Posted by on Jun 24, 2015 in Uncategorised | 248 comments

“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!



  1. Hello:

    This is Andrea from Toronto.

    I found particularly helpful the discussion in the FAQ around the use of metaphors of conflict and combat. I expect to be working in healthcare settings with critically ill patients and their loved ones (mostly children and parents), and I anticipate hearing them use these kinds of combative metaphors during our conversations. I also anticipate meeting many people who are mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from “fighting” these problems. I appreciated the comments in the FAQ about combative metaphors, and the suggestions around exploring other kinds of metaphors which may be less conflict-laden and draining on their emotional resources. Thanks again for making this material available!

  2. Hi, Rob here from Perth WA.
    I like it that externalisation leaves one more easily able to look and see one’s own behaviour objectively.
    I couldn’t help but think of Roger Hargreave’s Mr Men books and wonder if something like them could be (or are) used as tools to help ‘difficult’ children to look at unhelpful traits, emotions or actions within themselves.

  3. I can see significant benefit in externalising and giving a problem a name, particularly so with the presenting concerns of depression and anxiety. From my work and my own experiences internalisation of these two concerns leads to considerable feelings of guilt, shame and a sense of helplessness, all debilitating in their own right. Separating depression from the person and giving it a name as shown in the video “I had a black dog, his name of was depression” has the ability to undermine the power depression has over a person, inviting a sense of agency, as opposed to helplessness.

  4. Andrea from Costa Rica.
    I’m so happy to aboard this material, externalizing is the opportunity to see the problem in many different faces, and sometimes the problem don’t want to show who really is and try to be part of the personal identity. But this conversation give the opportunity to explores what feed the problem and what take the power off of the problem and helps the person take decisions to make changes in the relation whit the problem. This changes can re significant the history of the life and don’t live attach to the problems.

  5. I’m really enjoying these online chapters on Narrative Practice. I work with people who have co-occurring substance use and mental illness diagnoses. I am intrigued by the story of “Sugar” and how that approach could be used with groups in a substance use treatment center. I think that externalizing the addiction and the accompanying problems could be very helpful for clients who are trying to detach themselves from an identity of “Addict”.

    I also really appreciated Mr. Hayward going through the Statement of Position Map 1 and especially the chart. The example of how conversations move from one aspect to another within this map was very helpful.

    I can’t wait to complete the rest of this training!


      I really enjoyed the video by Mark Hayward and the transcript of Joey. It was so helpful to realise how to work with someone that may actually be the perpetrator and strike the right balance between helping them take responsibility for their actions and change while not feeling condemned and not having their identity enmeshed with the problem. I loved how Mark got Joey to the point of admitting that he was a bully, but in reality his preferred story was to be a good friend. Also seeing Joey go from bully to the beginning of EMPATHY by expressing that when he himself was the subject of bullying, he didn’t like it, so he could begin to understand how others would feel when he bullied them and he didn’t want to be that person causing that pain.

    • Hi Serenity,
      I am from the USA- Indiana. I was intrigued by your post and the ‘Sugar’ application to addictions. I had a similar thought-how is Narrative therapy used in this population and also in group work. In his videos Mark also talked about the balance of avoiding clients from not taking responsibility and when it is appropriate to externalize. I will look forward to more information in these two areas of practice.

  6. Being based in a large indigenous community, I found the article titled “Introducing Sugar” very helpful. I’m excited about the potential for adapting this concept when unpacking the issues related to alcoholism and binge drinking which are endemic problems in my community.
    As a foster carer, this chapter has helped me to put words to my thoughts about the foster/adoption triad. “The problem is not the child or the biological parents or the foster family, the problem is the problem.” This concept is central to helping my foster child to explore her understanding of her story.

  7. I think this concept is very valuable and applicable to practice as it provides a novel ways for clients to look at their situation and explore it in greater death. One question that comes up for me is what to do when a client is particularly attached to their problem? I have met individuals who are very “at home” in their depression and use it to explain everything that they do. I feel that externalizing depression in these contexts may minimize the problem for the client. Has anyone been in a situation where they have worked through this before?

