“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 663 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I really enjoyed Mark Hayward’s video on Michael White’s Statement of Position Map 1. It was very clear, the questions and different stages of externalization well- explained. Thank you.
    As a Time to Think coach, I often see women with “People-pleaser” syndrome and they see it as an obstacle to achieve personal goals. I would really much try this externalization practise with them.
    The difference it might make is to separate this “problem” from their own identities and understand how it can be a part of a broader historical and cultural context.

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      Thanks, Sandra. I just went through the Statement of Position Map, externalizing the Helpless Homemaker/Martyr Mother “in me” and then saw your post. I have been trying to reconcile this within myself for years. Externalizing the problem has allowed me to make life changing decisions this week simply by seeing the situation, my son’s needs, and my needs clearly. I think you will have a lot of success using this technique!

      – Kimberley, B.C., Canada

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    I really enjoyed the Transcript between the therapist and Joey. I thought it was great to see externalisation in an example. I enjoyed seeing how more and more information was gathered. I liked the example questions to to help us gain an understanding of how these ideas can be done.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    In my context of being a counselling student I think problems that can be externalised would obviously be things like depression and anxiety. But also separation of things like bulling or friendship issues. Or popularity in school setting.

    What difference might this make?
    Externalising these problems allows space for the individual to realise there’s a lot of untold stories they have which they can be focusing on instead of the said problem.

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    I really think externalising is crucial in therapy. The information and videos in this chapter were an absolute treat to watch. Sugar was by far the biggest revelation. I couldnt stop thinking about how i could adopt this with mental health problems in Remote Aboriginal communities where i work. I knew from the last few years of working remotely that seperating the problem from the person was helpful but just in regards to reducing shame issues. I would be worried however about getting the right use of language to externalise to some degree behaviours around violence/domestic abuse as touched on by Mark Hayward. Food for thought. I think it would be very important to practice externalising problems, ones that would be appropriate to the particular fields of work you are in.. Great chapter. I think i will be re doing it again!
    Paul – Far North Queensland, Australia

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    The sugar story. This was a really simple and shows that you don’t have to have a great amount of knowledge to give people their ownership and allowing for an open, honest, and genuine look at their history.
    I found this very inspiring and insightful, I’ve worked with Indigenous Australians lots and I wish I had these tools available to me then.
    Now going forward I feel more prepared in how to motivate and create discussions around change. eliminating the shame that is so often felt when people exhibit difficult behaviors or feelings.

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    Isabel Beuve

    It has been very useful to learn how externalising works with more detail and why it is important to see it as the first step previous to other narrative techniques.
    The examples of Sugar and the Dog have been quite graphical and also show techniques from children therapy applied and suitable when treating adults.
    I have also understood the importance of preventing the therapist to take authorship and instead letting the consultant gain power through their descriptions.
    Greetings from Spain, Isabel

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    Mark Hayward’s explanation of mapping caught my attention as it offers a new way to move forward with problem focused conversations. So often our clients have become stuck within a well rehearsed narrative and this technique avails us of a crucial tool to assist them to dig their way out.
    I found the technique of externalising years ago, which has been invaluable. Personally, I externalise my Anxiety. It has become a grumpy moaning old man called Frank, including beard, hat and tartan coat. When he is at his worst I have found it very powerful to visualise him as an external feature and simply explain it is time to K#ck off Frank so I can move on.

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    The enactment of the Joey interview was revelatory. Though Mark was shaping the conversation and titrating the amount and speed of inquiry, it was also evident that Joey felt enough in control to be a consultant on bullying and admit things without the kind of shame that shuts down the work. It’s like a dance with steps that change and reappear as both therapist and client feel their way through the exchange and trust and honesty begin to grow. As a writer, I find that an interesting part of externalizing is the naming of the problem, authored by the client, and distinctly in non-clinical nomenclature. It’s creative and an almost playful use of language that transforms the dynamic.

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    I was particularly struck by the “I have a black dog and his name is depression” video, as a powerful example of how to utilise externalising conversations. I feel excited by the potential applications of this approach for my own work, both as a psychiatrist and a therapist, in externalising issues such as sadness, anger, anxiety, struggles with substances etc. I can see how this approach could open up new conversations and viewpoints, affording people another place to stand and honouring their expertise, skills and knowledges. I am hopeful that utilsing externalising conversations might open up different conversations, aiding work with guilt and shame, allowing room for creativity and imagination. I hope that this approach might help honour people’s own expertise and help them reconnect with preferred identities.

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    I really liked the video and materials by Mark Hayward in which he provided us with the sequense of externalising conversations and a list of exact examples of questions for the therapists. These are really useful, thank you!
    Kyiv, Ukraine

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    Sergio Chacón

    The video of the black dog especially caught my attention. It gave me a clear understanding of one way of working on externalising: in a didactic, simple and yet profound way.

    In my context, at the community level, the stigma that falls on the Mapuche people and that limits them in their process of social inclusion could be externalised. This can prevent such stigma from being internalised and turning into anticipated stigma that self-limits Mapuche people.

    Temuco, Chile.

