By Yosef Cornfeld
Externalizing the problem is an important element in Narrative Therapy. It means that rather than view the problem as something connected to and within the person (“I am depressed”), we view the problem as being outside the person: “Depression is affecting me”. That creates some space between the person and the problem.
Here is a video that illustrates that principle, it’s of one man’s story of depression. In this video, in which the author tells the story of his struggle with depression, he describes his depression as a metaphor outside of himself: “A Black Dog”.

View the video, and then we will discuss externalizing the problem, and some of the elements of the story, and how we can use these elements in Narrative Therapy. (Video used with permission of the author, Matthew Johnstone at: http://www.matthewjohnstone.com.au/)


1. Naming the problem: An important part of externalizing the problem is to give it a name. Once it has its name, we can talk about it as something outside of ourselves. In the video the problem, depression, is named: Black Dog, with the name “Depression”. The metaphor of depression being a black dog is a common one that was popularized by Winston Churchill. What is important is that the person is comfortable with the name of the problem. It’s their problem, and they have the privilege of naming it.

2. Unpack the metaphor: The name is a metaphor, and we want to know more about it, which in turn will teach us more about the problem. In the video, the author tells us a lot about the dog by the way he draws it, in various poses, expressions, sizes, etc. In therapy we can enrich the metaphor by asking questions about it, in this case the dog: What kind is it? What does it do? How does it follow you?etc. By enriching the metaphor, we enrich the story.

3. Mapping the problem: We start to ask questions about the problem: When? Where? How? Etc. This will help us to form a rich description of the problem, or make a “map” of the problem. The first two minutes of the video give a rich description of the problem, of how it has affected his life. In order for a person to know how to deal with the problem, he needs to have a clear picture of how it is affecting his life.

4. How do we affect the problem?: When we talk about the problem as something external to ourselves, we create some space between the person and the problem. Just as the problem has an effect on the person, the person can have an effect on the problem. At 2:55 in the video, he “taught the Black Dog some tricks”, how to chase him away.

5. Relative influence of the problem: There are times when the problem has more influence, and times when it has less. By exploring this we can identify those things that can lessen the problem, and learn to have more control over it. The mood journal (3:20 in the video) illustrates this principle. Interestingly in his journal, the “Great!” day still has the Black Dog in it, where if is small and has its tail raised in the air.

6. Our relationship to the problem: Externalizing helps us to understand our relationship to the problem: In the end of the video, he describes that he has established his relationship with the problem. Even though it may always be with him, with this relationship he will be able to manage the Black Dog.

In summary, this video, in addition to being a good teaching tool about depression that many have found helpful, is a good illustration of how telling the story, the “narrative”, of the problem in an externalized way, can go a long way toward helping a person to deal with the problem.

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