Hello Fear, My Old Friend
Reading time: approx. 5 minutes
Duration of the exercise: approx. 45 minutes
Utensils: paper and a pencil, or depending on what you choose other objects
This exercise can open up a creative space of possibilities for you in which you can introduce more lightness and flexibility in dealing with your problem.
Problems are often thought and talked about as being a trait a person inherits. When this happens, the problem is extremely difficult to resolve as it seemingly belongs to the person. The exercise of externalization offers a way to perceive yourself with your whole personality, not narrowed down to being a problem. From this place, you can begin to attend to and resolve your problem in new ways. For this article we chose to focus on externalizing fear.
What if you could relate to your fear as you would to an old friend? Somebody who is not always making things easy for you and to whom you are able to communicate your boundaries in a loving way? …You might begin to live your life more vividly.
The method of externalization is a main method in narrative therapy based on Michael White and is widely used in systemic counseling/coaching/therapy. There are various ways of practicing externalization.
The author Elizabeth Gilbert provides a wonderful example in her famous letter to her fear. It goes as follows:
„Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand that you`ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you are allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.“
(Out of the book „Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear“ - Elizabeth Gilbert)“
Through the method of externalization, problem narratives become newly constructed in such a way that the individual and the problem get separated from each other.
We can do this in different contexts, such as aiming to deal with fear, conflicts, feelings of guilt or anger. By externalizing your problem narrative you will distance yourself from it and thereby discover new perspectives.Through this distance you can perceive more of who you are without your limiting narratives. You can then try to gain access to your own inner qualities and aspects in your life that make you stronger. Most likely this makes it easier for you to focus on your needs, wishes and dreams.
To get started with the externalization it can help to ask yourself certain questions, for example:
In which situations does your problem arise?
How would you notice that your problem is there again?
Even if it feels weird, do you feel or see any shape or form your problem could have? If your fear were a person, what would that person look like? Or if it were an animal, what type of animal would it be?
In the next step you can try to find a name for your problem. For example in this case it went from „feeling fearful“ to talking directly to the „fear“.
With all of these questions take it slow, and imagine details. You can imagine your problem sitting across from you. Be it your fear, frustration, procrastination, hesitance, anger, helplessness, or whatever else might be your current unwanted companion. Imagine it sitting somewhere different, maybe in the room or, as is the case in this example, on the passenger seat in a car. You can observe your problem in this form and ask yourself questions such as, when does this problem cross your boundaries? When and how does it act against your own values? When is it most active? When is it big and when is it small? Does the problem try to protect you from something? When does it hinder you to live up to your potential? When does it get into the way of meaningful relationships?
And then, enjoy writing your letter!
I want to encourage you to take time, take it slow and discover in which way you can externalize your fear, or any other problem you want to work with.
If you would prefer to do an externalization together through our chat or video coaching you are welcome to reach out to us.
Author: Leonie Görlitz
Gilbert, E. (2016). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. Penguin.
Johannsen, J. (2016). Baustein 9 Externalisierung. Handwerkszeug der systemischen Beratung: Das Buch zur Weiterbildung Systemisches Tool Camp-2, 149.
Unterholzer, C. (2018) (https://ist.or.at/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Unterholzer-Externalisieren.pdf