    • Hi Thea, Thanks for your comment and your interest. There’s nothing about externalising practices that seeks to ‘minimise the problem’ .. .in fact its a practice that involves acknowledgement of the effects and operations of any experience (positive or negative). It also seeks to assist the person in discerning what may be helpful and what may not be about any phenomenon. hope this is helpful. Good luck with your explorations! Warmly, David Denborough (Dulwich Centre)

  8. Each text was a piece of a puzzle building a bigger picture for me of what Narrative Therapy is.

    The PPT has helpful sample questions for me to start practicing the different language practices of NT so I can become more seamless and natural in this way of thinking and speaking.

    “Sugar” gave a great tip about who the group is culturally and individually. Giving questions beforehand scaffolds confidence for participants to develop and ask their own curiosity questions when the time is right. I also liked how “drama” therapy through role play was shown. In the PPT art therapy was also mentioned “Could you draw a picture of this problem for me?”. I am personally curious to learn more about how drama/art/play therapy can work within the Narrative Therapy philosophy/framework.

    The Commonly-asked-questions gave even more chances to practice with words and ways of speaking/thinking that can give the problem a living form.

    This chapter of the course solidifies for me that I stumbled onto a practice that really suits my ways of thinking and I am looking forward to learning so much more.

  9. Hello from Texas. I appreciate the information in this chapter, especially moving from naming and connecting to taking a position and making a value statement. I can see how all four stages of externalizing really begin to empower the client. I am most excited to help the client move toward taking a position in regard to the problem and establishing their values in relation to the problem. Great teaching. Really enjoying this course.

  10. Gelmar C.
    Tampa, FL (USA)

    I particularly enjoyed the Externalising – Commonly asked questions (Maggie Carey & Shona Russell) resource. It provided practical guidelines for common problems that I have experienced during therapy. Externalizing truly brings the client into an equal position with the therapist to consult and work together against the problem.

    I plan to externalize more problems with children in my practice who are experiencing ADHD, depression, and anxiety. I believe that it will allow them to trust the process further, understand that they can make changes/have power over the problem, and collaborate with others at school and home.

  11. The PPT file regarding the statement of position was identified very helpful with some good example sentences I could use with my family. structured and well-guiding.

    I would be able to externalise my issue in relation to watching too many dramas on Netflix these days and then explore its impact on my life along with how it has impacted other people as well.

    As the material indicated, externalising the problem would enable more thick and rich description, and distant myself from the issue.

  12. Really thorough session. I feel that mapping tools is very useful. It seems is would be especially when struggling or not feeling effective. I also appreciate taking a stand about who the expert is.
    I enjoyed learning from Jack, the pouncing wolf monster expert. ☺

  13. In the context of special needs in which i work, externalising is useful as a way of talking about problematic anti-social behaviours with lightness and playfulness. I already use social stories as a way of talking with participants who have behaviours which cause them to be excluded from public events. Externalising techniques shown in this chapter show me how i can further explore difficult subjects without judgement and using the language which is the most appropriate i.e. not pathologising or steeped in pyscho jargon.

  14. I love the idea that externalising removes us, as therapists, from having the voice of power, and the position of expert. Is this not, in itself, a form of justice and healing (as discussed in the Charter for Story-Telling in the last module)?
    I would also like to comment on Handy Hint #2 from Externalising – commonly asked questions, “Try to remember that externalising the problem is just the start. The next steps involve richly describing the alternative story”. Personally, this is my key concern relating to externalising, that we see only two steps: step one – externalise; step two – explore additional stories. While the shifting from internal problem to external problem is certainly a beneficial step, my primary goal is to transcend the idea of ‘problem’ altogether. Externalising can offer excellent tools for this if we follow it through to what I see as step three – realise ‘problem’ as story.
    Once we invite ourselves to consider that the idea of ‘problem’ is, itself, a story, we can move beyond the frustration and potential powerlessness of there being a problem at all. While I do not advocate re-internalising an externalised construct, I do support realising that the construction itself is an internal process, and we, therefore, have the power to change it, or even transcend it.
    To put this into context, I can begin to shift from
    Step one: I am a problemed person
    Step two: There is a problem
    Step three: I created an image of a problem, the power is mine.
    From step three, I usually explore the problem as opportunity/gift, or the problem as illusory construct pointing to a deeper meaning and value system in our lives.
    Of course, this must be done delicately, and is only suitable for a certain set of the population, namely those viewing life from a subtle or causal construct, to use the words of Terri O’Fallon (O’Fallon, T. (2017). Concrete, Subtle, and Causal Tiers. Seattle, WA, USA: Pacific Integral.)

