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 64 Comments

  1. Sarah

    I love the idea of externalising the problem and getting creative with how this is done, letting the client lead the way. I think it can be a very effective way to feel more in control and increase one’s sense of agency by framing the problem in a way that feels familiar, manageable and something that can be related to in different ways. I was also very interested in what was written about lateral violence – it is not a term I had come across before but I have definitely observed it and I can see how applying a narrative approach to help individuals/communities experiencing it would be very helpful and a productive way to start conversations/discussions and empower people to make change.

  2. petronela

    I always finding it challenging to make clients understand that they are not their problems and that the problem is the problem and NEVER THEM. And it is always after they get that they are not their problems that they now are now able to solve those problems.

  3. kylie.richards535@gmail.com

    Sperating the behaviour from the behaver has always been a powerful methodology for helping to identify and plan a way forward that is not stuck in the helplessness of skewed identity. The shame mat and poem are such a brilliant example of symbolism and ceremony to scaffold the externalisation (shame in this case) to create a collectivism and way forward. Beautiful.

  4. Danielle Wedlake

    This series has had me take a closer look at the role grief has played in the colonization of Indigenous women in Canada. Trauma is a “buzz word” right now, but the externalization of grief by Barbara Wingard was particularly helpful in this conceptualization.

    I am also working with a young person who has been in therapy for quite some time. They have worked toward coping with visits from anger and have learned quite a bit. The externalization of anger has been particularly helpful in removing shame from the conversation, and speaking directly to the character of anger, and the person’s relationship with it.

  5. Karen Yau

    I think it is very powerful to allow people to see the seriousness and impacts a problem can be. Through externalising the problem, it provides an easier way to address the issue and start a conversation in a non-confronting way. It also provides people with an opportunity to do a reflection. The lateral violence case study really stunned me as it shows how powerful this technique can be to let us talk about the taboo topic.

  6. Tony Magri

    Externalising the problem seems so obvious after watching these videos. The lateral violence script is so practical and easy to understand when set out in this format. Well done.

  7. sullateskee@gmail.com

    I really appreciated the Lateral Violence aspect. I wasn’t aware of the name of the problem until now, but have felt it on many different levels within my own family since my parents were the only ones that moved away from our tribe and reservation area and raised my brother and myself at a much higher level of acculturation than my cousins. I saw so much of it when we would visit my family and certain things that were said about us and vice versa. I know see it with the tribe I work with today. Having the knowledge of the name and being aware of how it works can help me bring it into sessions with my clients and start a larger discussion about it as a community.

  8. Rhianne

    I love the creativity involved in externalising. I found the symbolism of the Shame Mat really powerful. I can just picture people wiping their feet before walking in to the room. It’s a good ritual and good way to put yourself in the right mindset. I loved the ideas from Woorabinda as well. It’s powerful to see the words of the young people.

  9. Karen Tschuna

    love the Shame Mat great work Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kelly

  10. Toni Kernick

    I love this idea of externalising ADHD. This is not only helpful for the young client, but also for the parents to separate the problem from the child and assist them in understanding what it is like for the child to deal with this ‘problem’.

  11. Nicol Rohl

    I really like the ideas of creative processes from Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry. I loved the idea of the shame mat they created and the though process put into that. I also liked they process of how they mixed they workers in with the group.

  12. kemcdougall0@gmail.com

    I really loved this area of Narrative Therapy especially Drahm-Butler’s (2015) article that helped me view Aboriginal stories within a broader social context. This shed some light on how Aboriginal people can come to view themselves negatively and place blame on themselves through having witnessed western political influences, past government policies and paternalistic initiatives that have been viewed in the past as normal occurrences. What was powerful for me was seeing how Aboriginal peoples stories about resistance are way of taking political action that can be empowering for them to externalise shame.

    Even Aboriginal people hearing about other Aboriginal people’s stories was very powerful in helping them decolonise their story. Narrative therapy is instrumental in helping Aboriginal people heal as it is not associated with traditional bio-medical therapy that attracts shame. This helps Narrative therapists engage Aboriginal people and hold space for them to tell their story in a way that reflects their knowledge that is one more step towards them healing.

    Especially compelling for me was Drahm-Butler (2015) mentioning how Narrative therapy takes a position of curiosity that uncovers the story behind the story to eliminate thin conclusions and uncover richer broader narratives based on people’s own knowledge.

  13. Tammy Townsend

    I live in Deniliquin NSW and I am just starting my studies towards becoming a counsellor. I really liked the idea of the Shame May and the discussions around this. I could see myself using this. In addition to describing the feelings of shame I would also have clients describe the feelings of pride so we can work together to make a new story where they can feel pride.

  14. jariah

    I have enjoyed reading all these creative and practical examples on externalising conversation – using topics that are so relevant to working in an AMS

  15. petersmokeydawson@gmail.com

    The transcript of the interview with lateral violence was brilliant. It allowed an open conversation with the full anatomy of lateral violence in a way that I think many people would feel a lot safer than if they were asked themselves to talk about it. I did a lateral violence workshop with Richard Frankland last year and found it very powerful and helpful in understanding the intersectioning impacts of colonisation.

  16. Nicola

    I love that the focus is on honouring the persons strengths and resiliency. Rather than ‘labelling’ people as being a ‘problem’ it reframes as ‘having a problem’. So empowering. Love the shame mat and the idea of leaving shame at the door, thank you Aunty Dolly Hanke and Aunty Kerry Major for this beautifully creative opening ritual for your group and for sharing it with others.
    Watched the Alberta video on Lateral violence and found that to be very helpful in understanding the reasonings behind it.

  17. TeriLucas

    I like the concept and practice of externalising. A playful, light-hearted demonstration of the idea is terrific too, and having initial set questions to get people going with it is an excellent idea. And the Shame Mat! Tremendous. Leave your issues at the door. We’re all permitted to begin afresh.

  18. Miranda Leon-Madgwick

    Externalising the problem was identified by Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry of Mt.Isa with the shame mat. What a great ideal to give this emotion a form of being and place it where it belongs, at the door. This is something a will do with my community members I work with. By using the therapeutic tool of externalising the problem from the person and than exploring all the history, development, impacts and how to control it power for good in the community members live would improve their wellbeing. And this is something that is more understandable than other professional methods.

  19. Summer

    I created a shame mat with the participants of the women’s group I facilitated. It really resonated with them. It was interesting to see how it was adopted by the other staff in the organization, that were not part of the program, who would take a moment before entering the room to leave their shame behind too.

  20. deborahdowsett@internode.on.net

    I really loved the chapter on sugar, and also the video of Aunty Dolly and Aunty Kerry when they spoke about creative processes to get people yarning, I also love the part about time and how this really does not set up the group well when you put in these time frames that are small.

    This the issue I face in mainstream services and this module has empowered me to have those conversations with my programs manager as well as I feel I can give myself permission to be creative than the clinical version of me which I’ve never been comfortable with and this has impacted on how I work effectively. So much to reflect on.

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