• Many of us make our problems out to be much bigger than they are; fortunately, a counseling technique called externalizing the problem can help.
  • Externalizing the problem helps us gain a better perspective: rather than personalizing it, clients in therapy are able to separate themselves from the problem at hand.
  • Therapists employ this technique by personifying their client’s problem: for instance, they will refer to the problem as “it” and “the”.
  • A lot of our problems are rooted in negative thought patterns, of which we can also identify and reframe; common examples include mind reading and labeling.
  • It’s important that we all understand and acknowledge our negative thoughts and put in the work to replace them with more positive thoughts—a counselor or therapist can help.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Whether or not we like to admit it, most of us blow our problems out of proportion. Instead of recognizing them as fleeting moments, mishaps, or complications, we let them define and control us. And we quickly enter a negative tailspin. Matt Smith, a Mental Health Therapist and National Certified Counselor, explains how he helps his clients externalize their problems and gain a more accurate perspective on the situation at hand:

“We all have a tendency to overidentify ourselves (and others) with the problems in our lives. This can take many different forms: ‘I’m useless.’ ‘It’s part of my addictive personality.’ ‘I’ve got low self-esteem.’ ‘She’s dependent.’ ‘He’s a depressed person.’ Externalizing the problem, a technique rooted in narrative therapy, helps clients come to see that *they* are not the problem—*the problem* is the problem.

I use this technique to help clients separate themselves from problems they’re facing and, ultimately, to help them renegotiate their relationship with those problems. At its core, externalizing involves using language that helps to personify the problem in question. In response to the statement, ‘I’m useless,’ for example, I might respond with, ‘Am I right in thinking that the problem tries to tell you about the type of person you are? How does it try to convince you that you’re useless?’ Alternatively, I might ask, ‘This useless feeling, when does it visit? Are there times when it’s more or less likely for the uselessness to come around?’

When in doubt, I fall back in the words ‘it’ and ‘the’ when referencing a client’s problem. For example, instead of, ‘How do you feel about that?’ I might use the word ‘it,’ asking something like, ‘How does IT have you feeling?’ Likewise, placing the word ‘the’ before the name of the problem serves to separate the problem from the person. ‘Worry,’ for example, becomes ‘the worry’ and ‘despair’ becomes ‘the despair.’ This technique can take some practice. But helping our clients come to see their problems as separate from who they are can bring tremendous relief.”

Understanding the Lies We Tell Ourselves

A lot of the negative reactions that Smith detailed above—“I’m useless” being a prime example—are rooted in our negative thinking patterns. These negative thinking patterns, also known as cognitive distortions, play a major role in our amplifying our problems.

Consider this: You’ve dedicated the last week to preparing for your job interview and know you’re ready. But when you’re asked a basic question about the company, you totally blank. The rest of the interview couldn’t have gone better… still, all you can think about is when you spaced. I am completely useless, you think to yourself.

You engaged in a cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking, in which you see everything as either black or white. Your performance was short of perfect, so you called yourself a failure. Now, instead of beating yourself up about your little mishap, you could have focused on everything you did well whilst acknowledging there was a little hiccup. This is a more accurate depiction. And, if you had taken that route over the former, you’d be feeling a whole lot better about yourself. That said, many of us are guilty of engaging in these negative thoughts. Here are a few more common distortions to make yourself aware of:

Mind Reading

  • Definition: You conclude someone is reacting negatively to you, even though you don’t have a valid reason for doing so. And you actually have no idea what they’re thinking.
  • Example: You haven’t heard from your brother in a while, and you start to wonder why. Quickly, you conclude that he’s mad or upset with you because of the fight you got into last month.

Fortune Telling

  • Definition: You anticipate that things will work out for the worst, and you’re 100% convinced your prediction is fact.
  • Example: A couple of weeks ago, you agreed to go on a blind date. But now, you’re regretting it; you insist to your friends that it was a horrible idea and you know it won’t go well.


  • Definition: Instead of understanding and explaining a mistake as a mere mistake, you attach a negative label to yourself or others.
  • Example: After a long, busy day, you finally have time to run out to the grocery store… but when you go to checkout you realize you left your wallet at home. “I’m such an idiot!” you exclaim.

Externalization of Your Problems

The first step in changing these negative thought patterns is acknowledging when you have them. A counselor can help you better understand, identify, and then change these patterns so that you live a happier, less-stressed life.