  15. Hello from Melbourne!

    I work in the special needs field with participants who are often limited in their vocabulary to express themselves. There is one person who has an anti-social habit of yelling very loudly and banging the wall with her fist. It is not clear what she is trying to achieve by this behaviour and though she has some language it is tightly scripted around three key phrases that she repeats over and over. The narrative therapy concept of externalising may provide a way of talking about this behaviour, which has caused her to become socially isolated and no longer invited on many of the programs, without making her feel is simply “wrong”. To understand how this behaviour is benefitting her seems i.e. her position seems an imperative first step in order to work out how to use alternative means to achieve what she wants. With the use of the suggested questions in the powerpoint and the concept of the chart, in which success and failure can be plotted without dismay at some questions falling flat, hopefully there will be progress made in gaining a more full understanding of the woman’s unmet needs and more support to lead to an expansion of her emotional vocabulary.

  16. I feel like this chapter feels very practical and applicable. I am ready to start applying externalization with clients now. Thank you!

  17. I guess I was struck most in this section about how very similar the construct of externalisation is to qualitative research and methods, which I have studies and worked with for many years. I guess that I was wondering how narrative therapy might go beyond these ideas, or differ, but actually it seems to me that the client in these contexts becomes the narrative analyst. I was also struck by the development of narrative therapy from social justice backgrounds, and just started to become intrigued by the discussion of ethical principles, and the real challenge of developing an approach that is inspired by human rights, and the upshot challenges of cultural sensitivity, which I am keen to pursue.

  18. Pedro (Spanish) writing from Australia (Darwin) and Spain (The Canary Islands: Lanzarote). I was living in Darwin until recently and I had to come back to Spain.

    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention and why?

    Everything caught my attention but specifically the story of Sugar and how conversations and externalising can be a powerful tool to teach others and let others speak about their worries, concerns and wishes to know, understand and learn.

    What sort of problems could  be externalised in your context?

    I think that I would like to know a little bit more about conversations, externalising and Schizophrenia, this is the field where I currently working and also AOD. I see different connections between both aspects and I consider that a deep research on this could be amazing for me.

    What difference might this make?

    A lot of difference, first let the clients speak about what they think about the illness, what the heard and know about it, and how they are living their own stories, that sometimes, as professional, we forget to consider.

  19. Hi, Astrid here from Amsterdam.
    What stood out for me in this chapter in general terms is that I have always believed that the Gestalt based training I have received was contra to Narrative. And it so is not! It took me a moment to redefine that in my head.
    What I enjoyed most was listening to and watching Mark; if only he could talk us through the whole course 🙂 This lively discourse of all the stages during map 1 and his visual example of it were helpful to me to remain superengaged and keen to try for myself.

  20. The article “Commonly asked questions” stood out to me the most because it answered important questions and clarified possible confusions with this practice. I appreciate mentioning postructuralism and how not only problems but also ‘strengths’ can be externalized. In my context, all problems that I can think of can be externalized. I tend to listen for internalized statements such as for example, I am depressed, or I am worthless person, and so on. Externalizing makes a difference in many ways some of which include but are not limited to experiencing sense of relief and separation from the problem, increased understanding about the operations of the problem on their lives, experiencing less self-blame and judgment, increased sense of hope that they can do something about their problems, seeing oneself and relationships in a new way, becoming aware of skills and knowledges that are relevant in addressing the problem and so on. I really appreciate this practice because as a therapist I am taking a political stance against pathologizing people and reproducing the dominant cultural discourse that includes normative ideas which are often oppressive and have negative effects on people’s lives.

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