Solution Focus: Letting the Exception Rule

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

Psychotherapy traditionally has focused on people and their problems. Starting back in the late 1800’s, with the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis, people sought “talk therapy” in order to have their problems evaluated and dissected by a professional. For much of the history of counseling and psychotherapy, this mindset has set the overall course of treatment for mental health concerns. In more recent days, however, the emergence of Positive Psychology and Solution Focused Therapies have began to move some therapists away from focusing on people’s problems to focusing on the exception to the problems. This concept may seem simple and obvious to some, but in reality this is a fairly new approach to therapy, really only coming onto the scene in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s thanks to American psychotherapists De Shazer and Berg.

What is Solution Focused Therapy?

The idea behind Solution Focused Therapy is just as it sounds. Rather than spending a lot of time talking about the problem someone is having, the history of the problem, etc., the time is used to hone in on when the person does not experience the problem. Theoretically, if someone can tell you that they feel depressed most of the time, only not when such-and-such is happening, then the solution may be as simple as recreating the event that causes the decrease in symptoms. Likewise, if someone experiences anxiety 90% of the time, but describes feeling comfortable the other 10%, then it would be well worth the time to invest in intentionally spelling out all of the factors that may lead to the 10% of time where relief is felt. Solution Focused Therapy really seeks to acknowledge what people are already doing right, and the strengths that they possess, and attempts to motivate them to push forward to finding solutions. The solution focus is ultimately a belief that in the absence of the problem the solution can be located.

How to Practice Solution Focused Thinking

Sometimes it might be easier to tell when you don’t feel something than when you do, particularly if the distressing feelings are more common than the relief. It is possible, then, that looking at the exception might give you a clear picture of where you want to go in the future. For instance, if you feel insecure five days out of the week and two of the days you feel great, than focusing on what is different on the two days that you feel great might lead you to a straightforward solution. It might be that the five days that you feel terrible you are at a particular job that is causing you distress, and you realize this because the two days that are the exception are the days you don’t work. Maybe it is a certain person that you are around that is causing you distress, and you realize this because the days when you don’t see them you don’t feel anxious. Perhaps, in these cases, the next best move that you can make for yourself is to change jobs or make better boundaries with a certain person. Whatever the case, keeping in mind that the exception does occur and focusing on it may bring you hope and direction.

“Keeping in mind that there is an exception to the problem and focusing on that exception may bring hope and direction.”

Steps to Finding Solutions to Problems using Solution Focus

Steps to take if you think Solution Focused Therapy might benefit you:

Label your distressing feelings, or name your problem, and when you experience them/it. You don’t need to judge your feelings, simply be aware of them. Do you feel anxious? Sad? Tired? Bored? Lonely? Angry? If so, when do you feel these things?

Consider how long and how often you experience the distressing feelings or problem.

Determine if there are times when you do not feel those feelings or experience that problem.

Name the specific factors that you recognize are different on those occasions where you are not feeling distressed or experiencing the problem: Where are you or aren’t you? Who else is there or not there? What are you doing/talking about/thinking about? Name any other obvious differences.

One question often asked in Solution Focused Therapy is, “if a miracle occurred tonight while you were asleep, what changes would you notice in your life tomorrow?” This question helps you set the goal for what you want to see happen and simultaneously defines how you will know when the problem is gone.

Lastly, try to reproduce the circumstances and/or behaviors that you have identified during your exceptions. When you’ve done all of these things, you might just find that you already have a solution to your problem.

For more tips on fighting anxiety, see my post on Modern Day Anxiety.

See Enmeshment and Boundaries for more information on boundary problems in relationships.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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