two lovely humans, which followed this presentation, will be shared next week on this blog.

My name is Tiffany Sostar. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a narrative therapist, community organizer, editor, writer, workshop facilitator, and tarot reader – I do a bunch of different things, and they all sort of orient around engaging with stories. The stories people tell about ourselves and others, the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and others, and, especially, how we can tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. That phrase – telling our stories in ways that make us stronger – comes from Auntie Barbara Wingard, an Australian Aboriginal narrative therapist who has done profoundly meaningful work on many topics, including creating ways for Indigenous communities to grieve together in ways that are consistent with their cultures.

My own work is significantly influenced by the work of Indigenous narrative therapists and community organizers, including Auntie Barb, Tileah Drahm-Butler who is another Australian narrative therapist, and Michelle Robinson, who is a community organizer and politician here in Calgary. (You can find one of Aunty Barb’s projects, a walking history tour here, and one of Tileah’s project, a presentation on decolonizing identity stories here, and Michelle Robinson’s Patreon and podcast here.)

Colonial Violence and BPD

As a white settler who works in the field of mental health, a field that has historically been incredibly harmful to marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, trans, queer, two-spirit, fat, unhoused, sex working, substance using, and so many other communities who have come to professionals for help and been met with stigma and harm, I think that recognizing how much I have benefitted from the work of marginalized communities is critical. Any good work that I do in communities that are more or differently marginalized than I am myself is entirely due to the generosity and wisdom of the people within those communities who have shared their insider knowledges.

This workshop happened on Indigenous land, and this blog post is being written on Indigenous land. All land is Indigenous land. Here, I am on Treaty 7 land. It is the land of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Kainai, Siksika, and Piikani First Nations, and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, the Tsuut’ina, the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and all of the other Indigenous men, women, and two-spirit folks who are here as a result of child removals, forced relocations, economic pressures, or other reasons.

This work was inspired by Osden Nault, and we had been talking about getting this project underway for quite some time. We both noted the lack of BPD voices in resources and writing about BPD, and wanted to do something to address that. This presentation, and the resources that are currently under development, would not have happened without Osden. They also co-facilitated the first group discussion that created the foundation for this workshop. Osden is an artist of Michif and mixed European descent, whose art practice and research are both grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous world-views. Osden lives in Tkaronto on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, under the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which precedes colonial treaties on this land. Even though they weren’t at this workshop, their influence was present!

This presentation was, and is, part of a larger series of resources that the BPD Superpowers group is creating around BPD, some of which will be shared during BPD Awareness Month in May of 2020. If you live in a colonial country and don’t know whose land you’re on, it would be worth looking that up. The land you’re on is now part of this project, too.

Here in Canada, the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people found that:

“The significant, persistent, and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human rights and Indigenous rights violations and abuses – perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, social structures, and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families, and individuals – is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and is genocide. This colonialism, discrimination, and genocide explains the high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”

Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

We must talk about colonial violence when we are talking about trauma-related mental health experiences, which many people experience BPD as being, because otherwise we risk perpetuating harm. For example, the 2014 research paper “Characteristics of borderline personality disorder in a community sample,” published in the Journal of Personality Disorders, finds that Native American and African American communities are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with BPD, and with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc.

I think that, knowing this, we must look at racial trauma, and acknowledge how racial trauma impacts individuals if we are going to talk about these experiences and diagnoses. Otherwise, we are missing key context.

Rebecca Lester, in her paper, “Lessons from the Borderline” writes:

“Most people diagnosed with BPD grew up in situations where their very existence as a person with independent thoughts and feelings was invalidated (Minzenberg et al., 2003). Sometimes, this entailed chronic abuse, either physical or sexual. Sometimes it was more of a grinding parental indifference. People diagnosed with BPD overwhelmingly experienced their early lives as involving constant messages that they do not – and should not – fully exist.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

How can we separate this from the findings of the Final Report, which identify exactly this dynamic of abuse and identity invalidation as having been directed at Indigenous communities since the beginning of colonization? I don’t think that we can.

What even is a “personality disorder”?!

So, borderline personality disorder, like many “personality disorders” is a contested and controversial term and diagnosis. Heads up for some stigmatizing and pathologizing language in this next section. I want to give you a bit of context for the social location of BPD, and for my own positioning here.

I have never received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Although there are many BPD characteristics that I do strongly identify with, and I share an experience of trauma that many BPD folks might recognize, I do not feel a strong attachment to the BPD label. In my own life, I am comfortable recognizing certain shared experiences without claiming a shared identity.

In my own work, I do not diagnose the community members who consult with me for narrative therapy, but I do respect and work with the diagnoses that people bring into our sessions. There are lots of reasons for this, but one important one for locating myself within this work is that as a narrative therapist, I am interested in externalizing problems – meaning, locating the problem outside of the person I am consulting with. I think that many contemporary ways of speaking about borderline personality disorder invite us to view BPD as a set of traits inherent to an individual.

BPD is often described as a volatility that can make people dangerous, an instability, a lack of cohesive identity – all of these ways of speaking about BPD locate it within the person, rather than within their context. I think that this obscures the many ways in which folks who have been identified with BPD respond to the problems in their lives. These ways of speaking, of telling a story about BPD, can end up having the consequence of giving BPD more agency than the person in front of us!

And I think that this is a problem.

I also think it’s a problem that can arise even when we’re not being malicious or trying to be stigmatizing – “You can’t help it, it’s the BPD” is a framing that invites neither accountability nor dignity and agency, even though it appears to be a compassionate approach.

