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 35 Comments

  1. Rob

    I really love the idea of the shame mat – seems to have allowed for more open conversations & to leave “shame at the door”.

  2. acaltabiano@raq.org.au

    Some much rich material to work with in this learning module: Externalising the Problem. Aunty Dolly Hankin and Aunty Kerry Major have found a creative solution particular to their group. The Shame Mat, what a wonderful symbol, wiping your feet and leaving Shame at the door. Murri Bingo and Snakes and Ladders sound equally interesting and I’d like to hear more about the implementing of those games as fun ways to look at more complex problems. While Sugar was fun, Grief made me tear up as my own mother had a similar experience to Aunty Barb, her quote sums up my feelings perfectly. Grief: Let me talk about the different ways that people relate to me – I’m like stepping stones, and people step differently.

  3. Patricia

    I liked the story of the shame mat and the fact of leaving shame at the door
    I also relate to their story about when people attend the groups how they separate and sit in their little groups
    when I do groups , I allow the ladies or participants to sit together when they first come into a session, by morning tea and lunch, I get a chance to check the dynamics in the room and I change the seating arrangements, thereby have the participants mixing in with each other, instead of sitting with those they know or work with
    I loved the poem Dolly wrote, most appropriate and very emotional words .
    the shame mat reminds me of a touch stone such as in Ireland or even within sporting groups before they enter he arenas.
    also I like how they forward their knowledge on and give permission for their program to be used with other groups.
    well done ladies

  4. Lavina Little

    I loved the Shame Mat and the poem it is true the power of words is a great tool use in a positive way. To me it given my service the tool to use in our yarning circle. And the idea of Murri Bingo well I think that’s brilliant. Thank you Aunty Kerry and Aunty Dolly keep up the great work.

  5. sylphillipsayre@yahoo.com.au

    Shame Mat and Yarn really hit home for me, How Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry used the mat and was creative with painting and what it resembled and her beautiful, strong poem, brought tears to my eyes. Though I’m learning like we all are, this was maybe some thing I really needed to hear in my own journey. It reminds me that although we suffer much, we heal by connecting with others, yarning, sharing
    stories, listening and hearing each other, through this we can release energies in healthy / healthier ways. Big thank you for this video.

    I l ike the role playing of characters regarding reading ‘Sugar’ and Grief. I’m currently working in a health position, where I’m looking at ways of connecting with health workers, clients, community in trying to reduce shame associated with what many people see as Taboo and sensitive, to encourage mob to feel safe and to get their health needs met. I will very much consider Role playing and see how this works. Thanks everyone

  6. Roy

    This is a great way to heal together and has opened my eyes and mind tremendously

  7. Julie Jensen

    I really enjoyed listening to Michael White externalising ADHD with James and his parents through encouraging James to draw a picture from his brain. When James had done this he was able to ask the questions about how James experienced the symptoms of ADHD in his own words. It was a lovely example.

  8. Amelia Larson

    I loved the “Shame Mat!” I think this is such a fantastic way to externalize shame and embody what Aunty Kerry Major spoke about when she said “the journey took them there (addictions.)” I see this having such a profound impact on many clients as shame plays such a large narrative in many presenting issues. I’m curious the impact of putting a shame mat outside the counselling room door or the door of group therapy for people experiencing domestic violence. This has definitely started to get me thinking more creatively in how to externalize and separate the problems from the person. Thank you for these teachings.

  9. Alison Van Corler

    This was a great lesson I would really like to develop this skill more in the community. It also helped me reflect on self-growth and change.

  10. Yolanda Chavez Leyva

    The concept of externalizing the problem has put a name on something I’ve known was an important part of healing for so long. As I read and listen to each module, through the lens of a historian/ a grandmother/ a mother/ an Indigenous woman, each piece of narrative therapy makes so much sense. Beginning a century ago, “scholars” in the United States began to write articles about Mexican immigrants under the rubric of “the Mexican problem.” They portrayed us as intellectually and biologically inferior. They justified starvation wages saying that we could survive on very little. When we migrated for better lives for ourselves and our children, they called it a “problem” because of our poverty, our lack of education and our lack of opportunities. They said WE were the problem. What history has taught me and what narrative practice is teaching me is that people are not the problem. The problem is the problem. We were poor because employers paid us very little. We were uneducated because schools were closed to us or if we went to school, they were segregated and under-resourced. Thank you for giving me a more profound understanding of healing.

  11. Fi Dicker

    Thank you for sharing these rich resources with us. I’ve really appreciated the way Aunty Barbara Wynguard has used externalising practices to shine light on the way injustices throughout history continue to impact the daily lives of Aboriginal people and communities.
    As I read these articles, especially on externalising grief and lateral violence, I felt thankful for the opportunity to witness history being spoken of in ways that acknowledge the losses and oppression experienced by Aboriginal people. This was not something that was acknowledged or spoken of when I was at school, these stories were being made invisible. So it was extra delightful to jump over to you tube to watch the video of Woorabinda’s year 9 response to lateral violence and lateral love. How great is it to see the problem as the problem and to hear people’s knowledge of how they would like to respond to it!

  12. nadine.lohmeyer2@lwb.org.au

    The concepts developed and implemented which physically represent the ideas of shame and grief through the ‘shame mat’ and role playing ‘grief’ have been hugely beneficial in the visual and physical representation of separating a person from a problem. This will be important in my work with young people who often struggle with a huge sense of shame from their trauma and abuse as well as their loss of their cultural heritage and identity.

  13. Natalie Packer

    I loved the idea of the Shame Mat brought forward by Aunties Dolly Hankin & Kerry Major, where they encourage the group participants to wipe their feet on it at the door. Shame was left there on the mat & the women were able to enter the room free to yarn. Aunty Kerry’s poem was beautiful “My skin cannot judge me, I am unique & exquisite, there is only one of me.”

  14. melinda.gregory@worldivision.com.au

    the role plays that Aunty Barbara wrote are amazing. To offer people a role and a voice, without shaming them or singling them out is such a powerful tool to engage groups. I particularly liked how she also used humour to draw the group together. The snakes and ladders game is genius!

  15. Kathryn

    The externalising of lateral violence was a real eye opener for me. In my community lateral violence has a strong presence, and it can make us all feel unsafe. It’s good to be reminded that the community is not the problem — the problem (lateral violence) is the problem!

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