We humans often need help dealing with our problems. Well, one thing we can do is go to therapy, and one of the most widely used techniques there is externalization, which we will talk about today.
People come to therapy with all kinds of problems they haven’t been able to solve on their own. These problems are often internal. That means that they have not been fully constructed and thought out. Often, the symptoms are what get people to therapy: anxiety, lack of motivation, sadness, stress, relationship problems, family problems, etc.
Externalization is a tool psychologists use to help their patients work out their problems. It allows us to observe our problems or symptoms from the outside and find meaning or solutions quickly and effectively.
Symptoms do not define people
People who go to therapy are usually very attached to their beliefs, problems and symptoms. In fact, they might see these things as part of themselves, and they aren’t aware of any other perspectives.
For example, a person may find it difficult to differentiate themselves from their anxiety, their depression or their low self-esteem. It’s hard for them to not include it in how they talk about their personality.
In therapy, a person may express things they don’t usually tell people about, including things that hurt them or things they don’t like about themselves. Defense mechanisms may come up here and impede progress.
The origins of externalization can be traced back to systemic therapy. One of the first to propose this approach was systemic therapist Michael White, who turned this technique into the central axis of his therapeutic approach.
How externalization works
We are often so immersed in our problems that we cannot see any solution. Externalization means exposing something that a person assumes is only inside. It can be done through drawing, for example. The idea is to externally observe the problem.
Let’s think about a person who has a lot of anxiety. They have internalized it to the point where they now define themselves as an anxious person. It is painful for them, as well as mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. But externalization of the symptoms can help relieve that suffering.
You choose which element to externalize (symptoms, emotions, problems) and name it. Then you create distance between the person and what they externalized. Finally, you help the person to see their problem from another point of view.
The benefits of changing perspective
The benefits of externalization include:
- Emotional balance: the person may feel a sense of relief and peace by saying their problems out loud. When they’re emotionally stable, it will be easier to observe the problem from a different perspective.
- Greater self-control when managing symptoms and problems. When a person has internalized the symptom or problem, they may feel like they do not have control over what’s happening to them. Taking a different perspective improves their ability to manage their problems.
- New resources to address the problem in question. Problem-solving is not always easy. Externalization allows a person to draw on new resources to unblock the situation. New tools lead to new solutions.
- Increased responsibility for problems. If the person feels overwhelmed by their difficulties, they’ll probably lose control of the situation. Externalization allows them to take responsibility for what they can change.
- Changing and questioning beliefs. Preconceived ideas may hinder more than they help. This technique opens a person up to create new ways of thinking.
- Putting distance between the problem and the person. Externalization makes it easier for the person to expand or modify their perspective. Then they can disassociate from the identity they gave themselves. For example, instead of thinking “I’m cranky, I’m always angry”, they can think, “I get angry sometimes, but not always.”
How can you get away from your problems?
With this technique, we don’t just externalize problems or symptoms, but also learn a lot about our own qualities, resources and strengths. This allows a person to see their problem from a constructive perspective and not get so overwhelmed. It’s like putting new glasses on.
Externalization basically provides a new perspective and meaning to a problem. A new perspective and meaning then opens to the door to new solutions and change.