“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 862 Comments

  1. hanan

    Hi there,
    My name is Hana, I work for an AOD service focusing on dual diagnosis on the Gold Coast QLD, Aus
    (Kombumerri/Yagumbeh Country).
    For me, the most profound moment within this chapters content was the statement that externalising is little “p” political action. Working with people who have often experienced childhood trauma, stigma & discrimination for their injecting drug use status and other complex social problems I could not love the concept of externalising more. Bringing the history, culture, laws/policy and social structures that have perpetuated the problem to light is extremely liberating for those living under internalised shame. Alot of this cohort have had experiences in public health sector that have completely lost sight of what has happened to someone in favour of “what is wrong with you?”
    As a social worker, I feel that im constantly linking these broader structures to what feels like internal experiences. I often find myself finding it difficult to articulate or understand this process in terms of an intervention – with further narrative therapy training I look forward to being able to engage in this process with clarity.
    As a creative person, I very much so look forward to being able to use creativity in naming problems & characterising them.

    I look forward to continuing through the chapters and using narrative concepts in my practice.



  2. karenggrant

    I was most intrigued by using the map to balance externalising with responsibility. Navigating this remains a mystery to me but I’m eager to learn more.

    I often encounter shame, resentment, and despair around environmental issues. Externalising the problem is important for maintaining relationships where different world views create tension.

    When families coexist with the tension of different world views, externalising the problem can enable them to separate the problem from the personalities, retain affection for each other, and focus on behavioural change.

  3. Paulina López

    Hi I’m Paulina, a psychologist specialized in attending and preventing violence, I work more with the effects that violence bring, like anxiety and depression, so I think that exteranalizing anxiety or depression as the black dog it would be a really god tool. And for the people that replicates the violence it think that is actually really useful to characterize the violence without taking responsibility.

    The resource of sugar, was the one the one that I found more attractive, I think that the way they talk to sugar to understand it better or even confront how rude sugar could be, it was amazing.

  4. laurencavanaughlicsw

    Hi I am Lauren, I provide individual therapy in my private practice in Fairhaven Massachusetts, USA

    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?
    The powerpoint was the most powerful for me. When it asks “What would you call this kind of problem?”
    “How big/What colour/What shape/Which gender is this problem?” “What does it remind you of?” “What image comes to mind when you think of it?” “Could you draw a picture of this problem for me?”
    This caught my attention because its such a creative way to externalize. I specifically thought of my adolescents who have difficulty describing the feelings and problems with experience. I guess I never really thought of externalizing in this way and I think this will be really helpful with my clients.

    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    A few of my clients are dealing with feelings that come from having a parents that is mentally ill or have substance abuse problems that raised them. They have very much internalized their parents behaviors as their own shortcomings. I think this will be helpful coping with what my clients are struggling with.

    What difference might this make?
    I think this might allow them to heal from shame and guilt from their childhood.

  5. Fiona

    From Peramangk Country, Barossa. I found the concept of externalising really fascinating, it allows the client to remain in control of the session and not be absorbed by the guilt surrounding the problem, but having the opportunity to see themselves as separate and by extension having some autonomy in the situation. Thank you for this resource, it is invaluable.

  6. Andreas

    I was particularly inspired by the statement of position map 1-charter. I can see myself trying to use this both mentally in conversations/sessions as well as physically when reviewing recorded sessions. In turn this has also made me more focused on trying to record more of my session in order to review them and improve and reflect upon the different areas which the conversation travels through.

  7. Alma

    Hi All, Alma from Kaurna Land here again 🙂 I work as a counsellor in a trauma service.

    It is difficult to choose just one resource that caught my attention in this module. I do have to give Sugar a mention, because I really liked the way Sugar demonstrated humour, creativity, and cultural opportunities.