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    As a parent of adult children who seem to have very different values to me, and who mostly stay out of contact because of past conflicts around these differing values and life choices, it is easy to feel dejected and resentful. I vacillate between blaming myself for being so outspoken and causing rifts, and blaming them for being unreasonable and/or just plain wrong in some of their life choices. I tell myself there is nothing that can be done to change the woeful relationship I have with them, and to just accept the situation and move on. But then I see them in my dreams, and I feel just as I did when they were kids, and all the love I had for them when they were children, comes through me and fills me. When I wake up from these dreams I feel wretched, as though I have lost something so precious, and I feel a lot of grief about my alienation from them. I find myself yearning for meaningful and loving contact. Surely to be able to separate myself more from this problem by externalising it, would give me enough objectivity to see a way to find either some peace with the situation or to find a way to change it.

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    I found Mark Hayward’s presentation really useful in understanding how we can map out externalising conversations and the purpose for each other the sections. As I followed the video, I was building my own awareness about how the different questions added to the idea of separating an individual from the problem. It also showed me how questions start to slowly build a sense of how an individual wants to show up to a problem. For the first time, I can practically see how this can create “new possibilities”.

    On another note, this kind of approach reminds me of the tenants of mindfulness; being open, nonjudgemental and curious to what’s happening in the present moment. In mindfulness, we create distance so that we don’t fall into absorption with our thoughts, it’s very similar to Narrative Therapy, where we create distance so that we don’t fall into absorption with our problems. We create distance to be able to see more options available and also dispel the illusion that we ARE the thought/problem.

    I’ve been working in a high school with a lot of students dealing with covid anxiety. I can see how narrative concepts could help with dealing with this anxiety that seems to be taking over their lives. I think questions like “what is your position on the anxiety”, and “how do you want to show up towards the anxiety?” would be really helpful in showing them that they may have a choice in how they deal with it. Hilda- Melbourne.

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    The problem is the problem and that problem’s name is Doug. By externalizing the problem (or Doug as he’s now known), I’m able to create some breathing room from which to explore all of the alternative perceptions I have regarding Doug’s existence in my life. While Doug may be a part of my life, he isn’t my whole life and he doesn’t own my life.
    I’m very much looking forward to exploring this narrative edge in a therapeutic setting. Our Eurocentric, clinical social work structure exists as such a heavily diagnostic system that is more than willing to label as it sees fit, all the while encouraging the internalization of ‘the problem’ living within each of our clients.
    Calgary, Canada

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    The video by Mark Hayward helped me see externalising from a new angle. The contrast between two situations, one where a child is suffering from temper tantrums and externalises the behaviour as a pouncing monster wolf, and the other where a child is being a bully. In the second case, it is important to encourage the child to take responsibility for the behaviour to some degree. Whereas in the first case, it may be appropriate to completely externalise the behaviour. It was interesting to think about the nuances of when it is and isn’t appropriate to externalise behaviour.

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    Cameron Morgan

    I am really interested in offering young clients the opportunity to draw their problems in a way that personifies them and creates some space between them and the problem. Finding a way to describe/show anger or sadness in a personal way might help shifts some of the guilt or hopelessness and allow room for them to take up the opportunity to be an expert and look for alternative ways of viewing the problem, ow that it is located outside of the self.

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    Mark Haywards presentation was extremely useful. Taking us through each steps and then providing examples of questions and a practice example was a wonderful way to put this theory into practice. These types of presentations are great for online training as it allows us to understand and make connections to our own practice.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context? What difference might this make?
    In the context of hospital work, the externalisation of the experience of grief and loss would be a useful technique. Externalizing the grief experience and utilising metaphors such as growing around grief can help patients to visualize grief as a separate entity, which may not always dominate their current narrative or thoughts as it does within that current moment. This may provide the patient with some peace that the grief does not always impact on them.

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    I found the presentation by Mark very powerful.
    Insightful as a emerging practitioner, very useful on identifying the strengths of externalising a problem and how to unpack it in the best possible way, with the client using the tools identified within this presentation. I look forward to implementing it in my daily practice. Thank you

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    I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of externalising. During current practice, I find the use of metaphors to be useful and through facilitating externalisation, many of the same properties are applied. To disconnect the individual from their story allows for an open, honest, and authentic analysis of their history as the individual is encouraged to observe their experiences nonjudgmentally and as a function of external forces. This can lead to a(n) (almost) playful curiosity of presenting concerns outside personal attachment to experience. Similar to metaphors, the client is empowered to share their experiences as explicit to their person and process, adjust, or align their story with their intention(s) through comparisons, relatedness, or rich descriptions.

    Ensuring the client’s position on the concern is thoroughly developed, the client is provided with the freedom to explore their history and develop a rich understanding of the causes of behaviours, thoughts, or emotions. According to the DBT perspective, every behaviour has a cause; similarly, through the use of externalisation the individual is encouraged to observe their experience as acting upon, rather than within, themselves. This detachment empowers the individual to act in accordance to their inherent values and accept their history by exploring their experiences with a gentle curiosity opposed to a critical lens. Distancing themselves from their problem will then provide opportunity to reflect upon personal strengths, skills and knowledge that motivates growth and progress.

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    Don Gunning

    I found the whole concept of externalising new & interesting & the SOP Map will help a lot in helping me get patients to externalise more easily.

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    I found Mark’s presentation really useful in beginning to understand more about externalising conversations and the flow between different aspects of the statement of position map. I would be interested to learn more about how to use these ideas when someone is focused on the behaviours of other people towards them, rather than on their own behaviour.

    In my context of community palliative care, one problem that could be externalised is the impact of disease on the body, and the ways that this can cause people to lose their sense of self and feel shame. So maybe naming the disease and separating the self from it, seeing the impacts of it, clarifying their view of it and then connecting to how it is they would like to live despite it.

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