Instead, I am interested in how people respond when BPD shows up in their lives. I’m interested in learning when this problem first showed up, what it wants, and how people have responded to it. What are they valuing when they pick up a DBT workbook and start developing their strategies for emotional regulation? What are they hoping for when they continue to show up in relationships despite the BPD voice telling them to bail? Who taught them that they could respond? Who in their lives knows what they cherish, and would not be surprised to learn that they are taking actions to respond to the problems in their lives?

Rebecca Lester writes:

“I understand BPD somewhat differently than my clinical colleagues who see it as a dysfunction of personality and my academic colleagues who see it as a mechanism of social regulation. In my view, BPD does not reside within the individual person; a person stranded alone on a desert island cannot have BPD. Nor does it reside within diagnostic taxa; if we eliminated BPD from the DSM, people would still struggle with the cluster of issues captured in the diagnosis. Rather, BPD resides – and only resides – in relationship. BPD is a disorder of relationship, not of personality. And it is only a ‘disorder’ because it extends an entirely adaptive skill set into contexts where those skills are less adaptive and may cause a great deal of difficulty. Yet due to the contexts in which the skills were developed, the person has a great deal of trouble amending them (Linehan, 1993). Since BPD resides in relationship, BPD can also be attenuated through relationship: it is not a life-sentence, and it is not even necessarily problematic if managed constructively.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the foundational beliefs of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the solution is rarely individual. I think that this is an important framing to bring to discussions of BPD.

So that’s where I stand.

Questioning the Discourse

How about the discourse around BPD?

In her fantasy book Borderline, author Mishell Baker, who identifies as BPD herself and has written a badass BPD heroine for the novel, writes, “Sometimes, the first thing people learn about borderlines is that you can’t trust them. And there’s not always much learning after that.”

That’s why it is so important to think critically about the stories we are telling about BPD, and about people who are identified with BPD. To keep learning. To interrogate what we have been taught or told about what it means to live with BPD experiences.

Does the story leave room for the dignity and agency of the person being described?

Does it position the person as the expert in their own experience?

Who does this story serve, and what are the potential outcomes of this story?

We need to ask these questions anytime we read an article, a post, a book, a webpage – what, and who, is being supported in this narrative?

What, and who, is being diminished?

Bring these questions with you anytime you engage with writing or speaking about BPD (or anything else!)

BPD is recognized as one of ten personality disorders in the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. In the ICD-10, the manual used by the World Health Organization, this diagnosis is named “emotionally unstable personality disorder.”  

The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as:

“A type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.”

Mayo Clinic, Personality Disorders

We’re going to come back to this idea of “trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people” because, in fact, many participants in our BPD Superpowers group identified themselves as being uniquely and specifically skilled in observing their environments, relationships, and selves, and in building community and empathizing and connecting with other people. Although it is true that many folks experience BPD as getting in the way of their relationships at times, this does not mean that they cannot perceive and understand what is happening around them.

BPD and Abuse

This framing, this story of what a personality disorder is, can be weaponized against a person who is identified with BPD. It can actually leave them more vulnerable to abuse, because it frames them as being somehow inherently and perpetually incapable of accurate perception. Even if this is not what a clinician might mean when they use this language, this is what you get from a quick google search. Very little discussion of the social contexts within which these so-called “personality disorders” arise, and almost nothing that describes the skillful and intentional ways in which people respond to these problems.

Gaslighting refers to actions that cause someone to question their own memory, perception, or sanity. Gaslighting can happen intentionally – lying about, denying, or misrepresenting what has happened.

But it can also happen unintentionally when we treat someone’s perception as unreliable, when we default to the idea that they are lying or mistaken, when we refuse to position them as the experts in their own experiences. The discourse of personality disorders as meaning that a person “has trouble perceiving situations” can create a context within which a person with BPD is being constantly, and often unintentionally and non-maliciously but still harmfully!, gaslit. It can leave people who are identified with BPD in the position of not being believed if they are subjected to abuse. It is not a helpful framing.

How are we witnessing BPD?

As an alternative framing, it might be helpful to ask ourselves what is influencing how we are witnessing the people in our lives who are identified with BPD. Are we kind witnesses to their experiences? Are we holding space for them to share their insider knowledges into what they need, what they are experiencing, and what is helpful for them?

And on the topic of helpful or unhelpful, here is what Wikipedia has to say about BPD:

“BPD is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:

  • Markedly disturbed sense of identity
  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and extreme reactions
  • Splitting (“black-and-white” thinking)
  • Impulsivity and impulsive or dangerous behaviors (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
  • Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation
  • Unstable and chaotic interpersonal relationships
  • Self-damaging behavior
  • Distorted self-image
  • Dissociation
  • Frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, or rage

The most distinguishing symptoms of BPD are marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment. Overall, the features of BPD include unusually intense sensitivity in relationships with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and impulsivity. Other symptoms may include feeling unsure of one’s personal identity, morals, and values; having paranoid thoughts when feeling stressed; depersonalization; and, in moderate to severe cases, stress-induced breaks with reality or psychotic episodes.”


The wiki page also includes the Millon subtypes, which include Discouraged borderline, Petulant borderline, Impulsive borderline, and Self-destructive borderline. Fabulous.

So that’s Wikipedia, which is one of the first places that many folks look when they receive a diagnosis of BPD or when they are trusted with a disclosure from a friend or family member, or when they hear about someone having BPD.

If you are here as a friend, family member, or someone in community with folks who are identified with BPD, imagine what it might feel like to read that about yourself, and to have that be the dominant narrative of who you are. Imagine what it might feel like to know that people around you are reading this about you, and may be talking about you and people like you in these terms.

If you are here as a person who identifies with BPD, know that I and every one of the people involved in this project, and many people beyond this group, see you for more than these degrading and diminishing descriptors. We recognize your superpowers. We recognize your resilience. In one of the group discussions, a participant said, “Every single person with BPD who is still with us, and those that aren’t still with us, I think that we absolutely deserve to be acknowledged and that our hard work should be acknowledged. Not tokenized or pedestalized, but having that work acknowledged and witnessed.”