    Going forwards, the Statement of Position Map 1 will be a useful reference guide, especially while getting more familiar with these practices. I appreciated the opportunity to work through Mark’s conversation with Joey while using the Map to chart to conversation, as this helped me to grasp the ideas embodied. For example, when Mark spoke about how something like “depression” might be the domain of counsellors who read, study, and work with this construct all the time, as compared to something like a “fog” which someone meeting with a counsellor work be more an expert in, something fell more into place for me, about how problems might be collaboratively named and the externalisation process commenced.

    I come across quite a few problems each day on my travels. Some seem to be introduced to me as externalisations; like “the big bad dark”, “doom and gloom”, and the “elephant in the room”. Others are presented in an internalised way, like “weakness” and “worthlessness”.

    Externalising these problems can begin to restory them as not within the person, but a product of history and social contexts. I had never come across the ‘”small p political action” phrase before and this really resonated with me – this is what I wanted to do, not expertly tell people about diagnoses or “the literature”.

    Differentiating the problem from the person then paves the way to explore it from many angles, and hopefully gain the type of information which can help decentre it, and explore preferred storylines.

    I’m wondering if, for example, a sense of worthlessness might be like “pure utter hell”. It might have a history linked to many forms of oppression, violence and abuse; family practices of scapegoating and narratives of someone being “a trouble maker”, and broader social discourses around “success”, “worthiness”, “the perfect victim”, “the good patient” and so on. It might have people doing things that get in the way of their relationships, work, rest. It could try to totally prevent healing! This could be unacceptable to someone who would prefer to live with a sense of self acceptance that looks like… and aligns with…

    I will continue to reflect on this, and likely revisit the map and try it out with Joey’s and other examples again.

  8. Ana

    Externalizing is a new concept for me, the video with example was very helpful! I just struggled to follow the chart the way he did. I would need more practice. I work with victims/survivors of sexual violence and I can see how helpful it would be. Hopefully by externalizing it, my clients would be able to have more compassion towards themselves in regards to what happened and start their journey for healing.

  9. nicholas.farr

    Nic from Melbourne Aus:
    I have found the practice of supporting people to find a vocabulary and imagery to describe problems very helpful for both me and the person I am supporting to better discuss what is going on. I remember a young person describing an oily fog of depression that followed her around and she gave it a name (I can’t recall what it was now). But it helped us talk about what it was like when that oily fog crept into her life.

    The difference it made was that she was able to talk about the problem as something that she had some control over; she was able to see the warning signs (fog creeping in) and take action against it. I wish I had the knowledge back then to link it to the young person’s values: What did it get in the way of? What would a life where she had more control of that cloud look like?

  10. James

    I found the Statement of Position map to be very helpful in breaking down how to externalise the problem. I have always thought that not only does externalising allow for the person to distance themselves from the problem, but it also allows them to perhaps make the problem less nebulous. Instead of being something vague like direction or anxiety, it becomes the “black dog of depression,” it gives it a face, which in turn gives it more easily identifiable traits and ways that the individual can identify what kind of issues the main problem can create.

    For me, I could externalise the problem of my anxiety and lack of self-belief in my ability as a therapist into a Vampire who sucks the confidence from me when he tells me that I am not a good therapist.

  11. Namrata

    I found the discernment of externalizing the abuse part of it but also not completely so that the responsibility is not taken away, so helpful! Something I really needed clarity on. Very well explained!!

  12. Emily

    The concept of externalising and characterising the problem in a way to fully understand the problem which in turn assists young people to become the experts of their problem as discussed within the INT SOP1 Synopsis. Instead of having a professional attempt to discover what is really going on for their client.

    In my context the problem would be childhood sexual abuse/developmental trauma, and would help the child/young person to differentiate their identity from their experience and assist the child to work through life story work/narrative therapy while also giving parent/guardians a narrative in which they could support the child/young person’s recovery separate from their child.

  13. mccartyc

    Kitchener, Ontario Canada

    So interesting to read the transcript externalizing “sugar”. It was interesting to follow Mark’s transcript alongside the chart, particularly helpful to see that the process of externalizing is not linear.

    In a recent conversation with a client I tried to adapt this learning to externalize the feeling of loneliness. I’m eager to see how this might be helpful for the client when we follow up in a future session.

