“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 496 Comments

  1. Marie

    I like all the resources in this reading as they all give insight on how to view the “problem as the problem.” What I liked about all the resources is how problem can be externalize and gives tools for empowerment. People can change the narratives about their lives.

  2. Elena

    Hi everyone, my name is Elena and I’m from Canada. I truly loved the story of ‘Sugar’ as it showed how effective it is when we teach folks that they are not the problem, rather the problem is the problem. I appreciated how the article showed the importance of catering to the needs of your group and choosing an approach that is culturally appropriate. I work in the mental health field, particularly with post-secondary students. I can certainly see how beneficial externalizing their struggles such as anxiety or depressive symptoms can be, that they are aware it does not define who they are.

  3. ceverett

    Hi I’m Camille from Tasmania. The ‘Black Dog’ video was a great visual representation of how problems can be externalised. The ‘Sugar’ story provided great inside into how externalising can be used in a primary health setting in culturally respectful ways, without judgement and in a group. I have been reflecting on how externalising and the elements of the statement of position map 1 can be used in the context of when parents come with ‘parenting’ problems where the problem is explained as the child being the problem. Faciliatating an opportunity for the parent to see the problem as the problem rather than the child being the problem has the potential to change how they see their child and relate with them.

  4. Eleanor

    I found this chapter to be very insightful but the piece of reading material that caught my attention was the one about ‘Sugar’ – creating an identity for diabetes. I thought this was such an effective method of creating a sense of togetherness whilst collectively asking questions to understand diabetes as a group more. I think this structure is an effective way to attempting to overcome either a physical or psychological issue and makes it less stigmatising in the process. Stigma is still a prominent issue within the mental health field – this is why I think externalising an issues is an effective and beneficial strategy in helping to reduce stigma as it encourages the individual to overcome an external issue without feeling ashamed of it.

  5. Rhian Holmes

    Hi I’m Rhian from Wales, UK. The entire externalising module has been very useful for me. The statement of position map and Joey transcript both illustrated how distancing people from the problem allows them to be more objective and less emotional. It seems easier for people to pick the problem apart and see how they feel about it. I work in adult mental health and see the value of people identifying their own problems, and how to address them, rather than being told by someone else what they should do. Similarities with motivational interviewing techniques.

  6. Julie

    Hi, I’m Julie from the south coast of NSW in Australia.

    There were so many useful resources in this module but the one that caught my attention was the Statement of Position Map 1 that Mark Hayward detailed. I could see how it was a good way of tracking a conversation as it moved from the effects of the problem to the naming of the problem, and then to the person’s position on the problem and how it linked to their values. It is not a linear process but one that ebbs and flows or as Mark illustrated, moves up and down the chart. This was a great visualisation of how the process unfolds and how to move away from the problem story to what is important for that person and how they want their life to be. There were many practical examples of questions to ask in his presentation which I also found useful.

    Although I am not practicing yet, I can see how externalising depression could be very useful as many people I know with depression define themselves by it. People often say “I’m depressed” which is describing themselves as the problem. Using externalising conversation could help them to characterise the problem in a way that work for that person, for example ‘a Black Dog’ or ‘a Black Hole’. This starts the process of separating the person from the problem and finding out how depression impacts that person’s life. This can make a big difference to how the person sees themselves, may help to reduce shame and guilt caused by depression and encourage them to begin to explore what they value in life and how they would like their life to be.

  7. Amanda

    I really enjoyed the approach of dealing with Joey who was accused of bullying. It sounded like externalizing helped Joey to think through his values effectively but didn’t take away from responsibiiity. I feel that this is useful in my work as a tutor with young adult students. There are often clashes and imbalances of power between different students and this approach is more skilful in leading them to evaluate their responses and values compared to my current practices. i also have many students who present with anxiety and depression so the video “I had a black dog” was helpful

  8. Sue Lewis

    Hi, I’m Sue in New Zealand.
    I found Mark’s explanation of the Map of Enquiry and his help with his transcript of Joey particularly helpful and has inspired me to think of a “treatment plan” with a 13 yo boy I work with with similar issues. I am particularly excited about exploring the aspect of culture for my client.
    Thank you so much. I look forward to moving on with this course.

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