I agree.

And I agree with Rebecca Lester when she writes:

Through challenging embedded bias, honoring the testimonies of individuals, questioning of our own motivations, and renewing a commitment to reduce injustice, silencing, and suffering, our intellectual, clinical, and human potentialities are being stretched and, if we are fortunate, will continue to grow.

What I find most compelling about my clients with ‘borderline’ symptoms is that they are still struggling to exist despite the deep conviction that they do not deserve to do so. And they are still struggling to connect with others, despite being told again and again that they are manipulative and controlling and difficult. Far from being inauthentic, then, these individuals are reaching out into the world in the most honest, direct, vulnerable ways they possibly can, all the while bracing for the invalidation and hostility that they know is likely to follow. They cannot help but reach for connection, and to hold out faith, however dim, that they will find it. I find this incredibly inspiring; it puts front-and-center the impulse for growth and health that I believe exists in all of us, no matter how encrusted with despair, dysfunction, hopelessness, or defeat.

I learn from these clients every single day. Their struggles and their resilience humble me. They remind me that intellectual critique is but one piece of a much larger puzzle, and that they have experiences that deserve to be heard and validated, even when (perhaps especially when) they challenge our interpretations. They push me to become a better scholar, a better clinician, and, I hope, in the end, a better human being.

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the contributors to the BPD Superpowers project, Dottie Ayala, shared the following on her facebook page and has given us permission to use this quote in the resource.

with my bpd symptoms, I just can’t handle cbt or dbt thanks to fucked up experiences in the past. And I don’t trust any therapists bc they’re only getting my POV about what’s happening and I think they side with me more than is valid sometimes. And also trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own is so damaging as an abuse survivor.

but I notice my reactions getting less and less severe over the years and that’s just like a combination of introspection, community, and also others holding me accountable. Plus realizing I have bpd helped me be able to recognize when I’m having a flare and prepare accordingly.

basically, mental health care can look really different for different ppl. I feel like my doctors act like I’m resisting treatment when really I’m just resisting being harmed more.

Dottie Ayala, Facebook post

Difficulty in relationships is one of the most common traits associated with BPD, and yet our group has maintained such a strong focus on community and the role of cherished friends and community members. This group, and so many folks identified with BPD beyond this group, prove how thin and simplistic are the dominant narratives of BPD.

I’m going to end with the list of superpowers that were identified in our group conversations. These superpowers will be explored more fully in the collective document, which I hope to have ready to share by the end of this month!


  • The Superpower of Community (and community care)
  • The Superpower of Showing Up
  • Resilience
  • Endurance
  • Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
  • Empathy and Compassion
  • The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
  • The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
  • The Ability to ‘Chameleon’

Check back next week for the next BPD Awareness Month post, which will be the video and transcript of the interview with Kay and Sam.

Succulent Zine

Succulent Zine

The Succulent Zine is finally ready to share. (Click the link to download the 92-page PDF!)

This zine started with a plant metaphor. I wrote:

I love the comic about how we are basically houseplants with complicated feelings, and it got me thinking about how isolation means we need to be succulents, able to survive and thrive in conditions of scarcity and intensity, and how fear also turns out lives into deserts, and how precarity does the same.

So, I thought we could use that metaphor, and make a little zine about what gets us through, and how we get each other through.

What are our skills of survival?

What are our strategies of mutual aid and collective action and care?

How are we keeping ourselves going, and what can we teach each other?

Many of us are in communities with generations-long histories of succulent lives in deserts of ableism, transantagonism, queerphobia, colonialism, white supremacy. Oppressed and targeted communities know the way forward.

So many folks responded to this invitation, and what I imagined as a “little zine about what gets us through” is actually over 90 pages of poetry, art, essays, and narrative projects. I am incredibly thankful for these contributions, and honoured to have been able to bring them together in this work.

Each contributor took the time and energy to create something that they shared with this project. This time and energy is precious, especially right now as we all deal with scarcity, precarity, uncertainty, and rapidly changing expectations and pressures.

There is abundance in these pages. Richness despite scarcity.


If you would like a printed copy of the zine, please get in touch for pricing. The PDF is available at no charge, and can be shared.

Download the 92-page PDF here.


Tiffany Sostar. Canada.
Finding Succulence and When Everyone is Flailing, It Kind of Looks Like Dancing (contributor)
Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist, writer, editor, community organizer, and workshop facilitator. They collected and formatted the zine. This is their webpage! (My webpage? What even is authorial point of view in collective documents?!?!)

Brianna Sharpe. Canada.
Brianna Sharpe is a writer and parent. She writes beautiful, moving, well-researched articles for The Sprawl, among other places. Find her website here.

Kalina Wolska-Chaney. Canada.
Little Rock and cat art.
Kalina is a young writer and artist.

Sophie Cao. China.
How a Wandering Cat Survived During the Coronavirus Outbreak and Dear World, Dear Friends.
Sophie is a narrative practitioner in mainland China, and has been involved in projects for the Dulwich Centre. Dear World, Dear Friends formed the basis of the Exchanging messages with Chinese narrative practitioners, which can be found here.

Lyn Janelle. Canada.
Cat art.
Lyn is a seamstress, artist, and crafter-of-all-sorts.

Neko. Canada.
Huohuo and Momo
Neko is a young writer and artist.

Agnieszka Wolska. Canada.
A Pandemic Correspondence with a Challenging Presence and I am Tired of Sitting and When Everyone is Flailing, It Kind of Looks Like Dancing (contributor)
Agnieszka Wolska is a narrative therapist and parent in Calgary, Alberta. You can find her therapy work, Calm at the Centre Therapy, here.

