“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 686 Comments

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    I found the Black Dog clip was a great example to help me understand the concept of externalizing, however I fell I gained the most from Mark Hayward. There was value in each step of the position map but for me number one, Characteristics or Naming stood out. The concept of creating a boundary around the problem so the client can separate themselves from it and then become the expert or authority could make it easier for them to engage in the therapy process.
    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    From my limited understanding so far it seems that most problems except for violence, and criminal behaviour can be externalised. Although it we cannot separate the client from the act of violence itself, it may be possible to so of the issues that are also present like culture, shaming and silencing. Looking into the of the culture the event occurred within may help, ie. Pub, playground, family, the abuser view the situation from a different point. As Mark suggests, ‘Investigate history of this culture with client, looking at who is disadvantaged, advantaged. How it’s sustained, without separating them out from responsibility but making it clear there are other things going on here as well’. This could be the difference between engaging the person in a different way of viewing their situation or not.
    Hamilton, New Zealand

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    Writing from Armidale, NSW, Australia.

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

    I particularly resonated with Mark Hayward’s Statement of Position Map 1. This provides a clear and impactful framework for engaging with a client in an externalisation process, each step is necessary and clearly builds for the client a sense of authority over a problem to which previously they may have felt beholden, constrained and weighed down by. Notable is the notion that one should not assume a client’s position in relation to the problem.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?

    In my context I have used this for a variety of problems that I recognised as “taking over”, from medical conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, experiences of anxiety and now I am using it to create distance between myself and less desirable behaviours in relation to mothering.

    What difference might this make?

    The difference this strategy makes is profound. It allows a sense of agency and ownership of one’s own life. It demonstrates the space between self and problem. It allows for the notion of a life without the problem or in better relation with the problem.

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      Hi Grace, your post caught my eye. Iam new to narative therapy but I would be very interested in how you might use this in the case of Artritis you mentioned. Thank you Caro NZ

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    The problem is the problem… by extricating ‘problem behaviours’ from ourselves, that externalization gives us the space to reflect on who we are as individuals. We are not worriers though we may experience worry. We are not DEPRESSED though the Black Dog may follow us around. We are not defined by our challenges. As well, when we look back at creating multiple storylines, externalization of problems creates alternate pathways in which we can view our lives as opposed to being defined by ‘the problem’.

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    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    I really found Mark Hayward’s Statement of Position Map an effective tool in being able to track a conversation but also an experience for a person to be able to visualise where they have been but also where they may still need to go. This could aid in directing and guiding future sessions.

    I also found that Matthew Johnstone’s video on externalising of the black dog of depression a great very clear and visual depiction that I could utilise with clients.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    Given that I work across youth and adult services, I feel that I will be able to utilise Statement of Position Map with clients of all ages. I feel that this will show significant value and empowerment for clients that have been struggling with validation and naming of what is occurring for them.

    What difference might this make?
    Creating client awareness and insight into their experiences including being able to name and hold value of their thoughts and feelings.
    Riverland, South Australia

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    Natalia Ivanova

    This chapter brought a lot of things I’m currently thinking of. Thank you very much for these materials!
    I really like the metaphor of the Black dog as the image of depression: it is so accurate, vivid and catching. I think for some people this short video would be helpful and supportive as a starting point to see that their state is understandable and can be treated. I also think that this video is one of the best examples of how to explain what externalising is.
    The statement of position map by Mark Hayward is extremely helpful. I followed the video and was trying to map the conversation.I knew about the externalising conversations from M. White’s book, but here that was my first practice of mapping. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to practice while studying.
    I also think of possibilities to use externalising in my work with adults and their requests on anxiety, procrastination, fear of failure and other. Thank you very much for this course!
    Natalia, Moscow, Russia

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    I am Tamrina from Amritsar, India. This course and these concepts are proving to be very insightful and I am extremely eager to go through the rest of the course.
    The Black Dog of depression video showed me a very different perspective from what I have learned in the more conventional forms of therapy during my education. The section about describing the frequently asked questions about narrative practices halped me understand a great deal about how valueable a tool Narrative Therapy can be in my practice as a therapist.

