Each chapter of the textbook will have a related journal entry prompt to which you will need to respond. You can find these assignments in each weekly module labeled “Chapter X Journal” under the “Assignments and Activities” section. Journals are an opportunity for you to reflect on what you read and learned in the chapter and apply it to your own life. In each journal response, you should answer ALL the questions presented in the prompt thoroughly and thoughtfully. Journals should incorporate what we call the “4 E’s” in college success: 1. Experience: Your response is written from your own experience and perspective 2. Evidence: Your response includes evidence or support from the chapter or the course 3. Example: Your response uses examples from your own life 4. Explanation: Your thoughts or opinions are clearly and thoughtfully explained Your journal responses should include at least ONE of the FOUR E’s, but I encourage you to use as many as you can. Journals will be assessed on thoughtfulness, thoroughness and writing conventions using the journal rubric on a 0-10 point scale. There is no minimum word or page count for these assignments, but you are expected to answer each prompt in-depth.
For instructions on how to complete journal assignments and info on how they will be
graded, please refer to the syllabus.
In order to outsmart a mindset problem, and keep it from gaining control, it’s important
to become better acquainted with the problem.
• Practice externalizing mindset problems.
• Learn how to recognize the occurrence of mindset problems even when it’s not
• Gain a deeper understanding of mindset problems and how they influence.
1. Identify three (3) “I am” statements that you make the most that are related to a
2. Rephrase the “I am” statement in an externalizing way. Example: I am a
procrastinator. → Procrastination works to convince me that important work is
always better left until tomorrow.
3. Choose one of your “I am” statements that you identified. Applying Cognitive
Reframing, establish a new relationship to one of those problem using the
“externalizing the problem” process. Answer the following narrative questions to
hear the problem and under the influence of the problem:
Hear Your Problem
§ If it had a voice, what would it sound like?
§ If it had a theme song, what would it be?
§ If it had a quote, what would it be?
§ When you’re trying to accomplish something or follow through on something
important—especially if that task is hard, or you feel like life is extra stressful
or maybe even boring—what does your problem try to convince you of:
§ About yourself?
§ About life?
§ About the possibility of being a successful student?
Understand the Influence of the Problem
§ When your problem is taking over and winning, what is it trying to convince
other people about you?
§ What are you most tired of putting up with that your problem causes when it
gets the best of you?
§ Does your problem want the same thing for your future that you do?
§ How would you prefer things to be in your life currently and in the future?
Hear Your Problem
• If it had a voice, what would it sound like?
Procrastination would be loud and obnoxious. It would yell over anything I tried to
say to it.
• If it had a theme song, what would it be?
“Float On,” by Modest Mouse
• If it had a quote, what would it be?
“I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
• When you’re trying to accomplish something or follow through on something
important—especially if that task is hard, or you feel like life is extra stressful
or maybe even boring—what does your problem try to convince you of:
o About yourself?
Procrastination is trying to convince me that I’m better off putting off important
tasks and enjoying myself in the moment, even if it’s just going to cause me
more stress later.
o About life?
That maybe I don’t need to be doing hard or boring things.
o About the possibility of being a successful student?
If schoolwork is hard or boring, then maybe I don’t need to be a student or I’m
not smart enough or willing enough to be a student.
Understand the Influence of the Problem
• When your problem is taking over and winning, what is it trying to convince
other people about you?
Procrastination is trying to convince people that I am lazy and unreliable.
• What are you most tired of putting up with that your problem causes when it
gets the best of you?
I am tired of the additional stress I feel when I’m rushing to get something done that
I could have done sooner. I’m also tired of people thinking that I’m unreliable.
• Does your problem want the same thing for your future that you do?
Not at all
• How would you prefer things to be in your life currently and in the future?
I would prefer to have less stress from putting things off and for people to believe
they can trust me.
|05|cognitive reframing and EXTERNALIZING
“The most common way people
give up their power is by
thinking they don’t have any.”
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 79
Where We Have Been
In Chapter 4, you learned to identify, acknowledge, and accept how your feelings and emotions can affect your
personal narratives. More importantly, you learned that you are someone who experiences feelings and emotions, but
you are separate from them—they do not define you. You were also introduced to insights and strategies that allow
feelings to move through you, rather than overtake you, so that you can minimize the chance of feelings and emotions
becoming problematic and taking your personal narrative hostage. Finally, you learned breathing exercises and were
introduced to guided mindfulness and meditation as a route to quiet your thoughts and connect you to the calming
influence of the present moment.
Where We Are Going
In this chapter, we will introduce you to the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to be “plastic” or
“changeable” in nature by actually growing new neural pathways when tasked with creating new thinking patterns, at
any age (Figure 1). Understanding and embracing neuroplasticity is important as you begin to update your thinking
patterns and form more helpful ways of responding to difficult feelings, emotions, and stressors.
» To begin to understand the concept of neuroplasticity and recognize that with it
comes an invitation to shift your relationship to your mindset problems
» To begin to maximize your brain’s neuroplasticity as you form new thinking
» To begin to learn about the important role of cognitive reframing as you foster
new ways of responding to feelings, thoughts, and beliefs
» To begin to understand the concept and practice of externalizing your problems
» To begin to identify your main problem and learn the scope of its current
influence in your life
» To begin to develop a new relationship to your problem(s)
Figure 1. Our brains are capable of
growing new neural pathways at any
You will also discover that you cannot always trust your thoughts as they are often stuck in the cycle of delivering
faulty information based on self-limiting and even self-sabotaging beliefs (see the discussion on self-talk in Chapter 2).
