Externalization – you are with the problem… you are separate from the problem


Quick summary – externalization is a technique from Narrative therapy which uses language to separate a person from their problem so that the person is better able to manage that problem. The basic idea is that it is easier to fix a concern if the concern is not rigidly attached to the person’s identity or personality (you are not stubborn… you use stubborn behavior). In this way the therapist would help a person to see that they are not a depressed person… but rather they are a person living with depression. This process offers perceptual freedom to a person… If they no longer view themselves as innately depressed then they can choose what to do with the depression which is with them (as it never was truly part of them). Narrative theory tends to view diagnosis as counter productive as a diagnosis encourages a person to over identify with the label… this takes away the person’s freedom and hope.

Let me start with some quick examples: the first quote will use over-identification language and the second quote will use externalization. Which wording seems more solvable?

I am a cancer patient – I am living with cancer

I am an anxious person – I am person who carries anxiety

I’m fat – I hold extra weight

I’m a bad parent – I am a person with underdeveloped parenting techniques

Are these just euphemisms? (Nicer ways of saying the same thing)

Yes and No

–         The secondary benefits of this technique are based on positive psychology principles.

  • Narrative therapists believe that you create your own reality through the stories that you tell yourself… and with the stories that we agree upon collectively.
  • Yes – if you tell yourself more positive stories then you will live within the reality of those more positive storylines. This is one of the more controversial aspects of positive psychology, narrative therapy and other constructionist and postmodern views.


–         No… not just

  • The main benefit of this technique is that it allows a person to see himself or herself as separate from the problem which then makes it easier for that person to look at the problem from a different perspective.
  • The technique also encourages people to stop using unhelpful generalization so that they can see when the problem has less or no impact on their life.
    • Example: if you are a depressed person then you have made the generalization that you are always depressed. If you are a person with depression than it is easier to perceive the times when depression was not ‘with’ you.


Externalization is also perhaps a more helpful and compassionate way to communicate with a person concerning a problem that they hold.

            * For example – would your rather be told that you are a messy person or that you are a person with some messy habits? Would you want someone to say that you are a mean person or would you rather he or she said that you are a person that uses less sensitive language?

Over-identification causes suffering – certain Buddhist beliefs suggest that our over attachment to labels, material items, identities etc are the root of our suffering.


Hope – hope is a statistically significant variable in relation to therapeutic and medical outcomes – hope has a positive correlation with recovery. The more you believe that you will heal = the more likely you are to heal.

  • It is easier to foster hope in a person when that person believes that they are separate from their problem… If a person believes that they are the problem then they believe they have to change themselves – that process is far more difficult than changing an externalized problem.


Externalization trick – Something that you can practice in your life.


 * Try adding a verb and/or a preposition before your descriptors.


I am depressed – I am living with depression

I am learning disabled – I am a person who has a learning disability

I am unhappy – I am a person who notices unhappiness in my life

My cousin in developmentally disabled – my cousin has a developmental disability

“Word choice effects your perception and your perception affects your emotions.”

“I am with the snow balls … the snow balls are separate from me.” – Lucy the dog

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

6 thoughts on “Externalization – you are with the problem… you are separate from the problem

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