  14. ricmathews.lmhc

    Externalization is easy to conceptualize, particularly when paired with the phrase, “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” However, the Statement of Position Map 1 propels the concept into a more effective way of visualizing externalizing by way of tracking the process while in real-time conversation. It also gives more direction in how to expand the externalization into a foundation for beginning the work on making the findings from that process more actionable, ultimately making way for change. I’m excited to begin approaching externalizing conversations with this map in mind.

    I was also pleased to see how grounded the process of externalizing is in cultural, historical and social context. It mirrors the socioecological model of influence, which I often use with my patients when discussing particular problems like body dysmorphia, internalized homophobia, class inequality and systemic issues of white supremacy.

    I’m keen to learn how to place the externalized problems into alternative storylines as this module continues.

    1. Mariannina Bertolacci

      Mariannina, Melbourne
      Externalizing the problem allows the person to view the problem outside of themselves and assists them to come to a understanding how and why the problem has taken hold on them. It also allows the person room to view his life without the problem. Using a chart alongside Mark’s transcript shows that the process of inquiry isn’t linear. Loved the story about the black dog learning to accept depression and viewing it as a teacher.

  15. sally

    Without question, stating the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem rings so true for me. Working in hospitals I so often hear staff talking about “a difficult patient” or “a difficult family” and I always ask them to reframe what they have said and talk about a patient or family in a difficult situation. Personally when “my depression” is taking hold of me, over the past number of years I know refer to it as Alice has gone down the rabbit hole and it makes me stop and reflect about what’s happening there and what choices I have. I really enjoyed the sugar chapter and bringing fun into externalising

  16. Sandy

    Paris, France
    I really enjoyed the subtleness of the approach. The way Mark Hayward explains the process is priceless.Thank you very much for making this material free of access.

  17. Konstantin

    Hello. I think I could externalize my fear of change in my life. It could be a snake that wraps me around and holds me hard, but gently. And then the externalizing conversation could help me to create a story about my relationship with that fear snake. It is a great way to find out more about myself and create a new story that will allow me to be more flexible.

  18. lauren.galea

    Waterloo, Canada

    I really enjoyed learning more about how the questions asked of an individual can support the process of externalizing the problem. I specifically found this to be a helpful tool when working with children. By personifying the problem it creates space between the child and the problem. As stated in the training, referring to the problem of a child getting into trouble as “Mr. Mischief” , it adds an element of playfulness while still providing space between the child and the problem with the hopes of supporting the child to feel more comfortable to talk about how this is impacting them without placing blame or shame.

  19. n.goakes

    I really enjoyed this chapter. Working in the NHS, so many problems are internalised and it can be so empowering when this starts to shift. I have started to use externalising conversations not just in one to one therapy, but also in my conversations with other professionals, e.g. “this person is so depressed, they don’t leave the house and are always cancelling appointments” and I might reply with “so the depression is so much in their way, it’s stopping them accessing the support and help that’s available to them?” In under resourced, overworked services, these types of conversations seem to massively shift professionals back to a space of compassion, where before they might have been feeling stuck or frustrated.
    I particularly like the statement of position map – it’s a really useful tool to help prompt me when I get stuck in my attempts at externalising, which happens as I’m still new to this!
    Natasha – Manchester, UK

  20. Caroline S

    I really enjoyed the practice video. I have a better understanding as therapist as how to assist my clients to externalize their problems. I will be using the Statement of Position tool with my clients in the near future.


  21. jramirez2

    Externalizing the problem is so important. It is very often that the problem is attached to the person, so much so that it almost becomes a part of their identity. By externalizing, we emphasize that the person is not the problem, it is separate from them. It also can make it easier to challenge and work to solve the problem.

  22. Cary

    Cary, Washington State, USA
    The practice video with Mark Hayward was super helpful in a practical application of externalization. The black dog video was really good for understanding depression experience. I can see the use of most problems being externalized in practice with my clients. It can help with creating space between them and their challenges for less internalizing of them. My hope is this difference helps them see the problem for what it is and less of a personal identifier.