Because this is so common for many, you will be taught how to “prime yourself” to maximize your brain’s potential for
neuroplasticity when self-limiting beliefs do in fact surface; you’ll do this by following a process that starts with simply
pausing and noticing.
Next, you will be introduced to cognitive reframing, a concept that allows you to view the same information or
experience, but through a different and more productive frame.
Lastly, you will be introduced to the narrative concept of externalizing problems. This concept holds the potential to
liberate you from problems that previously you may have understood as evidence of a character deficiency. When
we see ourselves as somehow flawed or broken because of common problems like procrastination, anxiety, or
overwhelm, we are more inclined to experience things like shame, guilt, or defensiveness when dealing with them.
Externalizing problems minimizes that potential.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 80
This is where neuroplasticity comes in.
is a term used by neuroscientists to describe
the “plastic” or “changeable” nature of our brains. It refers to the brain’s ability to form and
reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. Neuroplasticity is
key to sustaining emotional intelligence, and allows us to have an open mind and overcome biases.1
Understanding neuroplasticity is an important step in providing the insight and awareness necessary
to strengthen your desire to form new thinking habits because knowing brain science will only
support the belief that you can, in fact, become a better version of yourself (Figure 2). Imagine
a version of yourself that is perhaps more competent in practicing self advocacy, confidence,
emotional intelligence, resilience, perseverance, and self-control, and someone who, more times
than not, embraces a growth mindset when the going gets tough.
“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”
Daniel J. Siegel
Figure 2. Neuroplasticity supports the
belief that you can become a better
version of yourself.
Take a couple of minutes to watch this video, which captures the concept of neuroplasticity.2
the ability of the brain to form and
reorganize synaptic connections,
especially in response to learning or
Neuroplasticity: The Brain’s Ability to Change
What you have been learning in this course has been challenging you to think about your problems differently, to
create an updated relationship to them, and as a result actually rewire your brain so that you can more dependably
respond to situations in your life from a personally empowered place. This is no small feat. It takes the desire and
commitment to want to change and therefore grow. It also takes dedication, time, and practice to create new thinking
patterns and new habits.
Your thoughts are not always reliable. Thoughts sometimes represent limiting beliefs about how you see yourself and
the world around you, however, they may also serve as the gateway to your eventual success. When you begin to
recognize your own thinking patterns, you are taking an important step toward rewiring your brain.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 81
A Guide to Leveraging Neuroplasticity
When you start to recognize your own self-limiting beliefs and negative self-talk, it’s time to interrupt those thoughts
and change them. One method of accomplishing this is by using the OWN acronym as a foundation.The OWN
acronym is a straightforward guide that can be utilized to interrupt self-limiting beliefs and negative self-talk as it’s
happening (Figure 3). By practicing this approach, you are capitalizing on an immediate opportunity to optimize your
brain’s potential for neuroplasticity. Additionally, by applying the OWN acronym to your thoughts, you remind yourself
that you own your thoughts instead of your thoughts possessing you. You see, change is something that happens
to you, whereas transformation is something you must practice. This three-step process is your invitation into that
Figure 3. Practicing OWN helps you
take control of your thoughts.
Step 1: Observe Your Self-Talk
In Chapter 2, you learned what self-talk is and how it can shape your personal narrative. We all have different negative
self-talk “triggers,” circumstances under which we feel more insecure, uncertain, self-critical, or self-blaming. In those
moments, we are certainly caught in the grips of the problem, whether that be the growing narrative and belief
that we are lazy, stupid, anxious, or undeserving, or that we are flawed in some deep and essential way. We talk to
ourselves in ways that we would never talk to others we respect: we shame our appearance, our abilities, our intellect,
and our character.
The next time you find yourself caught up in negative self talk, start by noticing it. By practicing this awareness and
understanding your own thought processes, or metacognition, you will be able to start interrupting the negative
self-talk simply by observing it. It is important that you observe your self-talk with as little judgment as possible. So,
the next time you enjoy that final spoonful of chocolate lava cake, and the requisite negative self-talk ensues, observe
it (Figure 4). That is all that is required of you in this first step. Just take note of what is happening and what you are
saying to yourself.
Figure 4. Interrupt your self-talk by
an awareness and understanding of
your thought processes
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 82
Step 2: Wonder What Your Self-Talk Wants You to Believe
Now that you have begun observing when your negative self-talk happens, the next step is to ask yourself what your
self-talk wants you to believe. Let’s say you had two weeks to complete a research paper. Instead of working on it over
the past two weeks, you procrastinated and now have only two days before it is due. As you begin to experience the
full weight of overwhelm, you may notice the negative self-talk befall you (Figure 5).
Figure 5. What does your self-talk
want you to believe?