Bryan J. McLean. Canada
[ Lights in a Dark Landscape ]
Bryan McLean is a poet, musician, writer, and artist. You can find his website here.

Anupa Mehta. India.
Toolkits For Trying Times.
Anupa Mehta is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in India. Her website is here.

Josiah Ditoro. Canada.
Become the Borg of Your Favourite Things
Josiah is a writer, disability justice advocate, and one of the engines behind the Calgary Wrimotaurs, Calgary’s NaNoWriMo group. You can find the Calgary NaNo site here.

Rei. Canada.
Allow Yourself to Start Again and Cheerio Upside Down
Rei is a writer, artist, and disability justice advocate in Calgary.

Lori Helfenbaum. Canada.
A Pandemic Passover Haggadah and When Everyone is Flailing, It Kind of Looks Like Dancing (contributor)
Lori is a narrative therapist in Calgary. You can find her website here.

Nicole Marie Burton and Hugh Goldring. Canada.
Take Care: A Community Response to Covid-19.
Nicole and Hugh run Ad Astra Comix and publish smart, funny, political comics. You can find their website here.

Hugh D.A. Goldring. Canada.
Anarchism and Pandemics

Kay Fidler. Canada.
Sober in Isolation and Novel: A Pandemic Love Poem
Kay is a Metis writer and perfumer in Calgary. They are working on a graphic novel, and it’s going to be amazing!

Beatrice Aucoin. Canada.
Good Leadership in the Time of Corona
Beatrice is a writer and cat sitter in Calgary. You can find her site, Cat Mom Calgary, here.

Callan Field. Canada.
Mixed media pair
Callan is a visual artist in Calgary. Callan’s website is here.

Anisha Uppal-Sullivan. UAE.
Cat art
Anisha is an artist in the UAE.

And the narrative practitioners group! We each contributed to the conversations that formed the basis of When Everyone is Flailing, It Kind of Looks Like Dancing
Tiffany Sostar
Agnieszka Wolska
Lori Helfenbaum
Joel Glenn Wixson (see his website here)
Amy Druker (see her website here)
Mim Kempson (see her website here)
Sonia Hoffman
Rosie Maeder
Julia Scharinger
Marisa Barnhart

Non-Binary Superpowers!

Non-Binary Superpowers!

This isn’t new, but somehow I had never put a link into a blog post!

I’m sharing it here now, in honour of Trans Day of Visibility.

Last year, my beloved colleague Rosie and I collaborated on a project – we met with non-binary youth in Adelaide, SA, and also with non-binary youth in Calgary, Alberta. Then we created a collective document bringing together the insider knowledges shared in those conversations.

This collective document has since been published in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, and you can download the PDF here.

Linking self-care to community

Linking self-care to community

This is a lesson from the Integration and Care module in An Unexpected Light. (Each of the six themes in An Unexpected Light includes a narrative therapy module, a curated reading module, a writing module, and an integration and care module. This lesson comes from the Kinship and Community theme.)

I thought that this exercise might be helpful for those of us who are in isolation or physical distancing, because it invites us to think about the connected histories of our self-care actions. When we’re feeling alone, and floating through our houses with a sense of detachment or powerlessness, it can help us narrate the history of the small actions of care that we are relying on, and can reconnect us to small actions of care that might sustain us through this hard time.

These videos were recorded months ago, and don’t directly reference COVID19. They also both reference inviting someone over for tea – obviously this isn’t accessible to many of us right now! But video calls, phone calls, or across-the-street teas might be.

The full transcripts for the videos are included at the end of this post. If you find these videos helpful and you’d like to sign up for the next round of the course, you can find that information here. (As of March 25, there are still 15 spots available in the upcoming session of An Unexpected Light. All scholarship spaces are filled, but sliding scale is always available.)

An Unexpected Light – Actions of Care

This video introduces the idea of “actions of care” – all of the actions that we take that care for ourselves and others. This video challenges the idea that “self-care” happens in isolation, and instead locates it within a history and a community of caretaking and caregiving actions. This is part one of the lesson.

From the video:

Drinking tea is sort of a trope when we talk about self-care: “Make yourself a cup of tea”. Tea and writing is also something we think of as going together. That’s one reason why I wanted to use London Fogs as the example. 

Even if making a cup of tea is what you do for self-care while you’re writing, sometimes it can be helpful to go through a process of mapping how you learned to use tea as a self-care strategy. 

Who taught you that? 

Do you remember the first time someone sat you down with a cup of tea? 

Do you remember seeing relatives or friends or strangers looking serene in a coffee shop and thinking ‘oh, maybe I could use that skill for myself’? 

Is there a way that you can take your actions of self-care that often happen on your own and link those to your community; link them to a history and a legacy of using those skills? 

What does it mean to be tied to many other people who also use this skill? 

Is that a way that you can feel connected, and are there ways that your self-care skills and tools can actually help integrate you into your communities? 

Are there ways that you can do those together? 

Even if that just means talking about them on social media? Or texting a friend and saying ‘hey, I’m gonna have a bath. I haven’t had a bath in a while, I was thinking maybe you would want one too’. That was a really weird example; I apologize for going off the rails there, but, maybe bathtime with friends is a thing? 

But, is there a way that you can take your self-care strategies and connect them so that it’s not about you as an island; an individual isolated person having to care for yourself in a way that cuts you off from other people, that puts your needs ahead of other people’s when actually we’re all working together. Or ideally, we can all be working together. 

There are lots of things that you are doing during this time of isolation and physical distancing, both for yourself and for others.

You may be limiting your time on social media – how? why? are you connected to other community members who have taught you the value of this, or who support you in this?

