“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.

Image from Denborough, David. 2014. Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience. Norton Books: New York 

The following questions and answers about ‘externalising’ were created in response to regular requests from practitioners. We’ve tried to respond to some of the questions that are most commonly asked in training contexts. This article was first published in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 2002 No.2, and can be found in the book Narrative therapy: Responding to your questions, compiled by Shona Russell & Maggie Carey (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 2004).

Externalising – Commonly Asked Questions


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’

This short film gives helps us visualise what ‘externalising’ problems can look like and make possible..

In collaboration with the World Health Organisation Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the “black dog of depression”. More information on the book can be found here: http://matthewjohnstone.com.au/


In this presentation, Mark Hayward draws on Michael White’s ideas described in the book Maps of Narrative Practice. Mark takes us through Michael White’s Statement of Position Map 1 and how this map enables externalising conversations. Within this presentation Mark also invites you to chart an externalising conversation. We hope this video will enable you to begin using externalising ideas with people you are meeting with!

Please download the following interactive documents.

Statement Of Position Map Powerpoint presentation
Joe transcript


“Externalizing conversations in which the problem becomes the problem, not the person, can be considered counter-practices to those that objectify people’s identities. Externalizing conversations employ practices of objectification of the problem against cultural practices of objectification of people” (White, 2007, 26).

White, M. 2007. Maps of Narrative Practice. Norton Books: New York




Further resources

If you wish to learn more about externalising problems, you may wish to enrol in our Externalising Conversations online course


For Reflection

Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?

What sort of problems could  be externalised in your context?

What difference might this make?



Now please consider talking with others below about the ideas, questions and wonderings these resources and questions have raised for you! Please include where you are writing from (City and Country). Thanks!


This Post Has 726 Comments

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    The Black Dog video clearly dramatized the externalizing of a common problem (depression) which so often is internalized and stigmatized, which make the sufferer feel powerless to address the issue. Once it is externalised the person experiencing depression can feel more hopeful about the future and empowered to begin addressing their problem. Keeping this illustration in mind would provide a means of putting space between people and their problems, discussing the effects of the problems, and making plans to respond to them. Mark Hayward’s workshopping of the statement of position map also caught my attention. The practical applications he demonstrated, such as helping the client author an experiential term ‘pounce of the wolf monster’ rather than using a technical term ‘temper tantrum’ were helpful.
    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    Externalisation could be used wherever people think something is wrong with them and they are powerless to fix it, such as anxiety, depression, resentment, grief, temptation, regret, etc.
    What difference might this make?
    The difference could be that the person is able to change the way they visualize the problem, so it is no longer seen as an overwhelming part of them. They can treat it as something separate to them, something they now have a relationship with. The terms of this relationship can now be explored, renegotiated, and altered.

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    I work with a lot of women who deal with relationship troubles and often externalize their issues by placing the blame squarely on their partner. I find this method a delicate and respectful way to help clients understand that the problem still exists, even if the partner is removed from the equation and that the skills to remedy it lie within themselves.

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    Ko Man Lut

    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?

    I like the black dog video that is very good example of externalizing depression and it is easy to understand the problem and issues of individuals who have depression.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    I am thinking the culture issues that may affect externalizing of problems and issues as different cultures may have different problems and issues to externalize to different things that may affect how we draw the statement of position map as well.

    What difference might this make ?
    Externalizing can be used with different clients to externalize different problems and issues but we have to be alert of individual and cultural difference when we map the conservation and use externalizing.

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    I really find the idea of externalization really helpful in thinking about illness and loss. Especially when it comes to disability and illness, it can feel very overwhelming trying to separate the illness from the person. I would like to use externalizing to assist others with dealing with pain and disability. Once we separate the pain/problem from the person, it will be easier to begin to break things down.
    Writing from Kuwait.

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    I really love the idea of externalizing and the FAQ article was very helpful. I’m still wresting through what some of this means. This is such a drastic change and I think I am only just starting to wrap my head around it. I am in the middle of forming a therapy group and trying to consider the ramification of doing Narrative work within a group setting. Many substance abuse groups (Alcoholics Anonymous for instance) have the group start off with internalizing the problem. “Hi, I’m Chris and I’m and alcoholic.”
    I’m excited and intrigued by the possibility of doing group therapy and working as a group to externalize “the problem”, helping each member develop a near definition/name for their problem, and helping each member externalize the problem. This stood out to me as one of the take aways that I could being working with in the very near future.

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    Jessica Brewer

    I found it interesting giving a issue or concern additional context to give the client more authority over the presenting problem. In my personal opinion, the client would more than likely less hesitant to present with any hesitancy to discuss the presenting concern; kind of like the example of Jack and his temper tantrums. The example of the black dog named Depression perfectly illustrated the concept of externalisation. The concept of “everything that we ask is the basis for their position of the concern” resonated with me in that the clinician and the client both have a common goals of figuring out how the presenting problem gets in the way of one’s life. The statement of position map is a useful tool to help come to a constructive conclusion.
    Manteno, IL

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    I’m discovering and learning a great deal with this introduction to narrative therapy. Thank you. It’s so interesting how externalising a problem effectively distances it from the person, which makes approaching the problem so much easier. I appreciated the way the content was broken down so that it could accessed and understood by a wide range of people. This was seen in Mark’s presentation, the Black Dog video and the reading on Sugar.
    I believe anxiety can be externalised and controlled, allowing a person to grow in confidence, personally and professionally, and to acknowledge their achievements.

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    Typing from Melbourne/Wurrudjeri country. The description of ‘experience near’ and ‘experience distant’ identification was extremely helpful in defining this process for me. While I’m learning about narrative therapy in the context of education in a secondary school setting, I can see working with behaviour issues benefiting from the Statement of Position map type of questioning – as in Joey’s transcript helping the young person identify their position within the problem and what their values are in relation to the problem. Really eye opening.

