Narrative therapy: the externalization of perception


Quick summary: By talking with a therapist and re-experiencing emotions, thoughts and emotionally significant experiences, a client can show his/herself that occurrences can be narrated and therefore separated from the concept of self… narration is freedom as we find ourselves to be the author of our own reality. Resiliency naturally emerges as our identity ceases to be determined by the plot of our lives… we are no longer automatically controlled by the plot… instead we are the author… we choose the conclusions of our conflicts.

Typically narrative therapists use externalization to separate a specific attribute or symptom etc from a client. I am realizing now that perhaps Michael White and David Eptson where suggesting that narrative therapy is a means to help clients externalize their perception of reality so that their sense of self is no longer determined by the perceived plot line of their life.

A simple way to externalize – add a preposition or a verb…

  • Example: ‘I am depressed’ – becomes – ‘I am a person with depression’ or ‘I am currently experiencing depression’.
  • Example: ‘my life sucks’ – becomes – ‘currently, the way that I perceive my reality and the conclusions that I draw from the perceptions about my reality encourage me to hold negativity.’


Justice – it is very easy to perceive narrative therapy as suggesting that acts of injustice are simply a matter of the victim’s negative perception…

  • Narrative therapy does not condone acts of injustice… instead it offers a freedom of emotional and existential resolve following an experience of injustice of oppression.
  • This freedom enables resiliency.
  • It is the existential conclusion and the emotional response that is under the control of a person.


The result – “I perceive my reality this way and this perception has this emotional impact on me. Through externalization I have found my freedom to perceive my reality a different way so that I now hold this more agreeable emotional disposition in relation to the life I live.”


Example – ‘Losing or Failing’ – you have the freedom to perceive a loss as ‘a wonderful opportunity to grow from challenge,’ or ‘ an example of incompetence which should make you feel inadequate and hopeless’ … neither perception is more true than the other – you have the freedom of perception

Often misery is the result of colluding with a constructed way of perceiving that was or is being perpetuated by those in privileged positions that hold the power to persuade the masses that their subjectivity is objectivity.

  • The offensive push of objectivity leads people into deterministic thinking which is a form of mental slavery.
  • Example of a thought/feeling from internalizing the narratives of certain media– “I do not the hold the attributes which have been marketed as ideal and I should feel ________ about the ways in which I am different than the defined ideal.”


Michael White often spoke of the oppressive power of knowledge… knowledge can be used to oppress people.

  • Knowledge can be used to convince a person that there is a correct and incorrect way of perceiving reality
  • Knowledge tells us what we should do… how we should feel… how we should think…
  • Suffering often arises when we follow a ‘should’ that our intuition or our core self was not or is not in favor of.


Euphemisms and reframes are devices for people to take back control of their perceptions… perhaps it is the notion that any perception is objectively more accurate than another which persuades us into determinism.


Externalization is a process used in Narrative therapy by which the therapist helps a client to see that they are separate from their perceived character traits.

  • This is useful in solving problems as it is easier to offer assistance in changing an attribute when a client stops believing that that attribute is an inseparable aspect of his/her core self.
  • The client will learn that symptoms such as depression, low self esteem, or lack of ambition etc are separate entities that can be altered with the self as opposed to being altered by altering the self
    • The therapist will suggest that a client is ‘with depression’ or ‘holds depression’ as opposed to promoting that a client ‘is depressed’. If a client is depressed then you must change the actual client… if the client is with depression than you can help to change the client’s relationship with depression… depression is removable without asking a client to change their core self.


I am suggesting that all of perception can be externalized – ‘this is a perception I hold of reality’ as opposed to ‘this is reality’.

Once perception is externalized the now separated core self can re-write the impact of the perceived plot line.

I am the Author and the Observer of my perceived reality… I will no longer allow myself to be oppressed by the forced conclusions that I chose to hold… I am free.


Suffering is the water which grows the seeds of my spiritual potential… suffering is no longer the walls of objectivity that holds me in determinism.

In this way Narrative therapy becomes an experiential engagement with the process of mindfulness.

Mindfulness allows you to be the observer of existence – the core self is asked to simply notice the emotions of the body, the thoughts and perception of the mind, and the information that the senses retrieve from the environment. These observation are experienced without judgment and without trying to change or alter anything (If you are sad… notice sad… if your thoughts won’t stop… notice this occurrence… if you can’t help but to judge your thoughts… notice this as well).

Narrative therapy is a way of assisting healthy Detachment!

Mindfulness is my favorite and I have always loved narrative therapy – now I see why – the potential of narrative therapy is growing in the emancipated perceptions that I hold.

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.

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