You may be doing drive-past visits and chatting across a safe distance – why? whose idea was this? who is involved? how does this make you feel? what does it make possible?

You may be baking, or brushing your teeth every morning, or setting timers to keep yourself focused – how? why? where did you learn it? who does it connect you to?

Any action, no matter how small, has a history and exists in a social context. Mapping that out can be a powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness and loneliness.

If you really enjoyed that first video, this next one expands on it to offer a deeper-dive into the narrative practice behind this idea.

An Unexpected Light – Histories of Care

Part two of the lesson introduces the narrative therapy practice that will guide you through tracing the history of your own actions of care, and putting these into a social context.

Linking actions to histories

There is a foundation of skills, dreams, and values in your history.

Although this is a bonus narrative practice, it sets the foundation for the final month in An Unexpected Light, which focuses on legacies of action. Think of this as an invitation to start thinking about your own legacies of action!

Think of a circumstance in your life that has been challenging for you; something that has required you to access self-care or coping skills. Give the problem a name. (For many of us, this problem right now might be named coronavirus, or capitalism, or isolation. If the problem you’re facing is brand new, like coronavirus, you might want to think about times in the past that have some resonance with this experience – other times you’ve felt isolation, other times of scarcity, other times when you have worried for your or your community’s health.)

The actions that we’re connecting to here do not have to be big, impressive actions. For me, it was London Fogs! They can be small things – a letter, a practice of self-care that keeps you going. The idea is to connect to the history of these actions.

The action: creating a unique outcome

As you think about this problem, has there ever been a time when you faced this problem, or a similar problem, and you responded differently than usual? Think of a time when this resulted in a unique outcome. What did you do differently?

Where were you when you took this action? 

Were there other people supporting you? If yes, who were those other people? 

What made it possible for you to respond differently in this way?

Why was it important for you to respond to the problem in this different way? What might it say about what you want for yourself and your life? 

What were you standing for when you responded differently? Can you give a name to what you are standing for, or to what you were valuing? 

The history

Have there been other times when you’ve done something similar to this?

Have these previous actions also reflected the hopes or values that allowed you to respond differently to the problem? 

When was the first time you took an action like this?

Where did you learn that this kind of action is possible?

If you’ve never taken an action like this before, can you see other times in your life when other actions have reflected your values? (For example, your action may have reflected a value of “community” or “integrity” or “caring for others” or “creativity” – are there other times when you’ve taken actions that reflected this value?)

The witness(es)

Out of all the people you’ve known, who might be most pleased to know that you’ve stood up to the problem in this way? 

Why would they be pleased? 

What might this say about their hopes for your life? 

Are there people who also hope for the things that you hope for yourself? 

Would this person say “I knew you could do this”? 

What might they know about you that inspires their confidence that you could do what you did? 

Would this person be surprised that you did this? If yes, what might they be learning about you that they didn’t know before? What might you be learning about yourself? 

The future

What are you taking with you from this exploration of what might be a very small thing? What are you going to take into the future from this exploration of one experience of responding to a problem differently? 

If you wrote up this takeaway and posted it in a place where you’d be reminded of it, what effect might that have on your future? 

If you had a way to remind yourself that you have these skills, that there are people who know you have these skills and who support you, that there’s a foundation in your history of these skills, what might that mean for you? 

(Adapted from work by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs.)

Transcription of An Unexpected Light – Actions of Care

Okay. This is a video about care-taking and care-giving and actions of care, and how our self-care is something that’s connected to our communities and to our histories.

In this course, I’d like to really challenge some of the ideas about self-care being something that we do in isolation, as little islands; making tea for ourselves, or having a bubble bath, and this being framed as somehow contrary to community care or meaning that we need to prioritize ourselves over our communities or our histories. I’d like to think about care as something that happens within our social context; something that we learn to do together; something that we do in community even when we’re doing it on our own. 

I’m going to use London Fogs as an example *gestures towards cup of tea on the table*. London Fogs are a tea beverage. They’re one of my most important self-care tools. A London Fog is basically strong Earl Grey tea. I use vanilla sugar and vanilla extract and some kind of frothed milky beverage. You can use milk, but you can also use coconut milk or almond milk; whatever, but that’s the basic recipe. 

I learned how to make London Fogs when I was in the year between my fibromyalgia symptoms becoming debilitating and when I got the diagnosis of fibromyalgia and started figuring out how to navigate that experience of chronic, ongoing pain that occasionally and at that time frequently flared into something that kept me basically in my house and on my couch. It was quite a socially isolating experience, and I found that London Fogs were something I could do even on a high pain day. I could usually bring a chair into the kitchen and go through those steps of making tea, frothing milk with a little battery-powered handheld thing and making something that was soothing. There was a ritual around it, and it was something that people would come over and we would have a London Fog together. It gave me a sense of my ability to still have value in my community despite what was at the time a new experience of disability that I’d found really challenged my sense of who I was. 

Drinking tea is sort of a trope when we talk about self-care: “Make yourself a cup of tea”. Tea and writing is also something we think of as going together. That’s one reason why I wanted to use London Fogs as the example. 

Even if making a cup of tea is what you do for self-care while you’re writing, sometimes it can be helpful to go through a process of mapping how you learned to use tea as a self-care strategy. 

Who taught you that? 

Do you remember the first time someone sat you down with a cup of tea? 

Do you remember seeing relatives or friends or strangers looking serene in a coffee shop and thinking ‘oh, maybe I could use that skill for myself’? 

Is there a way that you can take your actions of self-care that often happen on your own and link those to your community; link them to a history and a legacy of using those skills? 

What does it mean to be tied to many other people who also use this skill? 

Is that a way that you can feel connected, and are there ways that your self-care skills and tools can actually help integrate you into your communities? 

Are there ways that you can do those together? 