In this moment, take pause. That may be hard, but it is crucial. The truth is, the words you are saying and the names
you are calling yourself are simply promoting more suffering and, in fact, are getting you more stuck in this exact
The first step was interrupting the self-talk, and therefore promoting an opportunity for neuroplasticity (that is, change
and growth). The second step is to ask yourself, “What are these words encouraging me to believe about myself that
aren’t helpful or even necessarily true?” Taking the self-talk examples from above, here are some limiting beliefs they
may be promoting:
» I am unintelligent.
» I am broken.
» I am an imposter.
» I am mentally unstable.
» I should be ashamed of myself.
Berating yourself will not make the situation any better, nor will it increase your ability to handle it. Yes, you can
be disappointed in yourself—being disappointed in yourself is very different than beating yourself up. You are not
somehow paying penance for poor behavior when you beat yourself up through negative self-talk. Rather, you are
actively creating and or maintaining neural pathways that reinforce both a negative belief in who you are, as well as
potentially perpetuating your tendency to continue to do so in the future (only deepening the synaptic groove you are
creating in your brain). This has the effect of creating even more stress and reducing personal agency to correct the
situation. That’s a pretty high price to pay!
Step 3: Notice How This Situation Might Be an Opportunity for Learning
Now that you’ve noticed and observed the self-talk and thinking patterns and you’ve asked yourself what they are
causing you to believe about yourself, it is time to continue this important process of pausing and looking inward. As
you do this, the next question is, “How might this difficult situation be an opportunity for learning?” In other words,
how might you loosen your grip on the old pattern of thought (self-talk), and its attachment to the belief about
yourself it promotes? What if you decided to gently let it go?
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 83
In the example of the procrastinated research paper, this might sound something like, “I am really disappointed
in myself for leaving this paper to the last minute, but I am not unintelligent or broken. I am a person still learning
about stress management and procrastination stepped in to try to help. No, it didn’t work, but procrastination is all
about keeping me from being overly stressed in the moment, but terrible about considering the future. Now, what
can I realistically do right away to address this paper?” By acknowledging your original self-talk and what it might be
convincing you to believe about yourself, and changing the thinking pattern and moving forward, you are changing
how you think and react (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Acknowledging your self-
talk and learning from the situation
gives you the means to change how
Letting go is not just okay, it is good and quite normal. However, resisting your emotions can also cause suffering. Much
like you learned in Chapter 4, you are not your feelings and emotions, you are someone who experiences feelings and
emotions. It is in the act of resisting emotions that we often extend our suffering. If you fear being overtaken by your
emotions, you may be tempted to resist them altogether. As you continue to practice your breathing exercises and bring
short meditation sessions into your life, you may find that even difficult emotions like anger or fear have no permanent
home with you.
“Superficial narratives do not get at the deepest abilities of people. They
often represent the stories within which people have become stuck—habit
pathways in the brain that have become habit hell.”
Dr. Srini Pillay
Harvard Medical School
Let it Go
Many of us have created thinking patterns that may not represent our strengths, values, and goals, but have nonetheless
become deeply ingrained and persistent habits.These thinking habits then inform our beliefs. Many people will go
their entire lives with their unexamined thoughts and beliefs ultimately residing in the driver’s seat of their lives. This,
unfortunately, tends to create a lot of personal suffering (Figure 7a). But, because this process is being illuminated for you,
you are gaining an important awareness that, if harnessed, can pave a better path forward (Figure 7b). The simple truth is
that you can make the choice to let go of the limiting beliefs and negative self-talk.
Figure 7. You can go your entire life
with unexamined thoughts in the
driver’s seat (a); or you can be aware
of your thoughts and follow a better
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 84
Neutralizing Emotions by Allowing Emotions
NOTE: If you have been diagnosed with or believe you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
please consult a mental health professional before engaging in this exercise.
What if you allowed yourself larger doses of feelings and emotions, rather than continually suppressing or
avoiding them? Suppressing and avoiding emotions can yield the opposite effect; it can actually increase the
impact emotions have on your life, but in a negative way.
Start by carving out three to five minutes to feel the emotion that you find you’re commonly pushing away.
Maybe it’s sadness, or fear, or anger. Tune into your body and notice where you feel the emotion. Is it in your
heart, your belly, perhaps it’s behind your eyes or in your throat. Notice the thoughts that accompany your
emotions; are your thoughts critical, compassionate, or somewhere in between? If the thoughts are self-critical
or if you experience fear or sadness, try placing your hand over your heart and saying to yourself, “Everything is
okay,” or something else compassionate and kind to yourself. It is recommended that as you practice self-talk in
this way, that you refer to yourself in the third person, like “Everything is okay, Sarah”. Some people who are in
the process of releasing especially painful emotions find that while placing their hand over their heart, that saying
something like, “Everything is okay, sweetheart.” is very calming and therapeutic as it more deeply expresses the
more intentional element of self-compassion. It’s up to you to find the right way to address yourself.
Practicing kindness towards yourself can be incredibly healing and cathartic and increases not only your self-
compassion, but your compassion and empathy for others, as well. Notice the feeling and the accompanying
thoughts as if they are merely clouds passing through the horizon of your emotional perception and awareness.
They come and go, and are not who you are. Feel them and thank them for whatever lessons or personal
awakening or insight they may offer, then release them (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Be kind to yourself and let your feelings go.