  23. mindmapcounselling

    I would describe the narrative metaphor as a set of tools. Various types of metaphoric tools can be used in different environments, such as therapy. Metaphors can be used to enrich or in some regards to refresh peoples lives. People often form their identities based on the narrative milestones of their lives. Thinking about peoples life stories as narratives creates all kinds of possibilities. By taking witness to a person sharing their story they can begin to learn strategies to describe and transform their narrative in a strengthening personal narrative. It is great to spend time on important and positive milestones to even rewire new physical neurology in thought process.

  24. mindmapcounselling

    This was a great compilation of resources on the externalization components of Narrative Therapy practice. I enjoyed the variety of learning media from the reading of articles and transcripts to the audio visual aids included. What particularly caught my attention was the visual mapping exercise on the ‘statement of position’ tool. I will definitely use the statement of position more when working with clients in the near future.

  25. Georgina Mavor

    Perth WA. I got a lot out of this chapter. Really appreciated how the naming allowed the client to speak from a different stance – the observer instead of the problem itself. I also appreciated how the 4 sections allowed each area to be explored, and for the client to speak about aspects they have probably never considered – but have thoughts about. The bullying case example exemplified the innocence or unconsciousness with which human beings can get caught up in familial, societal, and/or cultural, mindsets, AND then allows them to make decisions about whether they wish to be complicit and/or it supports what they want from life. It takes the blame out of the conversation, whilst supporting a conscious engagement (or not) with the problem. The issue of making a decision is critical and provides an avenue for taking some clients (who are going nowhere) forward. On reflection about one particularly difficult client, I realised I could have an externalising conversation using the map with ‘I don’t know.’ Lots of affirming words are said about moving forward, but when we move to what that may look like, ‘I don’t know’ appears.

  26. Jocilyn Csernyik

    I found the chart to be ingenious! Such a simple, yet powerful tool to help organize the client’s thoughts and dissect the aspects surrounding their problem. I think it also helps organize the details of the client’s description of their experience with the problem, aiding the therapist in staying ‘with’ the client.

    Virtually any problem could be externalized, but I think it would be specifically helpful for someone who is struggling to take ownership of their challenges, as the root cause for their denial could be due to feelings of shame or intense guilt about something they have done/continue to do.

    In considering ‘what difference’ can externalizing make, I think it creates hope. In separating the problem from the client, we are helping them to actualize their ability to be ‘good’ and reinforce the fact that regardless of past actions, they are capable of making good decisions and acting on those decisions. Externalizing problems empowers people to take ownership of their problems and can help them change the trajectory of their story.

  27. Michelle Irwin

    I absolutely love the SOP resource and process! What a helpful way to work with people who may become stuck with particular questions to ensure that they understand and eventually to clarify their values and position on the problem. I am also enjoying using externalising with clients to be able to talk about the problem without the client being weighted down by shame for having ‘a problem’ or blame for the way they have coped with it. I love the Sugar chapter!

  28. lr612

    I really enjoyed watching Mark Hayward’s presentation, particularly going through the transcript of a practice example that allows us to participate in creating a conversational chart. This is not only helpful as a demonstration of externalising conversations, but I think being an active participant in the activity helps to embed knowledge. As a student I also appreciated Mark’s reflection that one of his questions was too soon in the process as this helps to remind us that we don’t need to be perfect to be helpful.

  29. Pam

    Wales, UK
    I enjoyed this chapter very much. It looks like externalising the problem helps reduce shame and blame, which are usually obstacles to self-reflection. It might also be helpful for people who struggle to open up or take responsibility for their actions. In my context, I think it would work very well with children, especially if we use metaphors and a playful approach like in the videos. It also sounds very useful when it comes to working with families, as this could help parents/carers to see their children from a different angle and change the narrative they have been creating of their children, based on the problem (e.g., a misbehaving kid). Finally, it also suggests that it could elicit some self-compassion when the problem is related to violence (e.g., bullying).

Leave a Reply