Even if that just means talking about them on social media? Or texting a friend and saying ‘hey, I’m gonna have a bath. I haven’t had a bath in a while, I was thinking maybe you would want one too’. That was a really weird example; I apologize for going off the rails there, but, maybe bathtime with friends is a thing? 

But, is there a way that you can take your self-care strategies and connect them so that it’s not about you as an island; an individual isolated person having to care for yourself in a way that cuts you off from other people, that puts your needs ahead of other people’s when actually we’re all working together. Or ideally, we can all be working together. 

I don’t know if this video turned out the way I was hoping it would, but that’s what I was wanting to talk about. 

Transcription of An Unexpected Light – Histories of Care

Okay. So, let’s say you watched my earlier video about linking your self-care strategies to a history and community, and you think that sounds exciting but you don’t know how to do it. This video is a bonus narrative therapy practice for you. I’m going to walk you through the same questions that I would ask someone in a narrative therapy session, and the questions that were asked of me when I was in my Master’s program that actually helped me recognize my connection to London Fogs for being as complex and nuanced and beautiful as it is. I will also write these up in a handout for you, but I thought a video might be kind of fun. 

Think of a circumstance in your life that has been challenging for you; something that has required you to access self-care or coping skills. 

Do you have a name for it? You can name it whatever you want. It might be “depression”, it might be “anxiety”, it might be “interacting with a challenging family member”, or whatever. It could be a feeling or relationship variable, or a cultural or social problem like racism, or heterosexism, or fatphobia, or ableism. Or, it could be a unique metaphor that has meaning for you. It might be, you know, “the gloom”, or “the blues”, or “the zoomies” if you have that sense of frenetic energy that becomes problematic for you. 

As you think about this challenging context, has there ever been a unique outcome? A time when whatever it is could’ve taken you over, but you managed to get the upper hand or you managed to escape from it, or you managed to shrink it down to a manageable size. Where were you when this happened? Were there other people around? If yes, who were those other people? 

So, really think in some detail about a time when that problem has been managed in a unique way. What do you think made it possible for that to happen? 

When I was asked this question, I was thinking about pain as the problem. My unique outcome was a very specific memory of inviting someone over to my house that I really cared about; that I actually had quite a significant crush on, and making that person a London Fog, and knowing in that moment, even though the pain was still present, I had an experience of feeling myself having a little bit of control and agency in my life. 

You want to make sure that the unique outcome represents a preferred experience. It is valuable to talk about times when the unique outcome has been uniquely terrible, but that’s not what we’re looking for here. We are looking for times when it’s gone unexpectedly well. And then, we want to give that some meaning. 

So, why was it important for you to respond to the problem in this different way? What might this say about what you want for yourself and your life. What does it say you stand for? Can you give a name for what you are standing for? 

For me, when I was talking about London Fogs it was important to me because I was feeling really isolated. And in that moment of making a choice to invite someone into my space and to offer to share this new skill with them, I was valuing community and connection. I was also valuing reciprocal care. I think of all those things as being connected to a really strong value of community. 

So then, once you’ve kind of mapped out this unique outcome and what it says about you, think about a past time that has something in common with that unique outcome. Were there other times when you’ve done something that reflected these hopes, values, or commitments? Describe one of those times. It might not be connected to the problem; now we’re thinking about how it connects to the skills or values or commitments that you used in responding to the problem. 

Then, you try and link that unique outcome (for me that was when I invited this person over for a London Fog and had an experience of feeling like despite the presence of the pain, I was able to act in ways that brought community into my life) to past experiences where I was also valuing community. I was able to think about the fact that I’ve been a community organizer for quite a few years before the pain showed up in the same way that it had. That means that my value of community and connection has a foundation that predates the pain in my life. Then we link that unique outcome and those skills and the foundation to significant other people in your life. 

Out of all the people you’ve known, who might be most pleased to know that you’ve stood up to the problem in this way? Who would be pleased that you are standing for whatever it is. For me that would be community. Why would he/she/they be pleased? What might this say about their hopes for your life? Are there people who also hope for the things that you hope for yourself? Would this person say “I knew you could do this”? What might they know about you that inspires their confidence that you could do what you did? 

When I was thinking about this in relation to the London Fogs, I was thinking about that, at the time I had two partners, and they had both been very confident that I would figure out what was happening. They never wavered in their support for me. And, although I don’t think either of them would’ve said: “London Fogs are gonna be the key to this unique outcome”, I know they believed in me. 

Would this person be surprised that you did this? If yes, what might they be learning about you that they didn’t know before? That can be really important, too. If you were doing something; if your skill or your foundation is something that cherished people in your life might not expect, what are they learning about you? What might you be learning about yourself? 

And then you can bring this into the future. What are you taking with you from this exploration of what might be a very small thing? Making a fancy cup of tea is quite a small thing, but it connects me to a whole history, and maybe it will connect you to a whole history as well. What are you going to take into the future from that conversation? 

And, importantly, if you wrote up this takeaway and posted it in a place where you’d be reminded of it, what effect might that have on your future? If you had a way to remind yourself that you have these skills, that there are people who know you have these skills and who support you, that there’s a foundation in your history of these skills, what might that mean for you? 

So, yeah! That comes from my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work documentation from the Dulwich Centre. It’s adapted from work by Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, who are fantastic. I will include a link to that with this video. 

Responding to problem-saturated stories

Responding to problem-saturated stories

This is a narrative therapy post! 

It’s about how we respond to recurring stories that focus tightly on a problem or complaint, whether the storyteller is ourselves or someone else. What I hope to do with this post is to describe how we might use narrative therapy practices in our responses to ourselves and each other, in order to help the storyteller feel stronger in their story. This might mean strengthening the storyteller’s connection to their own values, or inviting the storyteller to tell the story of how they responded to the problem in addition to telling the story of the problem’s influence on them.