Part of the release process may include journaling, or perhaps expressing the feelings to another person, which
can be helpful too. Finding an outlet or an expression for whatever feelings you have can help you to move them
After you have explored the emotion, you may elect to perform Dr. Weil’s 4:7:8 breathing exercise, or simply
begin to more consciously practice inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Consciously
focus on your breath for at least three breath cycles. As you become more present to the moment and connected
to your breathing, begin to notice the sounds around you (this will support your ability to stay grounded and
connected to the present moment). You can end the exercise by being thankful for the emotions and reminding
yourself that in the present moment you are calm, present, and safe.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 85
Cognitive reframing is a psychological term that very much supports the narrative coaching approach. Much like
you’ve been introduced to the idea that it is the lens through which you view your experiences that contribute to
whether you’re caught in a problem saturated narrative or not, cognitive reframing uses the frame metaphor to
highlight much the same. When we deliberately practice altering the frame through which we assign meaning to our
experiences, we expand in our ability to move with more positivity and freedom. When we reframe our experiences,
we shift our thinking by ideally moving away from fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Srini Pillay, brain researcher
and Harvard psychiatrist, says this of uncertainty: “It biases your brain to think that the worst will happen. That is, it
distorts thinking and pulls in more “bad stuff.”3 Cognitive reframing supports your ability to move away from distorted
thinking that promotes this kind of personal uncertainty (Figure 9).
“The essential idea behind reframing is that a person’s point-of-view
depends on the frame it is viewed in. When the frame is shifted, the
meaning changes and thinking and behavior often change along with it.”
Figure 9. Through cognitive reframing
we alter how we view our experiences.
Have you ever been with a friend who experienced the exact same event or interaction as you, but tells a completely
different version of what just happened? It can go something like this:
You are at a restaurant and the two of you are ordering your drinks. You order a coke and water and your
friend orders an iced tea and a water with a slice of lemon. The interaction seems totally unremarkable to
you, but as the server walks away, your friend says under her breath, “What was his problem?”
“Excuse me? What did I miss?” You ask your friend.
“You seriously didn’t notice?” Your friend says. “Didn’t you see the way he looked at me when I asked for a
water with a slice of lemon? He was so annoyed! He made me feel like I was putting him out or something. I
was just asking for a lemon slice!”
You pause and reflect: the server didn’t seem rude to you at all. He just seemed to be clarifying if you and
your friend both wanted lemon in your water, or if only your friend did.
Same event, but two completely different interpretations. Which one is true? Well, that depends on which
one you believe!
Both you and your friend end up walking away from the experience at the restaurant with two very different
narratives. Yours might be completely unremarkable, while your friend continues to insist that the server was rude.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 86
We have all been in your friend’s shoes: we all view the world through our unique personal lens which is shaped by
our thoughts, moods, and beliefs (again, our personal narratives). The real question remains:
Is your personal narrative one that makes it easy to execute the Big 7 non cogs, or have you noticed—or are
you beginning to notice—that there is a particular frame through which you view your world and the people
in it that makes navigating new challenges more challenging than it might need to be?
Applying Cognitive Reframing to a Problem
Your problems do not want the same thing for your life that you do. This does not mean that things like worry have it
out for you, or are intentionally trying to hurt you. In fact, worry, like self-doubt (as we explored in Chapter 2), serve a
purpose. Many things that you now consider to be problems previously showed up in your life to provide safeguards
and provide helpful moments of pause and reflection. And, if you manage them well, some may still be helpful in
small doses and for specific situations. For this you can be grateful. It’s all about discernment: problems are not able
to discern when they are helpful and when they are not and they can easily take over if given the opportunity. This is
exactly why practicing cognitive reframing can be so essential in claiming authority in your life’s personal narrative.
You see, perhaps a problem that once served you well is currently showing up and limiting your ability to function as
confidently as you would like in your new role as a college student. The practice of cognitive reframing can help you
to limit the problem’s tendency to take over, should this be happening to you. Cognitive reframing enables you to
revisit how you have historically interpreted events and feelings in your life and it essentially activates your ability to
re-interpret them. This is especially important as problems like worry are not able to take a landscape view of your
life, judiciously doling out how much or how little worry should be applied to any given challenge. Instead, things
like worry have a propensity to grow and dominate if they are not acknowledged, reassured, or pushed back upon
in the form externalizing them, like we’re about to teach you. Problems like worry are less invested in cultivating
growth, supporting expression or creativity, and manifesting dreams, as they are in steadfastly attempting to keep
you in a state of connection to them—regardless of contexts.Cognitive reframing provides the necessary push back
to problems, so that you experience a less habituated stress response to circumstances, thereby encouraging fewer
familiar problems (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Problems like worry are not
invested in your wellbeing.
Worry tries to convince you of things that may not be true. Maybe it tries to convince you that the more time you
spend worrying, the more prepared and armed you will be in managing whatever it is you are worrying about. Maybe
your worry works overtime to convince you that spending time worrying is the best way to manage your life:
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 87
Now, if worry get’s it’s way and you do not create a different relationship to it, it risks becoming your belief. Imagine
if even one of those worries became a pervasive belief in your life. Wouldn’t it be awful if you did not live the life you
wanted to live because worry took over?
