By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT
You know that scene in Matilda, where the mean Miss Trunchbull puts an entire cake in front of Bruce Bogtrotter after she suspects that he stole a slice from her? She expects him to eat the entire thing in front of the whole school, to buckle under the pressure and punish him while also making an example of him. And the cake is huge, on purpose.
The very idea of eating a gigantic cake in one go is intended to be sickeningly overwhelming (even the scene from the movie can make my stomach turn a bit) and shaming all at once.
Sometimes, when I hear people talk about their problems, I think of that scene. We are not only overwhelmed by the gravity of our circumstances, but we also shame ourselves into thinking we deserve to be treated this way, or at the very least, that the obstacle ahead of us is too big to overcome.
Our problems have a habit of inflating themselves to unmanageable sizes.
Whenever we are faced with a problem we can’t seem to solve, we often describe it as “impossible” because of its many variables, with complicated relationships dependent on others’ control, with a despair that nothing will ever be able to make any change.
Solution-focused therapy takes an ax to that way of thinking by---you guessed it---focusing on solutions.
Solution-focused therapists are not concerned with your past or “why” things have happened; the view of this kind of therapy says, “What’s done is done. What can we do now about your present and your future?”
As a school counselor, this was often my method of counseling kids. There is very little time in a session with a child for both their limited class break and their emotional patience. So, often when a kid would come in with a long-winded story about the history (and yes, some of them will break it down for you from Kindergarten to 4th grade as an old soul recounting a war tale) of their conflicts, I would have to refocus them on the present. “Okay, so you and Jessica are fighting again today. Let’s figure out what we can do to make sure you can still enjoy your recess at lunch.”
I would recommend this to my kids and I also recommend this to you:
Break your problems down into pieces, and use numbers if that helps.
5 is often a great number for breaking down your problem, because it enables you to have a lowest point, a highest point, and an exact middle. This is what’s called a “scaling question” and you have definitely seen them before, because we use them in Likert scales and surveys all the time. (Ex. “On a scale of 1-5, how is your pain right now?” or “How would you rate this product on a scale of 1-10?”)
Scaling questions for mental health solutions look like this:
Problem: I’ve been feeling a lack of motivation in my life recently. I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t like my job, but I don’t want to look for a new one either.
First, to determine the aim of our scaling questions, a therapist may ask:
Has there ever been a time when this wasn’t an issue for you?
When you were motivated to get up in the morning, or motivated to accomplish something every day?
What did your life look like?
What did you do each day?
And how did you know you accomplished something?
Let’s imagine a miracle happened. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up and your problem will be gone. What does that mean for you? How can you tell that your problem has been resolved?
After exploring this, a therapist can give you scaling questions to help break down your problem and build it into a solution.
Possible scaling questions:
On a scale of 1-5, 1 being “I don’t want to do anything today” and 5 being “I can do all the things!”, what is your motivation level today?
Let’s look at what it might mean for you to be somewhere in the middle, such as a 2 or a 3. What would your motivation look like then?
Sometimes with therapy groups, as a check-in, the moderator or therapist will have everyone go around and share a 1-5 answer for how they’re feeling that day or how they feel that they are progressing with their personal goal.
A huge part of our misconception of ourselves is a lack of accurate data. Our brain will often inflate one fact or event that stands out and create an entire meaning out of one small occurrence. If we can track every day how we are really feeling, working, and thinking, many of us will find that we are progressing and growing.
Solutions can be difficult to find, and sometimes too big to tackle all at once. However, broken down slice by slice, we can all take on more than we ever knew that we could. Piece of cake!