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 26 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. 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!

  6. 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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