Many of us have experienced recurring stories that focus on a problem. These recurring stories tell the story of an experience, a person or a relationship, where the problem has significant power and is central to the story. Problem-saturated stories are notable because they tend not to leave room in the story for recognizing agency, choice, and response. The problem happens to the storyteller, and throw the storyteller off course in a way that is disruptive and distressing. They are often stories of injustice, or of a social context that suddenly goes off the rails.

These stories can be distressing to hear, even if we’re just hearing them from ourselves! It can be hard to know how to respond, and sometimes we respond by shutting the story (and the storyteller) down, changing the subject without engaging in the story, asking (or demanding) that the storyteller focus on the positives, or downplaying or dismissing the impact of the problem because we don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the problem story again. Sometimes these responses are based in self-preservation, but they are not often helpful for the storyteller. The goal of this post is to offer us some other possible responses.

A problem-saturated story tells the story of an experience in a way that makes the problem powerful and visible and leaves the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem less visible. Our goal with these responses is to flip that around, and make the values, skills, choices, and responses of the person experiencing the problem more visible. People are not passive recipients of hardship – we are always responding. This post is about how we help the storyteller make those responses visible.

I want to add some really important caveats right at the beginning of this post:

First, this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy. I think this is at the heart of all therapy, really, though different therapeutic methods approach it differently. This practice is about listening with compassion and care, and asking questions that invite a shift in the narrative focus. It is hard and important work, and it is not only trained therapists who do this work. Many of us, therapists or not, have deep skills and insider knowledge when it comes to listening and responding to the stories of problems, and all of us have skills and knowledge when it comes to responding to problems – one of the core beliefs of narrative therapy is that nobody is passive recipient of trauma or hardship.

In sharing this post, I’m not suggesting that we should all become therapists for each other all the time. Even though this practice is at the heart of narrative therapy, and it can be a therapeutic process, it’s also just part of how we can be in relationship with each other. We listen to each other tell the stories of our lives, and the stories of our problems, all the time. The goal of this practice, especially when we’re bringing it into our non-therapeutic relationships, is not to “fix” the problem and it is definitely not to “fix” the person. 

The goal is to invite the storyteller to tell the story in ways that feel strong. It is about highlighting and making visible the skills and values and responses that already exist within the story. That’s a really important orientation to the story (and the storyteller) because it involves curiousity rather than education. This practice invites us, as listeners, to locate the storyteller as the expert in their own experience, and and it invites us to carry a pre-existing belief that there are skills, values, and responses already present in the story. 

Second, I want to acknowledge the importance of complaint in our lives. Complaint is not a bad thing, and telling stories of complaint is also not a bad thing. Complaints, including retelling stories of problems in our lives, are often critical steps in standing against injustice. So when we respond to each other’s complaints, or to our own complaints, it is important to keep in mind the value of complaint, and to honour the insight that allows someone to say, “this happened and it was not okay.”

Sometimes it takes time to get to the point of saying it so clearly, and what can come across as “whining” or “fixating on the negative” can be part of an important process of sifting through an experience to understand what happened and why it feels bad.

As Sara Ahmed points out, “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands; to acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.”

So, before I invite you to use these practices to respond to complaint in a way that shifts from the problem to the response, I first want to invite you to listen with care to the complaint. Is the story being told over and over to you because the storyteller (perhaps yourself!) has been “blocked by the collective will not to hear”? How can we “acquire a feminist ear” in our listening to each other (and ourselves)?

If it is the case that the storyteller has not had the opportunity to tell the story without being “blocked”, then the storyteller first needs to be witnessed in the grip of the problem and the complaint. For example, if the problem story is about experiencing racism, transantagonism, queerphobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogyny, or any other problem related to structural oppression, chances are very good that the storyteller has been “blocked” by the collective ear, and naming the injustice is a critical part of that person’s survival and self-affirmation. In those cases, it is so important to listen compassionately and with the “feminist ear” that Sara Ahmed invites us to develop in ourselves.

That act of listening carefully to the problem story is one of the most important practices of narrative therapy (in my opinion).  Michael White referred to it as “lingering with the problem” and it can be deeply uncomfortable, but also incredibly valuable. Often, only once we have been witnessed in our struggle, and the harms and injustices that we are facing have been named, can we consider moving past this to other stories.

So, if you’re the listener, and you recognize that the storyteller might need to be witnessed in the struggle before they can move to other stories, and you just do not have the bandwidth to hear the story (sometimes for the fiftieth time – some stories are very sticky, and we try many times to find the right audience or the right way of being witnessed!) it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now. Can we switch the topic?” 

You can say this to someone else, and you can also say this to yourself. Being a supportive friend (to others and to ourselves!) does not mean that we have to always extend ourselves past our limits. Being able to say, “I don’t have it in me right now” can invite consent and accountability into our relationships, allowing us to say yes to the hard conversations more openly and intentionally. This is particularly important if we are also feeling weighed down by our own contexts or problems.

So, with all those caveats and assuming that you have the bandwidth to spend some time in the problem-saturated story and you’d like to try and engage in a narratively-informed conversation with the storyteller and try to shift the story a bit, here are some ideas.

As I mentioned, the goal of responding to these problem-saturated stories is to make those values, skills, choices, and responses visible, or at least to invite the storyteller to reflect on them. This means that we’re not trying to change the topic (though that’s valid – it’s just a different thing!), we’re trying to change the lens on the topic.

Note: the storyteller might be yourself.

Additional note: This might be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable.