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    The black dog video was very informative and gave me insight on how people internalize their own mental health issues on themselves. externalizing the issue is the first step towards accepting the problem. This will help in finding the solution and in some cases coping up skills.

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    Anna Weber

    I’m thinking about what problems could be externalized in my caseload and I’m noticing cases of avoidance and fear, being tainted by trauma, lack of self-confidence/self-worth, and low motivation. I am especially thinking about a client’s description of their problem as feeling like being in Sims, which could be their own way of understanding depersonalization/derealization.

    Additionally, when I think about anxiety that plagues me, I am also exploring the experience-near naming I could see for my own problems: the tight weeping, numb walks, shaky beliefs in myself.

    Questions remaining for me: How to hold responsibility and externalizing in relational situations? Not just violent situations but when trying to help clients hold balanced perspectives on their actions and others’ actions. Would externalizing be more focused on maybe the shame that is fueling their actions or defensive blindness that surrounds them?

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    Holly Mak

    This chapter was a great introduction to externalising conversations — what they are, and how they work in a therapeutic or even everyday context. As a counsellor working with mostly Hong Kong-based clients, I’ve come across many individuals who are stuck on internalised narratives of shame and self-blame (often reinforced by a collectivist, hierarchical culture), resulting in low self-worth and strained relationships (just to name a few of the effects). Having experimented with some externalising techniques in my work, it’s been moving to see how powerful externalising conversations can be in planting a seed of empowerment in people’s lives. Once the problem is put “at arm’s length”, as Mark Hayward mentions in his presentation, a whole school of unexpected possibilities arises for future action.

    I found the Statement of Position Map presentation a very valuable exercise for getting a sense of how externalising works in conversation. Following the transcript of the conversation alongside the Map itself with Mark Hayward’s guidance allowed me to see how artful these conversations need to be. The non-linear process, i.e. repeatedly asking different questions and gauging what this opens up in the person by way of clarification of values, effects, and connections — reminded me of shooting a basketball. Each shot the therapist takes may not sink through the hoop, but each try is equally important. I admired Mark’s sensitivity, patience, and agility in discerning 9-year-old Joey’s position on the problem. He was artful in ensuring that he was co-authoring Joey’s story, and not becoming its primary author.

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    Melissa July

    I could see this approach being very useful when working with children and with adults in helping them become an observer instead of being entangled in the problem.

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    I found Mark’s presentation using the chart and the transcript of the client’s session super helpful. Through questions designed to get to the problem, the client’s insight and values were used to then identify an alternate path he could utilize and ways this alternate path would be differ. Also, enjoyed the “Sugar” story, as this was a clever way to help others identify the problem without putting any one person on the spot.

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      Morgan Brooks

      I really appreciated the idea of “experience near” vs “experience distant” descriptions of the problem as I find that so many people are identified with their problems in ways that uphold pathologizing narratives about mental health. I knew this about narrative therapy already but I like this particular way of describing the aims of externalization of the problem. I also really appreciated the way Mark was able to keep accountability in the conversation while still externalizing the problem. It felt very skillful to say “kinds of bullying you can get into”. It really makes sense when we have kids changing positions on the bullying/bullied spectrum – this gives them specific language about behaviour that they want to uphold and behaviour they want to move away from. Oh, and I put a star in my notes about making sure we get the person to take a position on the problem so that we aren’t in the position of being the expert or telling them how they should feel about it and moving the conversation ahead without the person.

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    The resource in this chapter that particularly caught my attention was the story of “Sugar”. Not only did it explore externalising problems, but doing that in a way that was playful, collaborative and disarming.

    As a psychologist working primarily in schools and early childhood, the problems that could certainly be useful to externalise are “anxiety”, “defiant” and “oppositional”. I often hear these terms used in a way which provides very little understanding of what a person is actually experience or how they are behaving.

    I believe externalising these terms would provide a greater sense of shared understanding and meaning of what people are experiencing, and feel more grounded in ‘real life’ as opposed to more alien, clinical terms.

