Externalising the problem

The person is not the problem!

“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. These words of Michael White have become well-known within the field of narrative therapy. In this chapter we will explore ways of externalizing problems and the possibilities this brings.


by Tileah Drahm-Butler

Stories from Michael White about externalising

Transcript is available here

Shame Mat

Externalising can be used with groups in creative ways. Aunty Dolly Hankin and Aunty Kerry Major in Mount Isa, for example, have created the Shame Mat!

‘You can call me Sugar’

This is a story of ‘Sugar’ by Aunty Barbara Wingard. It’s a story about trying to find new ways of working, of trying different things and taking new steps.

Please find the article here: Introducing ‘Sugar’

(from the book Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester)

Talking about Grief

Aunty Barbara has also created a character of ‘Grief’ to assist people to grieve and honour.

Please find the article: Grief: Remember, reflect, reveal

(from the book Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester)

Lateral Violence

This is one of the most influential externalising conversations ‘scripts’. It was developed by Aunty Barbara to assist people to talk about Lateral Violence.

A conversation with Lateral Violence 

Also included are documents about the special skills that Elders and young people from Woorabinda community are using to respond to Lateral Violence.

(from the book Aboriginal narrative practice: Honouring storylines of pride, strength & creativity by Barbara Wingard, Carolynanha Johnson & Tileah Drahm-Butler)

Aunty Barbara:

Aunty Barb encourages you to give it a try!

This video is from a workshop with Aunty Barb, Carolyn Markey and Chris Dolman.


Reflections from

Tileah Drahm-Butler

This Post Has 108 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Nathel Fishlock

    I enjoyed Dr Whites externalization of ADHD .Visualizing the problem is a wonderful idea for any age not just a child.

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    All of this content and the beautiful ideas being shared resonate very strongly with me. As a transpersonal art therapist, I am conscious already of the power of externalisation, however this thread of real-life examples of externalisation in a narrative practice context has blown my mind and expanded my viewpoint of what is possible. I am inspired by the creativity, innovation, problem-solving and resourcefulness shown in these stories. I particularly love the Shame Mat. Such a ‘simple’ idea, yet so intricate and layered. Incorporating the physical action of wiping ones feet and the symbolism of leaving muddy shame at the door was clearly a very powerful and empowering process for the people involved, as they become active participants in their own healing. Thank you so much to all of the contributors and participants involved in these efforts and thank you for sharing your stories and knowledge with us

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    The externalizing pieces about grief, sugar and lateral violence by Aunty Barbara were such engaging and brilliant examples of how ‘problem’ topics or emotions can be accessed and explored in a safe way. The piece on ‘lateral violence’ was such an effective way to highlight the complexity and impacts of this problem, and also to define this as ‘the problem’ (and not the community/person as being the problem). The development of the Shame Mat was also really interesting to watch and I loved how responsive Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry were to the needs of the women they were working with. Also, their acknowledgement of ‘power’ throughout their work.

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    What a wonderful poem. Moved to see the use of the arts in the healing process, storytelling, poetry, painting, props and the like.

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    I really enjoyed seeing the variety of ways in which a problem can be externalised, from the humorous role playing of Sugar to the destigmatising Shame Mat. These are really interesting strategies for allowing people to detach and take a different perspective. As someone who has not used Narrative Therapy before, I feel like this is something that I can definitely incorporate into my counselling work immediately. It also nicely compliments ‘Thought Defusion’ techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

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    The idea of the shame mat is a good idea and one that could be used by many people. The externalisation of shame is a good idea.

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      The Shame mat ,who would of thought that touches so many of us.Deep feelings are usually hidden but shame is massive and what a wonderful way to be accepted as an equal and not feel shame because you are you .

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    Karen Chong

    The Idea for “The Shame Mat “was Awesome, What a great Idea to bring someone out of their shell and make them feel comfortable in their own skin. The poem by Kerry Major was Beautiful.

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    Such an inspiring topic. The idea of a “shame mat”, wow so simply but so powerful, what a wonderfully creative response to the reflections of the practitioners to the needs of the group.
    The concept of interviewing an externalised problem seems so full of potential. What would it be like to sit with a group of young people and let them interview “racism” or “sexism” for example.

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    I found this topic very interesting with externalising an area of concern, and that it changes the dynamic of interaction. I think using this (separating the problem out) in therapy would change the approach of the session, and would also assist with guilt and shame around a problem which are often common emotions that the people I work with acknowledge. I would like to see practice video examples of how this is utilised in therapy. As with Sugar the Shame Mat is another great example of how we can externalise an issue in a group setting and de-stigmatise an area. Such wonderful work.

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    Wendy Burns

    I love the thinking behind the shame mat and can 100% agree that the concept of shame has broader meaning than it does for non-indigenous people.
    It is critical for practitioners to understand the family and communities notion of what is shame.
    Without understanding how shame works within a family and community there can be huge barriers in communicating and working with families in keeping their children safe.

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    Wendy Burns

    Working with young children I find that story telling through culture, dance movements, song lines help to shape them individually to help express what they sometimes can’t say.
    Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts. They share the stories and symbols of their own culture and will re-enact them to help them make meaning of what’s happening for them.
    Sand play is also another median that allows the sometimes unspoken narrative that that gets played out in the choosing and placement of symbols in the sand.
    Children are very adaptable in finding different forms of externalising their voices.

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    debbie webster

    I like the approach of separating a person from their problem so that they can see them as separate and there is no stigma attached to that person

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    Susie L

    Fabulous to see the creative ways t separate the problem from the person/community and to have engaging conversations incorporating story telling.
    The rich and yet very simple way of looking at lateral violence makes the information about the way this spreads and breaks down communities and families so accessible and so relatable.
    I really enjoyed this unit and had to pause and reflect after each section as there is so much information and understanding to absorb.
    Thank you for sharing all this information and for inviting non-Aboriginal practitioners like me to understand and learn from experts..