The A to F Model for Working Against Self-Limiting Beliefs
The A to F model is a classical model used in working with self-limiting beliefs.4 The basic idea is that all events are
neutral. Although the model posits that “all events are neutral,” we know that this is not consistently true and want
to acknowledge that there exists exceptional events where people treat others in harmful, abusive, negligent, or
discriminatory ways. The purpose and goal of the model is to gain more awareness into your own reactions, and
to grow in your ability to discern what is truly happening in an event, versus what your personal cognitive frame is
shaping it to look like. Only our thoughts stir reactions. Using this model to understand Angela’s experience will be
a helpful introduction into highlighting how you can use cognitive reframing in your own life when you experience
challenging events or interactions in your life.
be able to
You won’t be able to
You’ll make bad
decisions and will
live with regret.
You won’t be able to
manage your time and
to do this on
You won’t be able to handle
being away from your
The guilt of
if you ask
You’ll choose the wrong
words a conversation and
your friends and they’ll
If you get a
be able to
recover. You’ll never live
up to your own
There will be
to do after
be able to
You won’t be
going to let
be able to
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 88
A = Activating Situation or Event:
What is the situation or event that is activating the belief?
B = Self-Limiting Belief(s) About the Situation:
What is the self-limiting belief that has been triggered?
C = Consequences of These Beliefs:
What are the consequences, emotional and/or behavioral, of the self-limiting belief?
D = Disputing the Self-Limiting Belief(s):
Dispute the self-limiting belief by asking yourself the following questions:
» Is my belief realistic?
» Is my belief logical?
» Is my belief helpful?
E = Effect New Beliefs:
How can you acknowledge your feelings and change, or effect, your beliefs to create a new non-
F = New Feeling:
After applying your new perspective on the situation or event, what new feelings and beliefs have
Using the above as your guide through the situation, you can create the following table, which shows cognitive
reframing of a situation or event:
A to F Model
ACTION BELIEF CONSEQUENC
What is the situation or
event that is activating
What is the self-imiting
belief that has been
What are the
behavioral, of the self-
ER What is the situation or
event that is activating
What is the NEW
After applying your
new perspective on the
situation or event, what
new feelings and beliefs
have you created?
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 89
When Angela walked into the financial aid office, she was feeling nervous. Talking about finances, filling out
confusing paperwork, and keeping on top of important deadlines seemed overwhelming. She had been putting
off dealing with this all week, and had finally forced herself to walk across campus to ask for help. When she
went up to the front counter to make an appointment, no one seemed to notice her. She saw a bunch of people
behind the counter working: staring at their computer screens and clicking away on their keyboards, talking on
headsets, or working directly with other students. Everyone seemed so busy. She didn’t want to bother anybody,
so she continued to wait to be noticed.
After a couple of minutes passed and no one walked to the counter to assist her, she finally softly said, “Excuse
me?” to the closest employee who seemed to be within earshot. The woman had a headset on and had an
irritated expression on her face. Angela felt herself immediately blush for interrupting her. She was embarrassed
so she quickly left, telling herself that later this week she could go online and try to make an appointment that
Let’s unpack Angela’s experience and analyze it through the A to F Model. The prompts will be answered in the
first person, by Angela.
A = Activating Situation or Event: What is the situation or event that is activating the belief?
» I say “Excuse me?” and the representative has a particular expression on her face.
» This translates into asking a busy and crowded office staff for help.
B = Self-Limiting Belief(s) About the Situation: What is the self-limiting belief that has been triggered?
» I believe that I have interrupted the representative and that her expression is showing irritation about
» This translates into the belief that I am an inconvenience and annoying. Other people’s time is more
important than mine.
C = Consequences of These Beliefs: What are the consequences, emotional and/or behavioral, of the
» I feel embarrassed for annoying the representative and rush out of the office, telling myself that I will
go online sometime later to try to make an appointment that way.
» This causes me anxiety, embarrassment, and shyness, as well as a lack of self-advocacy and
confidence. It also causes me to continue to procrastinate and potentially miss timely financial aid
information necessary to fund my education.
D = Disputing the Self-Limiting Belief(s): Dispute the self-limiting belief by asking yourself the
» Am I being realistic in my belief? I am not. There was no way to really know if the woman’s facial
expression was in response to me or something or someone else.
» Am I being logical in my belief? She may not be annoyed (that could just be her face), she may be
annoyed about something else, or I may be the thing that is annoying her; I have no way to know. If
my asking for assistance is annoying her, that says more about her than it does about me. I am just as
important as any other student. It’s normal not to know what to do or to need help. I will always be as
respectful to others as I can be to get my needs met as a student.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 90
» Is my belief helpful? It is helpful to care about how others feel. It is not helpful to believe that I am
annoying and an inconvenience when I need help. I can practice remembering that what I might
interpret as a response to me, often is not the reality or the intention of the other person. It might
just be that I am seeing someone else in the midst of their own struggles, and that is what the facial
expression represents. This is useful to remember because it helps me feel less self-conscious and
focused on my own fears, anxieties, or insecurity. Though it is important for me to be respectful of
other people’s time and to follow the rules, it does not mean that by asking for help (self-advocating)
I am not still respectful and deserving of their time and attention.
E = Effect New Beliefs: How can you acknowledge your feelings and change, or effect, your beliefs to
create a new non-limiting belief?
» Perhaps the representative is listening to a student on her headset and has heard a question that she
does not understand.
