“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 306 Comments

  1. Hi I am Kalyani from Wellington, India. This whole module on Externalizing was an eye-opener for me since the mainstream narrative has been that if you are upset about something, the problem is with you. I found Mark Hayward’s resources especially helpful since he charts a systematic way to go about externalizing techniques and conversations. As far as I am concerned, externalizing conversations are going to be particularly helpful when talking to women who feel perpetually oppressed and exhausted while playing out their roles in a patriarchal system. I can perhaps help them to locate the source of the problem not within but outside them – in social and cultural constructions and then look for ways that they already have and can work towards greater agency. One question though – while describing the problem in images etc may be engaging with children, will not these techniques appear trivial to adults? Hoping for comments…

  2. I am Masters Social Work student in Australia. I found the discussion and commentary about balancing externalising and responsibility fascinating. The llinking of the personal to the political, whilst acknolwedging the individuals’ participation resonated with me as a useful strategy. Like earlier comments, the externaling of strenghts as well is a new concept to me, I’m looking forward to reflecting on this further.

  3. Hi there, my name is Shannon Parsons, I am a school social worker in the Kingston ON area. I found the questions about externalization resource very helpful, and particularly the information around externalizing strengths – I have definitely been operating from the position of “strengths should be internalized” and going forward I am going to be shifting my practice to externalizing and thickening the stories related to those strengths instead.

  4. “Perhaps the biggest thing that reduces shame is doing something all together – breaking down the isolation.” This quote from the sugar article really stood out for me. This group work sounded so much fun; so much the opposite of what had been happening: individual people feeling shame at not understanding a problem that had been described for them by professional people in professional terms. Laughter, empowerment, community. Awesome.

    From Rosalind in Sydney, Australia.

  5. This is a powerful concept and I’m looking forward to practicing it immediately, in my own life, and as soon as possible with my clients. The Mark Hayward video was extremely helpful in showing counselors how to move through the four stages of externalizing with the client, taking care to step down a level if you get too far ahead, to explore the client’s thoughts and feelings about each stage. I loved how he helped Joey clarify his position without putting Joey on the defensive. Very important, especially when the issue is bullying. Thank you!

  6. This is Laura, a substance use counsellor from Kelowna, Canada. The FAQ on externalising was probably my favourite resource from this chapter. As a clinician trained in solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), the more I’m learning about narrative therapy and the more I see the connections between these two. I appreciated the material in this resource discussing how to talk to clients about their exceptions to the problem, and how to build a rich alternative story line that can focus on these strengths (and how these strengths were created – a piece I really appreciate it, versus people just inherently having these characteristics) instead of the problem.
    As my main area of interest is in substance use, there are a significant amount of problems that can be externalized. Something I appreciate in my previous work contexts is instead of using the term “addict” which is an incredibly stigmatizing label, we would use the terminology ‘a person who uses substances’. We would often encourage clients to use this language as well instead of calling themselves an addict, as we would discuss how the term ‘addict’ implies that this is what and who they are, instead of an aspect of a problem that they have. While this is still something I strongly agree with, after reading this section, I’m wondering if perhaps to be more effective, discuss with the client why we avoid terms like addict and see what they wold like to call their problem instead of us creating alternate language. I think shift towards this kind of language is more client-centered and strength-based, and could have a significant impact in how they client views themselves, and shift a focus more on their strengths versus their problem.