Third note: If the storyteller, especially if it is not you, appears uncomfortable with your questions and with this approach, take a step back. If you feel like you have to push to get anywhere with this, it’s best to stop. Narrative questions can be so valuable and so rewarding, but they can also be so full of pressure and friction. If it feels hard and bad for either of you, take a breath and pause. The storyteller may not be ready to shift the story, and that’s okay! That’s not a failure on their part, and it’s not a failure on your part. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to the same story again – you have the option to decline the conversation, to change the topic, to take care of the relationship in other ways.

So, the actual practice.

Listen to the story and think about the following questions, and consider asking them if an opportunity arises:

What skills made it possible for the storyteller to get through that experience? 

For example, if they are telling the story of a relationship that has ended, and they are lingering in the stories of pain that they experienced, what skills allowed them to keep going in their life despite that pain? How did they get through the relationship up to the point of it ending? Where did they learn these skills? Who taught them, or showed them it was possible? When did they first realize that they had these skills?

As you listen to the story, you might notice moments when the storyteller did something in response to the problem. Is this connected to a skill that can be named, and whose history can be traced?

In an example like this, be mindful of not cooperating with victim-blaming discourses by suggesting that they should have had different skills, or that the hurtful situation was a “blessing in disguise” because of the skills they developed in response.

What values did the storyteller hold onto as they moved through that experience?

For example, if they are telling the story of how workplace bullying has invited problems into their life, what have they held onto that allows them to get through that experience? What do they value or cherish about themselves in a work context – do they have a value of integrity or collaboration or justice that has allowed them to keep showing up for work despite the problems? Can you see these values evident in the story, such as in the way they choose to treat coworkers with care, or in the way they do their work? What do their choices say about what is important to them?

Sometimes problem-saturated stories are so sticky because they are stories of times when our values have been violated – if we have a value of integrity or honesty and we have been lied to, this can feel like a very sticky problem! Sometimes the complaint itself highlights the value, and it can help to witness this actively. This might sound like, “it sounds like you really value treating people with compassion, and that value was not extended to you in this situation.” If this is the case, then you can ask about the history of that value – where does it come from? Is this a value that they share with anyone in their life? Have there been times when they’ve really seen this value being expressed in actions?

In an example like this, be aware of the fact that talking about our values can invite feelings of guilt or shame if we have acted out of alignment with our own values or if we feel that we’re not able to express our values through our actions. Focusing on what is important to someone, and framing it in terms of how they have held on to that being important despite contexts that don’t support it, can be one way to sidestep the shame. 

How has the storyteller responded to the problem?

For example, if they are telling the story of how sickness or disability has impacted their life, how have they responded to the ableism that they’ve faced, and to the changes in their body and social context? 

In an example like this, be especially conscious of not downplaying the impact of sickness or disability on a person’s life within our ableist culture. Naming ableism, capitalism, lack of social supports, and other structural and systemic problems is so important, because sick and disabled people are so often invited to view ourselves and our bodies as the problem. To quote Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, our bodies are not the problem, ableism is the problem. 

And also, when our ability changes, this can bring grief and loss, and those feelings are valid! But the person, and the person’s body, are still not the problem. 

If you are looking for stories of response, you might ask things like – what do they do when the problem shows up? How did they respond when the sickness or disability arrived, or as it has changed over time? What has allowed them to respond to the problems that have come? 

Who has witnessed the storyteller experiencing this problem? Who has supported them?

This is such an important question, because the problems in our lives can isolate us, leaving us feeling alone. But we are not alone. Even if the only person we see on our team is a fictional character, a pet, or an ancestor… still, we are not alone. We are always in relationship, and there are always ways to find connection.

So, for example, if they are telling the story of being hurt by someone else, were there any kind witnesses to this hurt? Even if nobody witnessed the hurt, are there any people in the storyteller’s life who, if they had witnessed the hurt, would have recognized why it was so hurtful? Have they seen anyone else hurt in this way? If so, what did they think of that? How would they respond to seeing someone else hurt in this way? Who has supported them, or responded in the way that they would want to respond?

All of these questions focus on finding the moments of agency, choice, and response. 

It’s about finding the strong story that already exists as a shimmering thread in even the most sticky, muddy, problem-saturated story.

We are always responding to the hurts and injustices and traumas that we face. These responses come from somewhere. They might come from witnessing someone else respond in a way that we want to emulate, or in a way that we don’t. From our own past experiences. From the values that we learned in our favourite books or games, or from our family members or culture. From so many places!

Telling the story of our response can help us find a sense of agency and choice – we did respond to that injustice, even if that response was to roll our eyes or go complain to a friend. We did something in response!

We all have values – things that we consider precious and worth holding onto even in the face of obstacles. These values have histories. Those histories can help us feel connected to others who share our values, and can help us feel less alone.

We all have skills – ways of acting that allow us to respond to the problems in our lives. These skills also have histories! And they may be connected to our values, and together these values and skills shape our responses.

We all have connections and community, even when we are distant from these. We all come from somewhere, and we all have people who have been a positive influence in our lives (even if those people are pets, or celebrities, or fictional characters). We are not alone.

These questions aren’t about downplaying the problem or the impact it has had on the storyteller’s life. They are about making visible what the storyteller has done in response, and what has allowed them to do this.

If you end up using some of these strategies and questions in your life, I’d love to hear about them!

If you’d like to learn more about narrative therapy, the Dulwich Centre has two free online courses – an intro to narrative therapy, and a free online course focused on Aboriginal narrative therapy (taught by Aunty Barbara Wingard, who coined the phrase “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger”). You can find those courses here.

Our current economic, environmental, and political devastation offer plenty of problem stories for many of us. I offer An Unexpected Light, a six-month online narrative therapy and speculative fiction course focused on telling stories of futures full of care, collaboration, justice, liberation, and possibility. The next session starts April 2, 2020. Find more information and register here.