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    Rantshoke David Makhema

    I appreciate the tools or process on how to externalise the problem. Firstly, a problem is a problem and not a person. Therefore it is to important to separate the problem from a person. The process is Respectful and Questions are to be asked from Curiosity and not any pre-knowledge like an expert. Only the client is skillful and competent to tell the story about the problem. Once this foundation is done then, step by step one moves up and down the chart according to the dialogue and questioning from Naming, Effects/ Connections ( immediate , and past) Position/Experience and then Values( where a unique outcome and or preferred life may emerge.). Any feeling like shaming , worthless, anger but not acts of violence, like murder, abuse and so on. Connection with the problem is necessary to weigh the experience and seek alternatives. However, one must still remain responsible for own actions and behaviour to be able to pursue a better life.

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    Krsna Mayshack-Mendero

    I really found the presentation by Mark very useful in demonstrating how to use the conversation map, the transcipt of clients therapy session, the importance of positing and value based conversations.
    Being able to apply questions that assist with the ongoing externalising conversations I think would be challenging for me.
    I appreciate including how to deal with people who choose violence towards others and placing importance on externalising shaming, silencing for example and exploring and deconstructing cultural and historical influences.

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    I can’t speak highly enough about the statement of position map and the video/powerpoint that went along with it. I have since spoken to several friends and colleagues about it! As a trainee, I am always happy to have a straightforward, pragmatic presentation of therapeutic materials, and this segment of the chapter was very helpful and useful to me. I can see much more clearly now how one can integrate the narrative mindset into the therapeutic conversation, and I also very much appreciate the way in which mapping a conversation can provide better information about how to improve sessions moving forward. Maggie, Los Angeles, USA

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    I really liked the resource that described the story of “Sugar”. I thought this was such a neat way of taking a big scary topic of diabetes and making it more approachable and even fun to talk about. I also appreciated the video by Hayward explaining the Statement of Position Map. I am a big visual person and can see the benefit of being able to track a conversation with a client to see where we have been and what else may be helpful to discuss.

    I think that externalization techniques can be helpful for a variety of problems that people internalize, whether mental health or behavioral challenges. I work in schools with children with challenging behaviors and I can see the value of separating the child from the problem; it is not the child who is the problem, the problem is instead affecting the life of the child.

    Sophia, Nova Scotia, Canada

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    I loved the vdo by Mark, and Michael’s use of chart in working with clients. What seems to be most helpful is the inquiry into the client’s narrative and thoughts about the thing they are struggling with. The inquiry brings a sense of awareness, an insight, as well as creating awareness and responsibility, like giving authority and ownership but in a non judgmental context.

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    I enjoy the concept of asking the persons ‘position’ on the problem, its true that many people I work with have never been asked that before! They at first find the question confusing but them in can really bring out the complexity of the issue they face and really help to externalise the diagnosis that has been put on them.
    Darcie, Mackay, Australia

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    The statement of position map in the video from Mark Hayward stuck out to me as very useful. This resource helped me make connections about how narrative therapy is implemented in practice, and particularly how helpful it can be as an approach with children. I also did not understand the importance of the client creating their own descriptions outside of typical pathologizing language such as “depression” or “anxiety”.

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    I found that Matthew Johnstone’s externalising of ‘the black dog’ of depression caught my attention – it provides a very clear and moving example of how effective visualizing one’s problem as external to their ‘self’ can be, but also how it doesn’t mean you’ve got rid of the problem but have just learnt how to manage it without it being attached to who you are as a person.
    In the context of working with couples where one has dementia to maintain relationship continuity, I think the idea of externalizing the dementia from the individual will help couples to feel less discontinuity in their relationship, to feel that they still are the same people but with a problem that needs addressing together, rather than seeing the person as the problem.

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    I have not before learnt about externalisation and I found this to be a fantastic starting point for myself. It was also really interesting to see how this technique can be used with clients and the resources provided will be helpful. Alyssa, Broome

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