  7. working with children normally make adults name possible problems. I liked the fact of letting children see their problems themselves, because it will eventually make children come up with solutions themselves. externalizing problems is needed in working with children living with single mothers who don’t have structures themselves, because then children will be addressed for who they, and are not where they come from. (from Mpumalanga, South Africa)

  8. This chapter resonated with me in various ways. Firstly, I really enjoyed explanation of how good qualities could be externalized and explored in more details, so they can become visible and be appreciated. At the agency that I am working with right now we often use the metaphor of toolbox when discussing skills and strengths. Sometimes clients develop this metaphor and get proud of themselves using new strategies and expanding their toolbox.
    Secondly, I was thinking about externalizing vs. exploring different parts of self and integrating them back. Initially, I thought that those two approaches could be integrated and used together; however, I really appreciate explanation of why they should not be mixed. I am using now the second approach quite often, so I will need to think about how to include externalizing into my work.
    Thirdly, it feels to me like narrative therapy is somewhat close to motivational interviewing in its approach to problematic behavior. I think that MI could be felt too direct at times, and with externalizing the issue there is a better chance to guide client towards realization of the discrepancy between their values and behaviors in question.
    Finally, I can see how well narrative approaches fit with anti-oppressive practice and feminist theory. Feminist analysis, based on understanding of power differentials between women and men, often challenges current narrative that supports existing gender norms and thickens a new narrative of gender equality. Many issues that clients experience – poverty, addiction, poor mental health, family violence, etc. – cannot be addressed without at list acknowledgement of structural inequality and power differences.

  9. In my research, I use interactionist and structural theories to better understand people’s experiences. The individualization of problems is one of my concerns during the intervention. I find that externalizing the problem of the person is an interesting way to avoid over-responsibility and stigma. It is obvious that this does not avoid individualization, but on the other hand it makes it possible to neutralize some of its negative effects

  10. This is Isabella here again, counsellor from Vancouver Canada. I appreciate how Mark Heyward takes the time, checking with Joey on his definition of bullying, and clarifying with Joey on all his behaviour related to bullying and classifying that there are different kinds of bullying, which really helps Joey and audience understand of the positioning of Joey in terms of bullying. Mark’s externalisation helps Joey to be less defensive on his behaviour. The video was an excellent demonstration of externalisation of the problem.

  11. Jamie from South Carolina in the US.
    The experiences shared by Mark Hayward were especially helpful. From the beginning of the study on externalizing, I wondered about violent behaviors. I have worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault for 5 years now, and understand the benefit of discussing problems in this way for the victim. The abuser, however, tends to receive less help which decreases reformation. I don’t think we have a good way of addressing violent behavior that validates the victim while at the same time healing and restoring the abuser. The way Mark explained how to not distance the abuser too far from the behavior allows, in my mind, for a way to reach those goals.

  12. I really love the simple description of the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. I also loved listening to Mark Haywood and his clear outline of the four steps that move towards spring-boarding into redefining and changing relationships with the problem. It was very easy to follow and to take away. I found the video of the black dog helpful too in picturing the image of the problem as being external to the person. It’s all so useful! Thank you. Jo

  13. I’m a grief counselor in the US and I find myself using externalizing techniques without even really thinking about it. I often talk about grief as if it is a box on the shelf that can be visited, reviewed, processed, and also placed back on the shelf. I also have many clients who will say “I am broken” or “I am crazy” as experiencing a significant loss causes them great distress in their emotions and identity. It’s my goal to help them see that grief is one dimension of them – and to help them find what their identity looks like without the physical presence of their loved one. This material has been very helpful.

  14. Hi this is Sophie again. I realised in my first post I forgot to say I live in south west Australia. I particularly appreciated the discussion on the statement of position map. This charting exercise seems a really nice, explicit way to track the line of exploration. It is a useful learning tool, but where I think it would be most helpful is in self-reflection on sessions and supervision. I can see how I could use it to unpack discussions, the emphasis placed on different aspects of the problem, and how to understand the “stuck points” or blind spots in both the client and therapists understanding/experience of the problem.

  15. Fantastic lesson. I loved the videos and the example given where I could see the chart in use. I also have more questions about the use of externalisation when people are objectified. I will take the externalisation online course too

  16. With trauma and children there is frequently internalized blame, sense of responsibility and negative attributions of the self as contributing to the trauma. I think all of these issues could be externalized with children to diminish their belief of being the cause of trauma.

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