» Although I prefer for people to notice my needs right away, even if they don’t, it is perfectly
acceptable to speak up until someone acknowledges me and can help me. This means that I need to
learn that even if someone appears to be annoyed with me, it may not be me that is annoying them.
» Letting go of this self-limiting belief will make me less anxious and more likely to make an
appointment or return to ask for help again. I can feel concerned but not so nervous that I avoid
getting the help I need.
F = New Feeling: After applying your new perspective on the situation or event, what new feelings and
beliefs have you created?
» I recognize that the woman has a headset on and that the facial expression may be in response to
another conversation, not to me.
» I am still not totally confident, but growing in my confidence and my ability to ask for help from the
financial aid office as well as other administrators, staff, and faculty at the college. I still have some
nervousness, but I am willing to not walk away from a new situation as quickly as I usually do.
ACTION BELIEF CONSEQUENCE
E Angela says “Excuse
me?” Representative has
a particular expression on
Angela believes that
she has interrupted
the representative and
that her expression is
showing irritation about
rushes out of the office,
telling herself that she
will go online sometime
later to try to make an
appointment that way.
ER Angela says “Excuse
has a particular
expression on her face.
listening to a student
on her headset and
has heard a question
that she does not
that the woman has a
headset on and that
the facial expression is
in response to another
conversation, not her.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 91
Learning to Externalize Your Problems
Externalizing problems is a core principle of narrative coaching. It is the practice of conceptually separating your
personal identity from the problems you encounter. When you’re able to shift your relationship to a problem by no
longer seeing yourself as somehow inherently flawed or broken, it lessens the tendency to experience additional guilt,
shame, or defensiveness in response to the problem, as well as minimizing blame or avoidance. Furthermore, as you
will explore, externalizing problems encourages greater creativity and insight as you seek to loosen the constraint that
mindset problems may have over you.
As you begin to practice the skill of externalizing a problem when your mindset problems arise, you can expect to
feel awkward and the concept may feel completely counterintuitive to your current habit of thinking and responding
to things like mistakes and stressors. This is okay and completely normal. Feeling uncomfortable and even awkward is
part of the process of learning a new skill—and part of getting out of what Dr. Srini Pillay calls “habit hell.”5
Just keep going. In this case, “keep going” means keep interrupting the old thinking patterns and replacing them
with the updated ones; with time and practice you’ll be liberating yourself from self-destructive thought patterns.
Think of it this way: if you find yourself engaged in thinking patterns (personal narratives) that are overly self-critical,
negative, or fear-based, chances are your thoughts are not very trustworthy. If you find, like many of us have, that
you engage in self-limiting beliefs that are grounded in a sense of personal lacking or deficiency (remember the
importance of self-talk), remember that you are not who you think you are!
You Are Not the Problem
As you begin to examine your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and recognize how some have evolved into problems,
it will become increasingly important for you to revisit and update how you talk about them. Updating our language
is a core component of both neuroplasticity and cognitive reframing. It’s like the final step. Remember those “I am
statements” we discussed in Chapter 3? That concept applies here, as well.
Rather than using language and syntax that places a problem within you, as in “I am angry” or “I am anxious,” it
is important to change your sentence structure as you update your relationship to your problems and gain more
command over them. What this means is that you will begin the practice of changing “I am angry” or “I am anxious”
into something like “I am dealing with anger” or “I am working on managing worry.”
We are not the first to shift our wording and in so doing shift the relationships to our problematic feelings. Author
of Big Magic and Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, has made a video, “A Letter to Fear,” that embodies the same
“A Letter to Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert
To begin to learn what Gilbert exemplified so well in her video, we will start with this simple but bold statement:
YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM, THE PROBLEM IS THE PROBLEM (Figure 11).
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 92
It’s safe to say you probably did not hear or feel that sentiment when you were mired in a moment of fear, overwhelm,
procrastination, perfectionism, anger, or anxiety, but imagine if you had. How might that have changed your
relationship to the problem as well as your relationship to yourself?
Often when this statement is shared, people assume that we mean that personal accountability in relation to our
problems no longer matters. This is entirely not the case. This does not mean you get a free pass, or that the
consequences of your problems taking over in your life are not yours to take ownership over. Rather, it means that you
have more power to tackle your problems and be in a healthier relationship to your problems than maybe you’ve ever
imagined. In teaching this approach to one academic coach, she came back after a few months of using it with her
students and explained her experience this way:
“Making problems outside of students just leads to more productive conversations and makes positive
behavioral change happen faster.”
When you can see problems as something separate from yourself, you gain more distance, perspective, and, often
times, insight. Plus, you are more likely to avoid feelings of guilt, shame, or defensiveness that put you right back
into a state of stress, which is what you want to avoid when you explore how to be in a relationship with problems.
When we engage in problem-solving conversations where people are labeled as the problem, they tend to bring
less creativity, innovation, and passion to finding a better way forward because labeling and sometimes even
pathologizing people seldom leads to energizing and inspiring conversations that include hopefulness and resilience.