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    Paul Graham

    Hi from Newcastle, Australia.
    I did some introduction to narrative training last year and am hoping to learn more about the practice. I work in early intervention for youth homelessness and externalizing makes up a huge portion of how I approach problems!
    A common reason for young people not going to school (especially after covid) has been feelings of anxiety that make it difficult to get through the day. I have done externalizing practice where we give anxiety a name (some names include ‘Adam’ and ‘the thing behind the door’) and write these externalizations letters. The Frequently Asked Questions section of this chapter gave some really good insights, exactly like was mentioned, I often externalize the negative issues but have not done much to externalize positive qualities.
    Knowing that externalizing these positive qualities can help re-enforce them is fantastic knowledge and I will begin to work this into my practice. Also, the black dog is a fantastic resource as I find lots of young people have heard of this term. It gives me a great starting point to explain externalizing to the people I work with.

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    Keri Cleverly

    The video and transcript of Mark Hayward demonstrating his conversation with 9 year old Joey was very helpful. Mark made it seem so easy to co-create with Joey a definition of the objectional behavior of bullying, and then help Joey recognize and acknowledge his own connection with bullying behaviors. Mark made it seem easy to do – but I questioned whether I could so facilely have moved the conversation around. The VALUES portion was really so significant as well….helping Joey to look at bullying behaviors and take ownership of them, but for him also to be allowed to express the alternative story of how he’d like to behave.

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    Hello from Manitoba, Canada!
    I found the video with Mark to be really helpful in understanding the framework externalizing conversations. The visual and the path, even if it is not linear, gave me a clear picture of what an actual conversation with a person could look like. It solidified the concept of externalization for me.
    I was also impacted by the idea that externalization can empower clients to view the problem they experience differently, and thus name how they would prefer to have the problem show up in their narrative. Having said that, I also appreciated the caveat Mark and one of the readings mentioned about the importance of being careful with how certain problems are externalized – such as abuse, violence or bullying.

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    Barb Gartley

    I am such an advocate for the process of externalizing as it is enabling. Enabling people to see that they and the problem are not the same thing. The person focus of this approach and the person being able to view their strengths, their qualities, confidence and self esteem ( which are often internalized) can result from the person revising their relationship with the problem interwoven with their identifying their values .

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why? Black dog called depression caught my attention, externalising depression could be quite helpful to outline the aspects of depression while externalizing them and focusing back on strategies to address and not fear the black dog.
    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context? Depression, anxiety, stress, chronic pain.
    What difference might this make? This may enable a client to separate themselves from the problem, get a better perspective, working back over values and get to the root of the problem that is the problem.

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    So often, we come to identify with our pain, our trauma, or our problems. It feels like we are what they are. Externalizing is such a powerful tool to create the space needed for the growth to happen. When we internalize, we smash ourselves up against the problems, and no rain or light can get in. But externalizing creates separation enough for water and light to enter and tend to the soil. And I love that, like most narrative practice, it is accomplished through consistent, generous, curious questions.

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    The video about the Black Dog has such a powerful and pertinent message, which I think so many people can relate to, whether it’s about their own experience of depression, or knowing others who experience it.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    Anxiety is a condition many of the clients I currently work with have, and I have my own lived experience of this also. I think mental health conditions/illnesses overall can be externalised, as too much of the time, we tend to identify too strongly and inherently with ‘anxiety’ or ‘major depressive disorder’, that we then tend to think of ourselves as defective, rather than understanding that we are NOT our conditions/illnesses. Rather, the problem is external to us and we can perceive it in such a way that isn’t self-blaming or shame-ridden.

    What difference might this make?
    We will live with more self-compassion and empathy for other’s circumstances and experiences as well, personally and professionally.

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    I enjoyed this chapter. I particularly liked listening to Mark Hayward and the artful way he navigated the statement of position map – like many therapeutic techniques, externalising seems simple, but is incredibly nuanced and thought through. One small element that interested me was the note that we don’t just externalise problems, but externalise strengths and other positive aspects too, very interesting to think about that, and the impact that might have in my work!
    Natasha, Manchester, England

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    I enjoyed this chapter. I particularly liked listening to Mark Hayward and the artful way he navigated the statement of position map – like many therapeutic techniques, externalising seems simple, but is incredibly nuanced and thought through. One small element that interested me was the note that we don’t just externalise problems, but externalise strengths and other positive aspects too, very interesting to think about that, and the impact that might have in my work!
    Natasha, Manchester, England

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    The black dog video was clear and helped me put words into context, as I was able to clearly understand how using terms such anxiety and depression, could really impact a persons well-being as well as stigma behind such words, often lead to clients hiding their feelings.

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    I think externalising is an excellent tool that can be used when talking about fears and phobias for eg. what does the fear look like, does it have a shape etc.

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    I am working with a client who has fear of moving objects. I was not sure how to proceed with therapy and my supervisor suggested me asking them about how that fear looks like, does it have a shape, form or colour. I did not realise that they were encouraging me to externalise their experience. After I watched the video I joined the dots and realised that.

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    Writing from Vancouver Canada

    Externalization is an an amazing practice and watching the source material drove points home for me. The immediate relief I felt when I externalized my own problems was palpable and encourage self-compassion. Further, I think working with clients through Mark’s process, as he did in the transcript, really positioned the client as the expert of their own dialogue and wants. Externalizing reiterates a client-centered approach instead of a problem-centered approach. As well, once the problem is separated, for me, it seemed like it much more solvable.

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