“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 450 Comments

  1. Gamze Geray

    The fact that the problem is separated from the person is an important resource to support the individual. The reflection took me back to Virginia Satir who said: “Problems are not the problem but coping is the problem”. If the problems can be isolated from the person, various creative and effective coping mechanisms can be developed.
    A wide range of problems we face such as stress, anxiety and panic attacks, phobias, lack of self-esteem and depression etc. could be externalized.
    Externalizing a problem can help us gain a better understanding of the problem, from a distance, from multiple perspectives rather than personalizing it. We can refer to the problem as a distanced metaphor, a separate issue.

    Gamze Geray (based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates)

  2. Shannon

    I am challenged by the power (particularly politically) of how externalisation can merge the personal experiences of clients with the wider societies, and the values that the latter force upon clients which impacts how they interpret their experiences. There is a clear need to practice externalisation for both the good and bad, so that the strengths of these can be drawn out even in contexts where oppression may be present. These processes of externalisation may assist in developing resilience for clients, which I am encouraged to explore, especially amongst my work with men.
    Shannon from Sydney, Australia

  3. EdaUtku

    Hi, Eda from Sydney, Australia here. I found the examples of externalising depression and anger very helpful and empowering. I’m a visual thinker and a writer so putting a face or a form on a behaviour pattern works for me. Drawing or writing out one’s interaction with behaviour patterns, or internal dialogues before stepping into situations that hurt relationships, I found is most helpful. I find journaling is helpful for gaining clarity. I suppose not everyone is a writer and drawing or singing / composing about these feelings might be positive channels to rid the body of the energy of the emotions that seek to be expressed.

  4. Tammy Smith

    Folks need to be empowered to be able to take positive steps toward growth and transformation. The statement of position map can be an incredible tool that will help facilitate a nonjudgmental conversation between a therapist and a client in which they can explore alternative ways in describe client’s presenting issue. Externalizing conversations seem like a more compassionate way to initiate change. Tammy Smith is a licensed clinical social worker in the New York area of the United States.

  5. jackie.turner

    I liked the idea of mapping your conversation and the way it can help you to look back on what has been explored what I could have done differently.It is a great tool for mapping the journey of the session and also to help me see missed opportunities or things that I could have asked but didn’t a really useful tool for refection on my practice.
    In my setting of bereavement work I feel that externalising anger and guilt could be very helpful as the space it creates can allow room for discussion and process of what has happened and what is happening.
    I think it could help young people to talk more freely particularly the guilt as often there is concerns about judgement from others or others feeling that they have done something dreadful.
    Creating the space that externalisation offers can make it feel safer to talk about issues they feel guilt or regret about.

  6. Peta

    I have some difficulty with the notion that combat metaphors are to be downplayed in narrative therapy. e.g. From Externalising – Commonly Asked Questions #7 Very little of the literature about narrative therapy has ever emphasised combat metaphors, or attempts to vanquish problems from people’s lives. Most of our work as narrative therapists involves engaging with people around an enormously wide range of alternative metaphors.
    I think for some people (perhaps more than many therapists appreciate) moving into a therapeutic experience is indeed ‘the fight of their lives’. I am unclear why there is a need to engage people with other metaphors when combat metaphors seem entirely appropriate. It seems to indicate exactly where the person sees the problem in relation to their lives, especially if they have tried a range of strategies over many years. Peta Christchurch NZ

    1. Eda

      Hi Peta,
      The response that comes up for me is that fighting with something always tends to make it stronger. For example, if I find myself fighting with my anger, it tends to escalate, as in the fighting fire with fire metaphor. If I’m trying to beat down depression, again, that may make me more depressed because it almost feels like I’m digging a deeper hole. Fighting addictive behaviours or substances is yet another exercise in frustration as I know that when I think about fighting the foods I crave, I get into a stronger mindset of craving and having lost the battle with my addiction, I seek the comfort of more food. Psychologically, combat metaphors don’t work. It needs to be more along the lines of starting a conversation and making peace with whatever behaviours that threaten our relationships

  7. Sophie Moroney

    Hi, Sophie from Melbourne Australia here. I have heard about eternalising before, but have enjoyed learning more about it and seeing practical examples. I think this can be a real game changer in work context but also in everyday conversations with friends and family. I think Michael Hayward’s statement of position map could be a fantastic tool to use in therapy context, and I would love to give this a go.
    I wonder if I would come up against a road block when working with someone who is causing pain or hurt to others in managing externalising conversations without excusing behaviour. I think that would be something that would take practice.

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