Peggy-Sax 2Peggy Sax

I used to wonder if  Perfection & Self-doubt might be problems only in the USA,  but through the NPCI Study Group, I’ve learned these problems have been creating an international reputation! While many of us have little experience with online forums,-I do believe –  most of us have plenty of experience with self-doubt, worry and feelings of inadequacy.  Here I’ll add favorite resources, as well as an archived conversation that grew out of a question posted by a member of the 2010 Narrative Practices Adelaide Certificate Programme:

I wonder how other people go with managing Perfectionism and Self Doubt. Maybe we could compile some information about how their power can be diminished? What other practices do people use to give themselves Grace or is there something else they use/have?

Deconstructing perfectionism

shonaShona Russell

Shona Russell has written an excellent article called: “Deconstructing perfectionism: Narrative conversations with those suffering from eating difficulties” (2007, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, vol 3, 23-29.). Unfortunately, I don’t have permission to post this article. However I might be able to insert an earlier “author’s manuscript” soon..

The Carefulness

When I taught in the MSW program at University of Vermont, I learned from a group of students who named  “The Carefulness” as their shared experience in the classroom. “The Carefulness” would slyly  silence their voices or significantly restrict their contributions – evoking at times overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in exposing one’s ideas to others. Once they named this shared experience, the Carefulness had less power over them. Perhaps you know your own version of this experience?

Deconstructing Agnes

PreviewScreenSnapz002Brenda Solomon – A colleague from the University of Vermont-  shared her favorite article on this topic: “Deconstructing Agnes – externalization in systemic supervision” by Linnet Leea and Sophie Littlejohns  (The Journal of Family Therapy (2007) 29: 238–248 0163-4445 (print); 1467-6427 (online). This article describes how a supervision group decided to externalize Self-doubt (“the club we all belonged”) and its power to restrain and disempower them personally and professionally. They chose to externalize “Agnes” rather than  focusing on an internalized perception of self-doubt and shame, which made it possible to unite against Agnes.

The following is an archived conversation by Study Group members in response to these questions:

  • How can we unite here against our own version of “Agnes?”
  • Is there another name you would like to use, or does Agnes fit for you?
  • What strategies do you think we might use?
  • What have you learned about what helps you to speak up on this forum?
  • And what tends to close down conversation?
  • If you imagine someone new joining us, what tips can you offer as ways to keep Agnes from interfering with our conversations?


Archived Reflections on Agnes

sarahhughes2_profileSarah Hughes: February 23, 2010

Hi Peggy,
Thanks for sharing this article and your questions to us. Agnes certainly resonates with me! I know I feel nervous about staritng a conversation as I am not sure where to begin and I am also really aware that sometimes my enthusiasm can tend to overwhelm or perhaps keep others from speaking. I am trying to find a balance to both honour my enthusiasm and be careful not to say too much or too quickly.

Right now I am not even sure who is out there, reading these postings and wanting to chat about the ideas. I am here and do want to get going. I do have some experience with these ideas but love to re-experience them and re integrate them into my thinking and life. lately I have had trouble articulating what I think and why and so just now reading the Agnes article and the articles on post structuralism helped get me back to thinking about my doubt, how my lack of certainty can be a good thing. or a thing that I value if I want to move away from thinking in binaries like good/bad strength/weakness….

Looking forward our Agnes free or perhaps honouring Agnes discussions. Sarah

Mary BrevdaMary Brevda: February 24, 2010

I want to say hi to everyone as I have not been here much lately. I have been totally taken over by the Olympics! I am not much of a TV watcher nor do I watch sports so to be so swept away this way is a new experience. Unfortunately it makes it hard to get anything else done! After dinner when I might get on line instead I watch TV. Now I am back and having trouble knowing where to begin. I want to read the articles, listen to the videos, and respond to your posts. As Peggy mentioned, it is a very snowy day here so my clients are one by one canceling so it is giving me a little time.

I wanted to take a moment to respond to both of your posts, Sarah. I too can certainly relate to  having a day that I don’t feel great about. Actually sometimes a day can feel like a roller coaster where I can feel great one hour and then not good about a session the next. It has made me wonder at times what makes me feel so “on” and then have it go south the next hour. Bonnie, your questions after Sarah’s meeting with the teachers were really helpful. It then becomes more about deconstructing what happened instead of it was a good or bad session.