Getting Unstuck from Your Problems
Through thinking about stuff that has already happened in your life and the stuff that is happening now, you can start
to see that maybe too much of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your life has gotten overshadowed or
“bossed around” by those darn mindset problems. Problems can be very sticky and cause us to spend a lot of time
trying to unstick ourselves from them. If can feel very frustrating and too often futile, like no matter what we do, they
just keep showing up. We will be teaching you a way to get unstuck and minimize, if not even stop the constant
battle. Try this:
Instead of saying… Say this:
“I am so lazy. I never get my
homework done on time.”
“Laziness sneaks up on me and
convinces me that it’s okay to watch
YouTube videos instead of doing my
Two things are happening here:
» First, it’s safe to assume there has been at least one time you got your homework done on time (maybe
even two). So that statement isn’t even true!
» Second, if you call yourself lazy all the time, laziness begins driving your vehicle. It wants you to call
yourself lazy and it wants you to avoid getting your homework done. Maybe this paid off as a child when
you wanted to avoid discomfort or something overwhelming, but it’s outdated and not sensitive to your
goals and dreams. Laziness is living in the past but is first in line to show up when you have a task to
perform. Laziness represents an outdated way to emotionally self-regulate.
Figure 11. Recognize that you are
not your worry, or anger, or anxiety,
or procrastination. Rather, these
problems are the problems.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 93
Depression Is Not Interested in Your Goals and Dreams
First generation college graduate and current freelance writer Eva Recinos shared that she struggled with a
tremendous sense of guilt and pressure to succeed that eventually led to depression:
“If your college career doesn’t pan out perfectly, you aren’t just letting yourself down. You’re letting your
entire family down. But I couldn’t keep striving to be the perfect student while completely ignoring my
In her article, “How it feels to be a first-generation college student dealing with depression,” Recinos highlighted
that guilt and pressure (leading to depression) did not want the same thing for her life that she did and whether
she knew it or not, she was externalizing her problems.7 Here is her externalizing statement:
“Depression doesn’t care about your privilege or lack thereof. It doesn’t ask you for information about
your grades or your extracurricular activities. It wants nothing more than to consume your interiority, no
matter your outside successes or dreams.”
Recinos is right. Depression is not interested in your goals or dreams or the context of your life. The only thing
that it is invested in is dominating your beliefs. That’s what problems do—they seek to dominate. It’s up to us to
keep them from doing this.
Here are more examples of externalizing statements:
“Worry really likes to take my thoughts hostage after I’ve made an important decision. It thinks it’s helping me by
reminding me that everything that could go wrong just might, and to doubt myself is a way to stay safe by being
“Procrastination works to convince me that important work is always better left until tomorrow. Living for the moment
is preferable because I won’t risk feeling uncomfortable and being unprepared to tackle a task as well as I think I
should be able to. Procrastination, like laziness is trying to help me emotionally self-regulate and procrastination is
often bosom buddies with perfectionism.”
“Anger has a way of knowing when I am most tired, hungry, and lonely. It wants to be the powerful voice of more
vulnerable feelings I have been carrying around, like hurt, rejection, or frustration.”
Externalizing Emotions that Have Become Problems
Emotions are something we experience, they are not who we are. The thing about emotions, however, is that they are so
captivating. When we feel them strongly, it can feel next to impossible to have any perspective at all. It’s like when we’re
laughing and happy and feeling deeply connected to friends or family; in those moments, feelings of sadness and isolation can
feel so utterly distant and remote. Conversely, when we are feeling nervous or sad or overwhelmed, attempting to tap into joy
can feel like you’re being asked to speak a foreign language you have never heard spoken before.
As a college student, you will be challenged, and for many of us, when we experience great challenge, we also feel great
emotion. If difficult emotions stay, without allowing for other more neutral or pleasant emotions to surface, and when their
attempt to dominate persists, they can develop into problems. And you know what we say about problems.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 94
Identifying Your Main Problem
To kickstart externalizing problems, start with identifying your main problem. This might feel like a lot of pressure, like
“What if I pick the wrong one?” Well, there really is no wrong one. Sure, some problems might be bigger than others,
or show up more than others, but the cool thing is, even if you start by “picking the wrong one,” it’s really no big deal
because you can easily replace it with the real or bigger problem should that reveal itself later. And, over the course
of time, problems can shift and change. It’s in practicing how to externalize our problems in general that you are
equipping yourself to more effectively manage the influence of all mindset problems.
Again, this is mindset stuff; avoid choosing problems like finances, academics, or medical issues; those things are real
and are of course problems, but the following exercise won’t work if you’re choosing situational problems. However,
the sooner you get proficient in mastering your mindset problems, the more effective you will be in managing your
situational problems. Consider math as an example. Math is a situational problem. We can’t make math go away, but
we can certainly actively engage in minimizing avoidance—which is a mindset problem—in relationship to the reality
of needing to pass math.
Establishing a New Relationship To Your Problem
In many video games, you need to know your opponent: what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it thinks
(and more importantly, what it tries to get you to think). Again, your problem may not have malevolent intent like a
video game enemy, but it is certainly often misguided and out of alignment with who you are working to become. In
order to outsmart it, and keep it from occupying the driver’s seat along your journey, it’s important to become better
acquainted with it. Here are some ways to go about doing that.
Hear Your Problem
» If it had a voice, what would it sound like?”
» If it had a theme song, what would it be?
» If it had a quote, what would it be?
