The Chedva Beat: People tend to identify and define themselves by their character traits. What does a client gain by separating himself from these traits?
Rachel: I believe clients gain a great deal by separating themselves from defined character traits! In narrative therapy, the separation of people from their character traits — specifically the less positive ones — is a process called externalization. Through externalizing the traits, they are viewed as independent entities that have become a presence in people’s lives. By externalizing the trait from the person, clients are able to see how they and the trait interact, the tactics of the trait, and how the trait tricks them into following its lead. Seeing these traits as separate entities helps people distance themselves from them. By separating the trait from the person, clients can also highlight their strengths and have a clearer vision of themselves when the trait is not present, as well as leaving more room for their hopes and dreams to emerge. It is the hope that through externalizing the trait a person does not ignore its presence, but rather changes her relationship to the trait to a more positive one through seeing these interactions.
For example, if a person describes herself as an “angry” person, I could ask to describe the anger and the experience with it, how the anger affects her, and what she is like when anger is not around. All of these questions explore her experience with the trait and their interactions.
Separating a person from these less positive traits also helps the therapist see more of the person and the positive traits, and it makes it easier to help the person bring out strengths and hopes. During conversations with clients, the therapist tries to discuss the trait in order to help move clients to a positive understanding of their experience and situation. By externalizing the trait, clients and I find it much more open and safe to discuss a trait if it is not a part of them. We also find it clearer and easier to change someones relationship to a trait if it is separated and not closely identified with her.