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    Sandra Owen

    I totally agree with the problem being the problem opens the door for people to not feel trapped by others or self-blame therefore it allows them to feel distance from the issue.

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    This module was so great, as while I have heard of externalizing problems before, this included so many rich, varied, and creative approaches to doing that! It has really inspired me to re-think all the ways I may be able to separate the problem from the person – and communicate this with clients – in ways the really resonate with them.

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    I loved the examples about sugar and grief that Barbara Wingard provided, because I think that its more helpful to try to implement a strategy when you’ve had an example. Its great that there are opportunities to be creative and to adapt therapies to clients. Externalising thoughts from the client and being able to de-personalise things so that a frank and honest conversation can be had is really beneficial and may improve client engagement.

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    Chantelle M

    I really enjoyed this module. I have learned so much about how Aboriginal culture and how crucial it is to bring histories and injustices through individuals and communities. I especially loved learning about the shame mat. What a powerful and incredible symbolic resource. Aunty’s Barb’s articles on grief especially, really impacted my on a personal level. As a woman who has had a stillborn baby, it really hit home, how even now, you are still encouraged to just move forward, that there is still stigma to talk about your grief. It was quite reflective moment for me and my heart just broke to think of Aunty Barb’s experience and that of others, who never even got to say goodbye to their child. It also reminded me that I still carry my own grief, several years later and how much we do “shelve” our grief, because of how society says we should be. Thank you to the presenters for bringing forth just how important grief and shame are in one’s story and history and how incredibly important it is, for us to bring these into conversation.

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    The wisdom behind Shame Mat is mind blowing. I am completely awestruck at the the creativity and imagination of Aunty Dolly Hankin and Aunty Kerry Major in Mount Isa. I love the poem and have noted it down by Kerry Major. They both are true inspiration of strength and dignity. Aunty dolly s story touched my heart. Such a beautiful concept to make people understand that SHAME stops them for seeking help.

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    I found this module extremely useful. In working with young people and their families who are afflicted with eating disorders, extenalising the problem is always a useful tool. OFten by the time that families reach a treatment space, there has been considerable damage to relationships through conflict about eating/exercising that is driven by the problem (eating disorder) but is often perceived very personally. Externalising the problem and building an alliance between the young person and their family is the way to gain a strong enough momentum to beat the problem.
    I particularly found the section on lateral violence useful. I believe that I will find many opportunities to use these ideas therapeutically. I now realise that I have “missed the boat” so many times in the past by failing to address. I feel better prepared to move forward now. thank you so much for your teaching.

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    Sarah Sturton-Gill

    I loved this opportunity to learn about how to externalise a problem! The ability to be able to share this experience with clients makes me smile as I believe that it is only positive, non-judgemental and gentle. Michael’s ability to share his experiences with humour only reinforced the potential for positive outcomes for clients everywhere. Thank you for sharing this! Sarah

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    This module has reiterated the importance of knowing people and really understanding them rather than focusing on their label or the person as the problem. I also found the shame mat resource very inspiring as I work with students who have been affected heavily by trauma. They will withdraw within themselves and be filled with so much shame about their lives. This is a great way for students to be able to externalise their problems and increase their self-efficacy

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    I really enjoyed listening to these presentations around externalising problems. I particularly was interested in Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry’s ideas and creative approaches to externalising shame and the idea of everyone doing it together. I thought that Aunty Kerry’s poem was powerful and beautifully written.

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    I absolutely loved and connected with the Shame mat and Aunty Kerry Major’s 2010 Poem. It was an idea that was so simple, but really left an ever lasting impression. They harnessed one word to make a change. Leaving shame at the door and actually walk over the mat- helps the group and different identities to really open up and ‘shed their skin’. Something I am wanting to implement and practice in the classroom.

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    This was a fascinating module;

    I especially enjoyed the personification of James’ ADHD. This reframing of the narrative not only illustrated the type of ADHD but it also empowered James as well as normalising his challenge by aligning him with another person who also had ADHD. By distancing James from the diagnosis and helping James to find a way to explain his condition, he was able to find the strengths he has from his own experience.

    I also found the Shame Mat tool as very inspiring as this brought the invisible nature of this type of feeling out into the open, so it can be seen for what it is. The group of women can empower each other through this process. Wonderful idea of Aunty Kerry and Aunty Dolly.

    The conversation with lateral violence that Aunty Barb has brought to us is genius, as it clearly enables perspective as well as fosters resilience. Asking it ‘what it likes to do’ and such is such a great way of unpacking the effects of this with clients and survivors.

    Very enriching module.

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    Jessica Rodaughan

    This module was incredibly inspiring and gave many practical ideas for working with clients. I really like the ideas around externalising “problems” and especially externalising shame, by creating a safe space where you can leave shame at the door. I hope to work with Aboriginal children and I think these externalising concepts will be incredibly helpful in reducing shame and increasing empowerment. Thank you for sharing this powerful knowledge.

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    This was a such an interesting topic, and I loved the inclusion of Aunty Barb’s essays on sugar, grief and lateral violence, as examples of how emotions can be externalized. I also loved seeing the similarities between this element of narrative therapy and elements of acceptance and commitment therapy (which encourages externalizing emotions by placing distance between yourself and your thoughts…with strategies such as “my brain is telling me XYZ” or “I’m hooked to the thought of XYZ”). I’m really curious as to how externalizing can be introduced though, without the client thinking that their concerns and anxieties are invalid, or not worth seeing as ‘real’.

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