Sarah I also wanted to respond to your comments about your enthusiasm. I actually really appreciate it! It doesn’t silence me. I do a good job silences myself without any help! Instead it gets me thinking and I appreciate someone helping to get the conversation going. Mary

Olya Kozlova Olya Kozlova: February 25, 2010

i have the similar experience with mary, olympics can be quite very captivating… since my oldest kids follow it very closely, i have no choice, but to follow too

in terms of the article…
i am not sure about the name, agnes. somehow the image i associate with this name is a little girl and two ponytails…. and i am not sure doubt is so innocent.
while the idea of “self-doubt club” resonates with me. i am certainly familiar with this club and have been a member…

Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: February 26, 2010

Hello Sarah, Mary, Olya and others,

I’m in my son’s kitchen in Baltimore. Alas, he does not have TV. Last night, I was unsuccessful in my attempts to watch the women’s skating competition on the Internet. Now I am catching up but it is not the same as seeing the competition live… Jiwon, what are you experiencing  as a South Koren living in South Korea with Kim Yu-na as the gold medalist? I love the description in this morning’s New York Times of  Kim Yu-na’s skating, ”

Dressed in azure, skating to Gershwin, Kim Yu-na of South Korea seemingly floated to the clouds with her soaring jumps and airy elegance Thursday night, winning an Olympic gold medal and her rightful place as one of the greatest women’s figure skaters of all time.

Do you think Kim Yu-na has ever been a member of the Self-Doubt Club? Do you think there are other territories of her life where “Agnes” is an unwelcome visitor? ((I agree Olya – maybe we need another name than “Agnes”?)

Now I am thinking about a session I experienced last week with a lovely young woman in my Vermont community, an athlete whose energy/presence/vitality is being challenged by Depression. I am in awe of her prowess as an athlete: She even knows some of the people winning metals in the Olympics! Living with the depression – doing all she can to get out of bed , to keep from isolating herself, to get out there in her sport (I’m disguising the actual sport until I ask for permission), to continue with her studies, etc. ….might be a bigger challenge than anything she has ever faced before. We spoke about the freedom from Self-doubt she can feel when she is engaged in her sport, and the self-satisfaction she feels when getting in touch with her determination and perseverance (despite the depression’s twisted way of trying to convince her that she is lazy and no good for not living up to her expectations and disappointing her coach).

Reflecting on this conversation has got me thinking about these pockets of confidence where there Self-doubt and “Agnes”  do not penetrate. What is it about these places where we can experience freedom to be without getting caught in the “evaluative gaze” or self-criticism? Do you have any ideas about what might contribute to making this study group an anti-Agnes zone? One thing is clear to me. It helps to externalize and “talk.” I think Agnes thrives in secrecy.

Sarah, I want to echo what Mary said. I want to leap in the air with a shout: I LOVE your enthusiasm! I laugh when I realize that you worry about your enthusiasm shutting others down. As you know, I am visited sometimes with a similar worry – but I NEVER worry about your enthusiasm, only my own. I also remember (and found!) something Kevin once said:

I really appreciate being able to go to this forum and open my mind to narrative ways. It’s like breathing in fresh air. I read an article, someone’s post and I can feel it move through me as I do my work here. I too get excited and at times feel like I need to tap down this enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful feeling to be around (at least in cyberspace) people who feel a similar joy with ideas, theory and a bigger picture . . . I notice more of the questions I ask. Also, this group encourages me to use my imagination and to help the people I see use theirs.

What can we do to encourage each other NOT to tap down enthusiasm? Sarah,  could share something about what helps and hinders you from giving voice to your enthusiasm/passion for life? Anyone else? I really want to pay attention here – it’s so important! Peggy

Mary BrevdaMary: February 26, 2010

I was thinking about the sneakiness of Agnes, or whatever we want to call it ( a client of mine once began to call a version of self doubt Oscar which I think for me might be more fitting!) I just started working with someone who experienced a horrible trauma. She has offered me many invitations to be the expert as she has many big decisions related to this event. She called for an extra session yesterday as a big decision was looming ahead for her. Before I knew it I took up her invitation to be the expert! I am thinking that some self doubt as to how best to help her deal with the aftershocks of this event pulled me into this role. It’s a way to feel strong or competant in the moment. I think I woke up to what I was doing and at least partly pulled back. I think sitting with this very competant individual who was so shook up was the pull for me. Does this make sense and have others experience this? I welcome any thoughts you might have. Mary

Martha-LopezMartha: February 28, 2010

Thank you, Peggy, for posting this article, and thanks to our group for all the ideas, thoughts and feelings that I’ve received and have applied at a particular time, when logically I didn’t know what to do.

