“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 288 Comments

  1. I use externalizing frequently with my clients. Some clients have some trouble with it, as they are so wedded to their problem that it is almost like externalizing themselves. It can take some work to help clients to separate from their problems. Externalizing techniques shown here will be helpful.

  2. This is Manuel Vicente, from Dallas, Texas. Thank you guys for the excellent chapter presentations and materials. Your course is my first contact with Narrative Therapy; your work is the best support for this counseling theory/framework I could imagine. If you had a digital platform or publishing tool to integrate all the chapter’s content in one screen, under user control, it would be glorious. Thanks again for offering such valuable resource openly and free.

    1. Hi, this is Vanessa Blazey, from Victoria, Australia. I work as a counsellor, and while I have known about Narrative Therapy for some time, this course has given me such a richer, deeper understanding of the power of the stories we tell about ourselves or about others and how to use the narrative metaphor and these skills into my own work with clients. I gained so much out of this course. Specifically, I found the key idea or phrase that problematic or traumatic stories have different meanings when they’re only one strand in a multiple strand story, from the TED video “The Danger of a Single Story,” by Novelist Chimamanda Adichie extremely significant. Thank you very much for such enriching and practical presentations and materials.

  3. I work in a clinic in Harlem, a neighborhood in NYC with a majority African-American population and a high occurrence of diabetes. I absolutely loved the article on externalizing the issue of diabetes in a culturally competent way. Part of helping people is learning to relate to them using their own language and cultural queues, and the amount of thought and care that was put into the ‘Sugar’ presentation was great! Psychoeducation is extremely important, but it’s hard to accomplish meaningful learning without finding ways to engage the clients. I think there are a lot of systematic issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans and discussing them, especially if you are not an AA therapist, can be difficult to do without coming off as condescending. Externalization is a wonderful way of fostering discussions of these problems in non-blaming ways that don’t make clients feel ‘less than’ or talked down to.

  4. Hi! It’s Nassia from Cyprus again.
    “Externalising – commonly asked questions” is an excellent article, a good starting point where to explore from and motivate ourselves to read more academic / research articles especially on what sort of things get externalized and how to internalize personal agency.
    The “Introducing Sugar” article is amazing, an eye-opener. I would put “ADHD”, “Dyslexia”, “Naughty”, “Delinquent” and so many more words to replace “Sugar” and make more sense to me in a school psychology counselling setting. So much more reading to do!!! I can see this idea of separating the person from the problem having an effect on my clients and the depression / dog video helped me to visualize how. Thank you.

  5. I love the concept of the “black dog” as externalising depression, really useful analogy when working with clients in a community mental health setting.

  6. I’m from Victoria on the West Coast of Canada. It’s nice to have the phrase, ‘the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem’ further explained. To me, it was obvious but I never considered it as a story we tell ourselves, about ourselves. I think externalizing it allows us to see the other stories we have about ourselves. I like also how it is explained not to absolutely disassociate our responsibility from our problem, by making it near. I like that this then puts the problem in the position of being solvable by our own selves, instead of needing to be solved by an expert. For me, this means being able to work forward on our problems instead of merely sitting in them as our only unsolvable story.

  7. I work in a community mental health setting and the way in which externalising allows people to explore problems as being shaped by history and culture is very valuable.
    Mark Haywards video was a great resource and well paced for a beginner in the narrative approach like myself.

  8. Hi this is Marta from Melbourne Australia.
    In my work. Externalising allows for families with young children with disabilities or developmental delays to go beyond labels, and observe and express how are the experiences being lived. By doing so strategies are created.

  9. Hi, I’m Jenny from Geelong Australia. Like others I found the videos very helpful in giving form to problems that can be difficult to acknowledge. Observing a problem by giving it colour, movement and action for example without trying to change it is close to some work I do in equine therapy

  10. I found the videos particularly helpful. I really appreciated the Black Dog video which is a very good visual was to describe externalisation. It was simple and clear and articulate.

    The sorts of problems that could be externalised in my context are around grief and loss. Finding ways to assist clients to discuss their grief and loss helps them to re-story or re-author their lives that makes sense and gives meaning as they reestablish themselves post-grief event. I find this very useful.

  11. Hi, this is Noonie from South Australia.
    I really enjoyed the talk by Mark Hayward. I got a lot out of the story about Joey. It was a good example of externalising for me to see the process and most importantly, how to go back if you have moved too fast ahead than the person.
    I like this concept 🙂

  12. Hi, Catherine from Liverpool here. This video is really helpful, and I love the stance whereby the person becomes the consultant in the problem. This is so needed when people might have traditionally spent so long being told what’s wrong with them, which leaves them feeling disempowered. One thing I wondered about was whether there could be conversations around the problem having both good and bad intentions for the person. For example, a problem of not going out could have bad intentions in the sense that they isolate the person, but good intentions in the sense they’re trying to keep the person safe (albeit in a way that has other negative consequences). Having these discussions could perhaps encourage compassion for the problem, which I’ve found can be a useful conversation in my practice.

  13. Hi all,
    This is Qianwen from Sydney. I really enjoy Mark Hayward’s presentation on the Statement of Position Map 1 and how this map enables externalising conversations. Using the externalised description which promotes primary authroship by the person describing the problem rather than those distant descriptions which named and categorised by ‘professionals’ sounds very empowering. It moves from seeing individuals as service users, consumers, clients or patients, and uplifts their position to that of Knowledge Holders.

  14. Hello, I’m Meghan from East Tennessee in the US. Externalizing is a huge part of how I work with my clients, but I’ve actually found it extremely effective when I work with young children with developmental delays or Autism. Creating characters and contexts to talk about problems, solutions, social norms, etc. makes it so much clearer and less painful for them, to the degree that I’ve had some kid clients get excited to talk about how the characters have shown up and what to do about it.

  15. Hi this is Caleb from Kentucky in the United States of America!
    I really appreciate the undertaking in breaking down how to do externalization. It’s a very good approach to help people separate from their problem and look at it from a different way. Then they can relate to it in a way that’s informative, educational, and then take action on what they’ve learned. If we can do it with a book we can do it in our lives as well! Well said!

  16. I incorporated some of these lessons when I was initially recovering from Schizoaffective Disorder. My delusions, paranoia, racing thoughts, etc were externalized as a Goblin type character, tricking, misleading, and being a distraction from just being. I’m interested by the concept of externalizing positive traits too, and in my mind I visualize this as my ‘Higher Self’, that is, the positive inclinations towards an ‘ideal’ self. The goal then, is to remain mindful of the ways in which I can be tricked by this Goblin, and to work towards connection with my ‘Higher Self’.

    On another topic, I do have a question for others to consider. My girlfriend has a painful and limiting physical disability. I’m curious how/if externalizing can work with physical problems, as opposed to mental/emotional ones.

  17. I found the Black dog video to be an excellent example of externalisation and also a useful resource to share with someone struggling with mild depression. Mark Hayward’s video greatly helped me too. I loved the detail of the examples – just the right amount – and the thoughtful coments littered throughout. They clearly come from a lot of experience.

  18. Hie all,
    I really like the whole chapter story as it is very interesting. “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. These are words of Michelle White and they really got my attention. The purpose of externalization is to realize the individual that he is not the problem, the problem is somewhat different. Also, it help people to relate their problems with other factors. Overall, i have gained valuable knowledge from this video.

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