Michael White was an Australian social worker and family therapist known for his legacy in psychotherapy. Most notably, Michael developed the practices of narrative therapy (Carey et al., 2009) and contributed significantly to his field through rigorous discussions and the sharing of therapeutic concepts such as ‘externalising’ and ‘the absent but implicit’ (Carey & Russell, 2002).
“Externalising locates problems, not within individuals, but as products of culture and history. Problems are understood to have been socially constructed and created over time.”
— Maggie Carey & Shona Russell, 2002. ‘Externalising – commonly asked questions’.
‘The absent but implicit’ describes a desired outcome, or “preferred story”, indicating what people want for their lives and what matters to them (Carey et al., 2009). This story can be inferred by listening to people describe their problems and identifying the absent but implicit alternative story that contrasts the present problematic experience. Uncovering these implications is done through a therapeutic technique Michael White has called ‘double listening’ (Freedman, 2012).
“Applied to therapeutic practice, these understandings offer a range of possibilities for identifying and exploring preferred stories that are alternative to the problem story.”
— Jill Freedman, 2012. ‘Explorations of the absent but implicit’.
In reflecting upon a particular experience of disruption and frustration related to my work life, I can apply Michael White’s narrative practices and concept of ‘the absent but implicit’ to better understand the situation and gain some insight about myself.
I am fortunate enough to have been working since I was 14 years and 9 months old, as early as I possibly could. Because of this, I’m very comfortable and confident in my own abilities as an employee. It also helps that I’ve been working in the same industry, hospitality, since starting all those years ago. I’ve been at three different workplaces with four different bosses and countless managers above me, and I’ve learnt my fair share about conflict resolution and dealing with disruption from each job. In fact, I’d say that problems associated with my work life have occurred less and less as I’ve grown older. Although this may be the case, unfortunately there has been a recently frustrating and disruptive experience related to my work.
For most of last year, I had been living away from home for the first time in a sharehouse with some close friends. The initial move was intimidating but once I had settled in I felt the happiest I’d been since commencing my tertiary studies. Paying rent was a new expense for me to deal with though I was sure that my income was stable and my savings sensible enough to not have to worry about that.
However, when the time to renew our lease rolled around during the summer holidays, my work hours dropped off dramatically and almost inexplicably. I hadn’t been spoken to about my performance, so I could only wonder, “why?” until I asked and was told that there weren’t enough hours to go around at the time. At first I accepted this answer, but later became anxious when I realised I’d have to make a decision: should I renew my lease? What if I don’t ever get back these hours? After more consecutive weeks of sparse rosters piled up, I again asked my manager why I was getting less shifts than usual when other employees in the same role as myself were getting almost double my hours. I explained my frustrations further, bringing awareness to my living situation, asking why the hours weren’t being distributed among employees fairly. I was foolish enough let my frustration show when talking about the issue, feeling hopeless after enduring vague answers and being scolded for my attitude. Ultimately my hours stayed the same and I moved back home in November to much dismay.
I’d been working at this job for around two and a half years at the time and had never experienced this much friction before when dealing with management. By externalising these feelings of frustration and hopelessness and reflecting upon them through narrative practice, I’m able to infer an implicit “preferred story” in this situation. This story confirms how much I value being independent and in control of my own life.
Thinking back to my formative years, I was (and in many ways still am) someone who keeps to myself. I never wanted to accept help from my mum with schoolwork, or almost any other task where she offered a hand. I also would feel especially guilty when I did need her help and had to ask. As well as this, I often took it upon myself to deal with my own feelings and problems internally. Rarely did I feel comfortable asking others for help or advice. I’d say that I’m to still like this to some degree. Even now I feel ashamed about being on my leaner driver’s license and try to get myself around without inconveniencing others for a lift best I can. That said, at least now there are a few people in my life that I’m comfortable asking for help in various situations.
When I felt threatened by potentially having to move back home, I was scared of losing my valued independent living situation. This caused me to react in an adverse way to the change and disruption experienced at work. I responded by taking the path of least resistance: I didn’t look for new work, I moved back home, I did not take the perceived risk that I should have taken to live my preferred story. By reflecting upon this situation through narrative thinking, I was able to learn something new from my experience of disruption that I hadn’t previously considered. With this knowledge I can work towards my preferred story by confidently taking the difficult but necessary steps needed to be happily independent. At the same time, I can hopefully work on being less hard on myself by asking for and accepting help whenever I need it.