Recently I “took away” some ideas, support, and beliefs (from our group) that helped me to recognize my strengths and courage in dealing with my own Agnes and the challenges of debilitating self-doubt, and transform it into an opportunity to “grow” out of feelings of inadequacy. As Agnes’ desired to cripple me and weigh me down, I received courage to externalize injustices and her attempts to disempower me “personally and professionally,” and could have silenced me or worse, impaired my enthusiasm and “inspiration” to carry on the work. Agnes’ presence brings a sense of “mental paralysis.”  As Lee & Littlejohns said in the article.

White (1988) defines externalization as ‘an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and at times to personify the problems they experience as oppressive (p.3). It helps people to both identify and separate from subjugating discourses and gain a reflective perspective on their lives which can encourage motivation to change…until a process of externalization of deconstruction allowed us to change our relationship with


With my understanding of externalization, I identify Agnes and separate from her attempts to subjugate me, and from this I’ve gained a more reflective perspective so my skills and “creativity” can show at the moment I need them.

This is the story: all of you know the actions of injustices that I’ve been up against, lately, so I was recently called on to attend a case involving a little boy who was having some serious problems at his school… I believe I had been handpicked for this serious case so Agnes and her friends could see me fail, increase my self-doubt, and it would compel me to quit.

I went to the school and had a long session with the boy through which we came up with a plan of action. I later had a session with the boy and the principal. I know for sure that on that day I took many resources and ideas from here, from you, and from your support. During that session something suddenly came to mind about strategies and what I needed do at the moment (having an intervention with a boy that was not my client and who I was seeing for my first and maybe only time).  I had two thoughts: the concept of “agency,” and basically some words taken from an Adele Diamon interview that I had been listening to for encouragement. She was saying that she had been reading a lot of the sociology, psychology, philosophy and had discovered that most of the literature said that people needed to feel like they are “masters of their own fate.”

Making this a story short – I organized my intervention based on this – the step-by-step plan we created was on how the boy was to go back to his classroom (it had been months since the boy willingly wanted to be inside his classroom without forcing or ordering him). In the plan the boy dramatized with play dough how to do that and when he was ready, now or later, he was to let me know — but only when he was ready. At the end of the session he said he was ready and wanted to walk with me to his classroom and introduce himself to his peers and his teacher. When we were close to the classroom he told me that he was not ready and instead wanted to play around with me on the playground. I told him I only had 20 minutes to do that because I had other appointments.  He agreed and so we played for the time and afterward went back via the principal’s office. I encouraged him to apply the plan when he was ready and had made up his mind – and I said goodbye.

Well, I hadn’t heard anything about the boy until a week ago when I asked the person to whom the case had been transferred. She shared with me that she was to consult with the principal about the case, but he told her that everything was fine since a lady had come to the school and made a plan with the boy and it seems that the boy has applied this and his behavior has turned around – behavior that the school didn’t know how to handle. What happened? I really don’t know…except I know I took my inspiration to do this intervention from this group, which helped me fight against self-doubt, inadequacy, injustice and remaining silent.

Saludos, Martha

Kevin: March 1, 2010

Hello everyone.  It’s wonderful to read everyone’s reflections on Anges and self doubt.  I too have been a part of this club.  For me, the name Agnes doesn’t work as well as Mr. Perfect, though I think they are in league with one another.

Martha, I appreciated your reference to agency and the “master of one’s fate.”  (I would like to look up Adele Diamon.  Can you share where you heard the intervieKevin-Nielsenw?).  Recently I have discovered the value and importance of these ideas and re-learning how I might externalize Mr. Perfect, so I can, so to speak,
move in my life in my preferred direction.  It’s interesting to see how this all plays out.  Mary, I relate to what you said about feeling on a roller coaster.  I too will have one session and feel great, feel like I am really on with someone, and the next I completely doubt myself.  I find this especially magnified in groups.  Whether I am facilitating a group at work, or like yesterday, a movement class, Mr. Perfect will often jump in and freeze me.  He seems to tell me that I am responsible (the cause, reason) for what others experience and feel
and that my self worth is dependent on other people’s attitudes towards me.  It’s silly and preposterous, but he is insistent.

