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 18 Comments

  1. As a woman, I’ve often found that talking about a problem has helped me to resolve the issue. But hearing ‘Sugar & Grief’ really externalizing the issue/challenge brings home how this strengthens our inner abilities, which gives us clarity to create the changes to heal.

  2. Using innovation that utilises ‘Shame’ as a thing we can leave behind. Thank you Aunty Dolly Hankin and Aunty Kerry Major.
    Michael White gives the narrative concept a connecting approach. He writes good papers that are valuable to read (e.g. Sneeky Poo ;).
    Reflection and awareness are useful tools to put in your tuckerbox.

  3. what a grounding this has been for me as a person studying counselling

  4. I love the concept of the shame mat , this would be very useful in my community with our women and young girls
    just need to come up with an idea for my mob
    I already have a Wajarri word in mind to use

  5. I’m so moved by the concept of the shame mat and how powerful that gesture is for people.

  6. I would like to incorporate the Shame Mat into practice within my workplace with incarcerated women

  7. I really got a lot out of the talk on the Shame Mat. What an incredible concept that was birthed out of a simple opportunity to repurpose material. These two ladies are extraordinary and you can see the passion for what they do come out in their eyes. I love how they said they send people back out over and over until they have wiped away the shame on the mat.

    I was moved by the chapter from Aunty Barbra Wingard about grief. I did not know that there is a section of the west terrace cemetery dedicated to babies. And I love how she spoke about the many forms of grief and how they are partnered with loss. This was a special chapter, and I will remember it for a long time.

  8. I got quite a lot out of this section. the shame mat was pure genius, very inspiring. I thought playing sugar was extremely clever too.

  9. I loved the shame mat, such a powerful example. Using externalizing practice is a safe and empowering way in which we can separate the problem from the individual. For mob, often symptomatic behaviours such as addictions, violence and depression become enmeshed into identity thus further perpetuating the disadvantage of our people. This technique creates space to be seen separately to the issue – a beautiful opportunity for new perspectives in therapy.

  10. I LOVE the idea of the Shame Mat a very Powerful tool – “To leave Shame out the door” Deadly !!!

  11. I only recently heard about the term “lateral violence” and it makes so much sense. I really appreciated that reading and will be more aware of those types of situations in my professional and personal life. I would also love to include those theatrical personifications of problems in my work at some point – it seems to really disarm everyone and make people comfortable to eventually ask their own questions and share their own stories.

  12. Everything about “Sugar” is so incredible! That passion for service is palpable. THAT is how you reach people and change lives!!! Reading the transcript of Sugar really reinvigorated me in my practice. Making folks feel like they belong to the story is so imperative. Often. colonizing culture tends to make characters so generically appealing that they alienate certain groups. This flips the script on that idea!

  13. “Unpacking” when working with “externalising the problem”, it seems to be very helpful as it projects the “problem” outside the self. Its like giving form to a label in which:

    * we can than help to unpack
    * to see more clearly
    * to focus on the “label or form” and not see yourself as the problem.

    It is almost like giving oneself some breathing space. Like the “Shame Mat”, people can separate their shame so they can unpack their problems and issues.

    Its giving space for healing to begin.

  14. Two things really stood out to me. 1) White’s discussion on externalizing voices associated with schizophrenia – unpacking their authority, and diminishing their power – this resonates with my work. 2) the Introducing Sugar and Lateral Violence scripts are amazing and I’d like to try that forum with the problem of methamphetamine in my hometown.

  15. The Shame Mat is such a powerful tool for physically representing the externalisation of Shame. I can only imagine the energy shift when the women experienced this for the first time – I’m sure the yarns would have freely flowed that day!

  16. The Shame Mat is certainly something I would like to incorporate into my work place in dealing with children and families, in a positive way for children to open and acknowledge their identity.
    Unfortunately most families I work with will not openly disclose they are of First Nation descent, until I acknowledge that I myself am.

    There is still a sense of shame for some families that is hard to break down that barrier.

  17. I had heard of the Shame Mat and the purpose behind it. Which led me to using it in when I facilitated my Positive Futures Program for indigenous men. When first using the mat the participants were a bit hesitant, but after using it a couple of times the men were comfortable using it before each session. The outcomes I have seen since using the mat have been positive. The men have been more open in talking about the reasons why they commit domestic violence on their partners. There has been more disclosers and exploration into behaviours, feelings and consequences of their actions. Since using the mat I have found that they are more engaging, and want to participate in the program. Also very accepting of being challenged around there offending behaviours, I believe the use of shame mat has enabled this to happen.

    On many occasions over the years I have questioned myself, why do I keep fighting for positive outcomes for my people. Through the reading it made me think and become aware that I am not alone in this fight and there are many more indigenous passionate people out there doing the best they can and fighting on not matter how many times they have been disappointed , they get up and continue on with the fight. Kerry has shown this through her ability to overcome adversity and strength to become one of the respected leaders of her community. By telling her story through using poetry as a form of therapy she has found a way to move forward even in her darkest hours. I will take from the reading that we all have struggles through life but we have to find the strength to overcome these hurdles. This reading has given more than ideas I can utilise in work practice. It has given me a new outlook into my life and the reason why I am passionate about the field of work I have chosen to do not only for myself but mainly for outcomes for my people.

  18. The Shame Mat invented by Aunty Kerry Major and Aunty Dolly Hankin is a tool I want to incorporate into my practice. Immediately I thought of the wall, a common description my clients’ use in describing their journey to find work/employment. For instance:

    “All those skills I have to learn, it’s just a wall that is too high to climb” or

    “There is a wall between me and that job and I just don’t know how to break it down” or

    “You tell me about these skills or bricks as you put it that I can use to build a path but I see those bricks as something to break down not build up”

    Where the woman at Murri Court Woman’s Group “wiped” the shame away, I’m thinking of clients stepping over a small brick wall, one metre by half a metre, polystyrene or something, with a tagline such as: The first step is the hardest, or something similar. I’m looking for a physical action of commitment.

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