Externalising is the process of separating the person from the problem and establishing the problem as something external to the person (Carey & Russell, 2004).
By the time that people seek assistance from services they have often come to believe that there is something wrong with them, that they or something about them is deeply flawed. The problem has become internalised. This situation is expressed in statements such as “I am worthless”.
The process of externalising understands problems as not located within individuals but as socially constructed over time Carey & Russell, 2004).
When space is created between the person and the problem, this enables the person to begin to revise their relationship with the problem (Carey & Russell, 2004). Rather than existing within or being intrinsic to him or her, the problem is positioned as having an effect on the person (Carey & Russell, 2004).
Externalising conversations are ways of talking about problems where the intention is to promote externalisation. Specific techniques include: naming the problem (as separate from the person), mapping the effects of the problem through various domains of the person’s life, and tracing the history of the problem in the person’s life (Carey & Russell, 2003b; p67). This enables the problem to be placed into a story-line and makes it clear that the problem is not something that exists within the person. It is instead something that has developed over time, a development that has been influenced by a range of factors.
Another set of techniques used to externalise are collectively called ‘characterising’ the problem (White, 2005). These techniques include identifying its characteristics, using metaphors to personify the problem and infuse it with agency, exploring the boundaries around it, and mapping the influence of the problem on the person, and the influence of the person on the problem (Payne, 2000; Wolter, DiLollo, & Apel, 2006).
“Metaphorical language is a helpful way to externalise a problem and can facilitate a new problem perspective. Using metaphorical language the problem can be directly personified and becomes an entity in itself, with its own actions, feelings, and resulting influences on the individual” (Wolter, DiLollo, & Apel, 2006; p171).
Morgan (2002) thinks about problems as being things that possess their own agency, and that operate in particular ways such as playing tricks (p88). Thinking about problems as things directs attention to people’s relationships with problems and how these might be changed or renegotiated. It also helps direct attention to the strategies that people are using for dealing with problems (Morgan, 2002; p88).
An example of an internalised problem description is “I’m useless”. Examples of externalised problem descriptions include “This useless feeling” or “The Uselessness”. Questions that help further externalise this problem are “This useless feeling, when does it visit you? Are there times when it is more or less likely for The Uselessness to come around” (Morgan, 2002; p88).
Another benefit of externalisation is that it enables consideration of socio-political factors. When it is understood that problems, and our relationships with problems, are socially constructed over time (i.e. shaped by history and culture), it is possible to explore how gender, race, sexuality, class and other relations of power have influenced the construction of the problem (Carey & Russell, 2004).
Care must be taken when working with individuals who may be using behaviours such as bullying, violence or abuse against others. It is important that externalising conversations in no way excuse people of responsibility for their actions (Carey & Russell, 2004).
Externalising is NOT about separating people from their actions or the real effects of their actions. Rather, a key aspect of externalising conversations involves exploring the ideas, beliefs and practices that help sustain a problem. Beliefs and practices such as judgement of others, notions of superiority, and acts of power and control, sustain problems such as violence. When the real effects of these beliefs and practices on the person’s life and relationships are traced, it can become more possible for the person to take a position in relation to these beliefs and practices of power and control, and to take responsible action (Carey & Russell, 2004).