I have wondered who belongs in this club.  It’s an interesting question Peggy whether the South Korean skater is a member of the self-doub club.  I suspect many professional and elite athletes are, but maybe not.  Maybe there is a way to be self-confident and excell, develop and maximize one’s potential without the fear of failure pushing you from behind.

Sarah, I too add my voice to others in celebrating your enthusiasm. It’s great.  I was surprised to re-read what Peggy quoted from me.  I think passion is so important, perhaps the most effective tool against the self-doubt.  I always love remembering that the latin root of enthusiasm is en theo, or to be filled, or “in god.”


Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: March 1, 2010

Reading and re-reading this exchange gives me bursts of enthusiastic pleasure. Martha your story is one I will always remember. Is it possible to write it up somewhere? I believe you capture what can make this way of working so magical.

I too am enthralled with the role of personal agency in all of our lives, and as a key concept guiding this way of working (I’m looking forward to more conversation here and in the “ethical considerations” module where personal agency is again highlighted). I know it is when I  feel a sense of personal agency – like the master of my fate – that I often feel the most alive and energetic. Your words make me want to listen to that Adele Diamond interview again (Kevin – you would love it if you haven’t heard it yet. She was interviewed on Speaking of Faith about “Learning, doing and being:”

Martha, I am fascinated by wondering (and imagining) how your current experience of resisting Agnes – acting as the master of your own fate, despite the set up for Agnes and her friends to see you fail – contributed to your work with this boy. In the short time, I have known you, I have already witnessed  a number of times your determination to speak up for justice (remember, that is how we first met?).  Any ideas why Adele Diamond’s  idea of personal agency resonated so deeply (profoundly?) with you at this particular time?

I can imagine feeling frozen with the pressure to make a miracle. What do you think kept you from closing down, and instead steadfastly supporting the boy becoming master of his fate? Somehow, you were able to identify Agnes and to separate from her attempts to subjugate, and from this to gain a more reflective perspective of your skills, creativity, and spontaneity. Does this kind of situation that demands action against social injustice always bring out more (rather than less) creative thinking (and doing) for you? What else can you teach the rest of us about how you stand strong in the midst of such pressures?

While Agnes’ presence could have brought forth a sense of mental paralysis,”  silencing you or worse, you did not let it impair your enthusiasm and inspiration to carry on the work. Did I hear you right? You experience us in this study group there standing with you (which we are!) sharing the inspiration to fight against self-doubt, inadequacy, injustice and remaining silent? I am absolutely tickled to think our presence in your life is contributing to this commitment of yours to recognize your strengths and courage, to externalize injustices and her attempts to disempower you “personally and professionally.”

Martha, would it surprise you to know that your presence in my life is also contributing to my resolve to let enthusiasm, creativity, spontaneity reign over the  expert-taking-charge humdrum status quo position?

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story and for reminding me of what is possible.


sarahhughes2_profileSarah: March 2, 2010

Wow – what a great read I just had on a day of up and down Agnes thoughts and enthusiasm thoughts.  I loved hearing everyone’s contributions. They all contributed to how I am thinking and feeling about my work tonight in way that as Peggy said contributed to my own resolve to let enthusiasm and creativity shine.  Well, she did not say exactly that – but that is how I am feeling now.
Martha your story helped me see how my resolve to try to stay away from the expert position keeps me from sometimes letting enthusiasm shine if I don’t pay attention to the difference in my positioning.  Sometimes Self Doubt/Agnes keeps me questioning that difference which is a good thing – if it does not silence me completely.

I have a lot of creative projects on the go right now (including starting a private practice!!) – that are keeping me from this site a little which is not good as I really see how this group helps keep my ideas growing through the connection and conversation to you all.  I am frustrated right now as I wanted to respond to David’s posts this weekend and time just slipped away from me.  I also wanted to respond to Maggie and SHona and Rob but alas I must head towards bed now as I am exhausted after a very busy day… but my thoughts are percolating and my enthusiasm is shining bright.