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Going 10 rounds with anxiety - using externalising as my boxing gloves!

For most of my life I have played cat and mouse with anxiety – long before I even knew what it was! As with most sparring matches, some bouts have lasted much longer than others. Often, towards the end of most matches, I felt I was the one who emerged the loser.

While I have continued the ducking and weaving through my life, both personally and professionally, my ongoing ‘sparring match’ with anxiety has taught me a great deal about it’s tactics, when it is stronger and weaker, when it tries to ‘sucker punch’ me, and what it wants me to believe about myself.

However none of this knowledge and insight was ever gained when I was feeling overwhelmed, distracted and trapped by my internal experience of anxiety. I was also unable to notice how I have been ‘punching back’, what/who has supported me and what difference this has made in my life.

The times when I have gained the most understanding, knowledge and clarity over anxiety’s influence, has been when I have been supported to separate myself from ‘the problem’, to take a different perspective and regain a sense of power and control.

My relationship with my nemesis began to change over time though, when I was supported to externalise the experience - I gained a ‘bird’s eye view of the boxing match’. Together with the expertise of my counsellor (and supervisor), a new powerful perspective emerged, where I delivered ‘a commanding blow’ of my own in the boxing ring.

In her book ‘What is Narrative Therapy?’, Alice Morgan writes that narrative therapists constantly engage in externalising conversations with their clients. The aim of these conversations is to separate the person’s identity from the problem they are seeking help with.

This shift in the use of language allows the client to create a distance between themselves and the problem. The Narrative practitioner’s skilful choice of words, the way in which phrases are used and naming of the problem situates the problem outside of the person and their identity.

This has profoundly impacted the way I now respond to anxiety – and I have gained a new found respect for its presence in my life. When ‘the anxiety’ starts to dance around the edges of our ‘sparring ring’, I take notice of what it is trying to tell me and how I need to care for myself.

I have often reflected on how different my bouts with ‘the anxiety’ would have been, had it remained an integral, internal part of my identity, rather than an externalised thing with strengths and weaknesses, motives and hopes for me – how it may have gained the upper hand in ways that were not helpful or empowering – and how externalising continues to support me through my ongoing ‘boxing match’.

Externalising conversations in my practice

Engaging in externalising conversations with young people and families has profoundly impacted the ways in which I engage with them therapeutically. As I have become more focussed on using language that separates the individual (or family) from the problem, it has facilitated our conversations about the problem in ways that would not have been possible before.

As I have gained more clarity and confidence in this non-blaming, gentle approach, I have become much more aware of my choice of words, the way I phrase my sentences and the questions that I ask.

Noticing the metaphors and personifications that we all use as part of our everyday language, has provided opportunities for me to highlight these to young people and families, and use them as a way of inviting further externalising of the problem.

The use of externalising has been a very powerful way of engaging with children who relate easily to “the problem”, through the use of art, drawing and cards. It has invited creativity and playfulness in a very safe space, to support further exploration of “the problem” in ways that do not place judgement or blame on the individuals.

What can you do?

I would love to hear how your experience with externalising has influenced how you see your own problems and how it supports the work that you do.

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