Crash Course: Externalizing The Problem

Wifeys & Gentlemen,

I am no licensed therapist, but I do know a thing or two about counseling and clinical psychology. I promise I won’t bore you to death with terms and theories that won’t mean anything to you or help you out; my mom and I like to avoid being “over-psychologied” (yes, we made this up) as much as we can.

I think we often get so bogged down in the process of healing that we forget how to practically apply the steps.

As I am a newly graduated Master of psychology, I have honestly been thinking a lot about how some of the things I’ve learned, both as a student and as someone who has experienced various types of therapy, could be broken down and applied in day to day life.

Of course, this isn’t easy. I would never want you all to think that an article written on a, dare I say, awesome blog 😉 (shameless, I know) is a substitute for the interventions and support you’d get from seeking your own, professional mental health care.

Still, I also believe that working on ourselves and building better relationships is a team effort. It’s one that is collaborative and draws from many different resources.

So, why not take some of the best parts of my education and distill it down in my own way? Why not find my own words to help get my friends (yes, you guys are my homies) started on the right track (if you think you might need it)?

Narrative therapy was one of my favorite types to learn about over the course of my program. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the therapy style, but what I love most about it is its aim to help people become passionate and enthusiastic experts in their own lives. It allows them to identify and understand the stories they construct that define and influence them.

It might sound a little weird, but if you ever have the chance to participate in it, whether you have a disorder or just need to sort through some thoughts, I highly recommend trying it out!

It’s something that is much better to walk through than read about.

With that being said, one of the elements of narrative therapy involves the practice of externalization; the ability to observe your problems from the outside in order to find the best, most meaningful solution.

Okay, hear me out…

It might seem a little cheesy, but you’d be surprised how often we are so deeply immersed in our own issues that we can’t see the forest through the trees. Externalizing allows you to remove your identity from the problem you are facing and examine it from another, more objective POV.

How many of us have had to overcome low confidence or bad self-esteem? I for one, used to let my lack of self-esteem become one of my primary identifiers. I dressed in a way that ensured people wouldn’t notice me. I never spoke up for fear of sounding too awkward or lame. I didn’t like to go places and would frequently turn down invitations, even from my “friends”.

Of course, there were parts of me that wanted to change, but I never knew how. I never knew where to start. If I had known how to externalize, maybe the healing could have happened sooner? Maybe I’d have a better handle of the narrative I created in my mind that told me I had no reason to love myself?

Don’t get me wrong, this skill isn’t easy.

You must create space between you and your problem (or thought, or emotion). You must speak about it as if it is a person or entity all its own. Does this problem have a name? Yes it does, name it!

How has this problem effected your life? Can you remember when you and the problem first met? What happened that day? How did you feel before the encounter? How did you feel after?

Take care to remember that you are making an effort to build the identity of the problem as something that is separate from you. Once you have established a separation, it is important to evaluate what these effects have taught you. Has this problem made you realize anything new or important about yourself or your surroundings?

Then, take the time to think of what your life would be like if this problem would go away. How might you live differently? How would you feel knowing that this unwanted visitor is finally gone? Is there anything you can do to see that it doesn’t come back? If it were to visit again, how might you handle it?

Before you know it, you’re seeing things in a whole new way.

You are reminding yourself of your skills, strengths, and past experiences that have helped you be successful during other difficult times.

Easier said than done? Yeah, I know.

If you aren’t about that therapy life but are considering giving this a try, I highly recommend getting yourself an externalizing journal. This can be something you write in, an audio diary, or even on video journal if you’re comfortable. Take yourself through these steps and really dig deep to get as much information from yourself as you can.

Create a true character for your problem and map out how this character has effected you. Analyze those effects thoroughly and cautiously and develop a rich visualization of what things could be like if this character left.

Want some even better news?

This technique is often used with both families and couples. It can be a great way to support kids who have experienced trauma and can be a big help for couples who have struggles they can’t seem to overcome.

Above all else, try to remember that the problem is the problem. The problem is not you. You are not the problem. Your knowledge and experience makes you an expert on who you are and what you know. You can take responsibility and hold yourself accountable with guilt, blame, or shame taking over.

I love that this technique allows me to make meaning of my experiences and find a little more peace in my unique truth. Let me know if it does the same for you.

Examples of Externalizing Questions (not an exhaustive list)

  • How long have you been noticing this (problem)?
  • What effect does the (problem) have on your life?
  • How does the (problem) impact your energy?
  • Does the (problem) have an impact on your relationship with other family members? Friends? Your partner?
  • What do you think about the effects (problem) is having on your life?
  • Are you accepting what (problem) is doing?
  • How would life be different if (problem) was no longer around?

Types of Things to Externalize (not an exhaustive list)

  • Moods
  • Thoughts and Ideas
  • Traumatic Events/Memories
  • Practices of self/Habits
  • Cultural practices
  • Forces (ie: Sexism, Racism, Societal expectations)
  • Visions/Principles/Values

Okay…enough psycho-babble for one post. I hope this makes sense. It’s hard to find balance between oversimplifying and overcomplicating in psychology, but I’m all in for trying <3.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Until next time,

Carry on wifeys & gents!


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