October 26, 2010

Losing the surplus problem

My view is that problems and tensions are an inevitable part of life. A life of constant comfort, completely free of fear, dissatisfaction and frustration is, I am convinced, an illusion. Why this is so? Well, the complexity of life brings with it unpredictability and lack of clarity. It is inevitable that we will be confronted with conflicting demands, adversity and opposition to what we try to accomplish. Also, the complexity within us brings with it that we will have contrary impulses and doubts.

If this is a valid description of reality, how we frame this reality makes all the difference for how we will function and how we will appreciate life. If we view problems as normal or even as functional and good, this may help us to live active and fulfilling lives. Solving problems may give meaning to our lives, help us grow and feel proud, competent and related to other people.

Surplus problems
If, however, we have a problem with the fact that we have problems we may become fearful, depressed and frustrated. We may call this type of meta-problem a surplus problem. It is a second order problem. Not only do I have a problem, I also think that having this problem is a problem in itself. For example: John has been feeling depressed for a some days now. At one point, he starts to worry about this situation thinking that his feelings of depression indicate that he is abnormal. The depressed feelings form the primary problem; John thinking he is abnormal for having those feelings is the secondary problem, the surplus problem.

When people tell us they have a problem our responses may have important impact on whether or not they will have a surplus problem. If we respond in ways that will increase their worries about their situation, we have unintendedly created or increased a surplus problem ("After I spoke to my coach I began to think something is really wrong with me"). If we respond in ways that will decrease their worries we have helped to lose or prevent the surplus problem ("After I spoke to my coach I have found some good ways to solve my problem").

Unintendedly evoking surplus problems
Examples of interventions which unintendedly create or increase surplus problems may be: 1) saying to your client you think he must go in therapy, 2) saying to your client he is not ready to terminate therapy, 3) verbal and non-verbal signs of great worry suggesting the client situation is very exceptional and not normal, 4) suggestive questions which suggest the client is not functioning normal ("But are you happy in your relationship?"). These kinds of interventions may unintendedly (or intendedly) induce surplus problem.

By the way, it is often quite easy to induce problems with clients. It is easy for people, when they have a problem, to think that they are exceptional for having this problem. Many people think other people don't have as many problems as they have. One reason for this may be that from the outside ‘inner stresses’ are usually rather hard to perceive. When people experience problems they will, in general, put on a brave face when showing themselves in public. We generally don't wear our heart on our sleeves. From a distance people usually look rather calm and controlled. This may falsely create the impression that we have problems while other people don't. And it may explain why we are susceptible for professionals who try to convince us that experiencing difficulties must mean we need (their) professional help.

Having surplus problems may make it harder to focus on making progress. We may, for instance, become pessimistic about whether we will be able to improve our situation ("Maybe I'm the kind of person who is not meant to be happy..."). When our surplus problems grow we may easily get overwhelmed and start to panic. Your primary problem may be relatively small but you may start to worry about the fact that you have this problem. Then, you may even start to worry about the fact that you are worrying. And so forth. Things may spin out of control. That is why it is useful to help clients prevent or lose surplus problem. That way, clients can focus on solving their primary problems and make progress.

Normalizing helps to reduce surplus problems
Solution-focused practitioners have one powerful way for losing surplus problems: the technique of normalizing. Normalizing is used to depathologize people’s concerns and present them instead as normal life difficulties. It helps people to calm down about their problem. It helps them to realize they're not abnormal for having this problem. Normalizing helps to prevent this surplus problem from happening. By saying something like: "Of course, you're angry, I understand. It's normal to be angry right now." You can help the other person to relax and to move on relatively quickly beyond his or her anger.


  1. Coert,

    You are very right about the fact that thinking it's "not normal" to have a problem causes a further problem. Research into Self Compassion shows that people are more compassionate with themselves and experience lower negative affect when they see that others have the same problems they have. The researchers call it percieving our common humanity. And it seems that's what you help clients do in SF.

  2. Hi Rodney, thank you! I'd love to hear a reference to a study on this


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