When you’re trying to accomplish something or follow through on something
important—especially if that task is hard, or you feel like life is extra stressful or
maybe even boring—what does your problem try to convince you of:
» About yourself?
» About life?
» About the possibility of being a successful student?
Now that you’re on the path to becoming more acquainted with your problem and you can perhaps see it and hear it
more clearly, the next step is to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the influence of the problem. The
reason for doing this is two-fold:
» To prepare you. The more you understand the ways in which the problem is affecting your current life,
your goals, and even the people around you, the better prepared you can be in managing it.
» To motivate you. Taking a serious inventory of the sheer extent of the influence of your problem often
generates motivation. It can be extremely energizing to experience that “enough is enough” moment
which, for many, has the benefit of increasing their commitment to take action and reclaim their lives.
These kinds of moments can evoke emotion, and it is often emotion that moves us to action!
Understand the Influence of the Problem
» When your problem is taking over and winning, what is it trying to
convince other people about you?
» What are you most tired of putting up with that your problem causes
when it gets the best of you?
» Does your problem want the same thing for your future that you do?
» How would you prefer things to be in your life currently and in the future?
Returning to using avoidance as an example, following is what responses to the above questions might sound like,
given Angela’s experience with avoidance.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 95
Angela’s Relationship to Avoidance
When Angela left the financial aid office without receiving the assistance she needed, she told herself that she
would make sure to either go online to try to schedule an appointment, or call the office to make an appointment
with whomever picked up the phone. But, as the week moved forward, she kept finding herself avoiding that
task. Whenever she remembered, she would tell herself that she would do it later. As each day passed, later was
pushed out yet another day.
She did not like to remember and yet again feel the feelings she experienced while at the financial aid office
earlier in the week (embarrassment and shyness), and she did not like how thinking about finances made her feel
in general (overwhelmed, scared). So, when those uncomfortable feelings arose, avoidance would immediately
swoop in and come to her rescue—for the moment. It was as if it was saying to her, “You don’t need to feel those
feelings now; just avoid them and distract yourself. Tomorrow is a much better time to take action than today.”
Let’s lead Angela through an externalizing exercise by using the questions we posed above in relationship to her
battle with avoidance:
Question: When your problem of avoidance is taking over and winning, what is it trying to convince other
people about you?
Answer: It is trying to convince other people that I am timid and scared, not serious about school, or
that I am less capable or immature. It works to convince people that I need a babysitter, or
someone to rescue me because I am not to be trusted with the responsibilities in my life. It
makes people feel like they need to constantly hound me, which makes our relationship really
tense and resentful for both of us.
Question: What are you most tired of putting up with that your problem causes when it gets the best of
Answer: I am most tired of feeling bad about myself. I am tired of doubting myself and feeling guilty
that I should be more responsible, but continually not following through. The problem takes
a really big toll on my self-esteem. It’s super manipulative though, because it seduces me into
only thinking about the moment; it tells me that it is helping me when it is actually only making
things harder for me in the long run.
Question: Does your problem want the same thing for your future that you do?
Answer: Not at all. The problem wants me to avoid taking risks and to continue doing what I have
always done because it’s safe and predictable. My problem keeps me small and likes me to
remain small and timid. It’s like the problem wants me to stay young for some reason. I want
more for my life. I want to feel more self-respect and dignity and I want people to trust me and
see that I can do more and be more. I want to succeed at the things I am passionate about.
EXTERNALIZING THE PROBLEM | 96
1 Swart, Tara (2018). “The 4 Underlying Principles to Changing Your Brain.” Forbes, May
27. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/taraswart/2018/03/27/the-4-underlying-
2 “Neuroplasticity.” Sentis Brain Animation Series. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/
3 Pillay, Srini. Masterclass Relationship Video Guide. Retrieved from https://drsrinipillay.com/
4 “Working Against Self-Limiting Beliefs: The A to F Model.” Redpoint Business
Coaching. Retrieved from http://www.redpointcoaching.com/resources/documents/Self-
5 “The Neuropsychology of Eating Interview with Dr. Srini Pillay.” Institute for the Psychology
of Eating. Retrieved from https://psychologyofeating.com/the-neuropsychology-of-eating-
6 Gilbert, Elizabeth (2016). “A Letter to Fear.” SALT Project. Retrieved from https://www.
7 Racinos, Eva (2018). “How it feels to be a first-generation college student dealing with
depression.” Hello Giggles, July 9. Retrieved from https://hellogiggles.com/lifestyle/first-
The Proof Is in Brain Science
Neuroplasticity, cognitive reframing, and externalizing your problems represent what we imagine will be significant
shifts both in your understanding of how your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs shape your experiences and potential
success, but also significant shifts in your thinking habits.
For this reason, give it time, and if you need to revisit this chapter more than once, it is here to concretize your
learning process. As you continue into Chapter 6 and beyond, these elements of the narrative approach will serve as
the building blocks from which you can employ further learning and practice. But, rest assured, having gotten this far,
you are already well on your way to updating your narrative to reflect the best of who you are now, where you want to
be, and how you are going to get there. Problems will continue to surface and stressors will continue to be a part of
your life. The main ingredient that is changing is your ability to think about them differently and see yourself as more
competent in the face of them. Hey, it’s basic brain science.