Being an Inside-Out Person

downloadHumans have a very special skill. In addition to sensing real danger, we can also imagine potential danger. It’s an evolutionary advantage to be able to predict how people will respond to us. I’ve never stood on a table in a restaurant and thrown my food at someone. I’ve never watched anyone else do this. But my anxiety tells me that this would be bad news for Kathleen. So I avoid embarrassing myself in public or getting arrested.

Sometimes, however, we rely too much on this adaptation. By being outside-focused, all of our actions orient towards preventing rejection, failure, or awkwardness. Have you ever stressed yourself out because the house didn’t look perfect for company? Did you not pursue a potential friendship because the other person might not be interested? Have you failed to share a belief because everyone in your friend group will disagree?

My book is now finished, and my anxiety has begun to focus on how it will be received. Easily I can imagine how critics, colleagues, or strangers on the Internet might disagree with my thinking. In my brain, I’m already running damage control, trying to debate with them and change their minds. I could be using this energy to further clarify my own thinking or become a better writer. Instead, I’m fighting imaginary dragons.

A true sign of emotional maturity is the ability to share what you believe or what you’re going to do without managing the reaction. Dr. Bowen called this taking an “I position.”

The “I-position” defines principle and action in terms of “This is what I think or believe,” and, ”This is what I will do or not do,” without impinging one’s own values or beliefs on others. 

When you create something, people get to critique it. When you announce your college major at Thanksgiving, your family will have an earful for you. People always will be reacting to your existence in the world, but where is your attention? Are you focused on living out your beliefs and values, or selling them to the most attractive bidder?

When you spend a majority of your brain energy trying to keep people happy, you have little left to pursue what’s important to you. You also miss out on the hard work of defining what you really believe.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it looks like for me to live an inside-out life—to lead with my own thinking and beliefs instead of the reactions of others. For me, it looks like having a roadmap before I enter territory where I’ll be tempted to try and please everyone. If I don’t have clearly defined ideas about how I want to act, and how I don’t want to act, then it’s almost certain that my anxiety will run the show. Because you can’t define yourself to other people until you sit down and define yourself to you.

Here are some examples of living an inside-out life versus an outside-in one:

Outside-In: Writing thank you notes because people will talk if you don’t.
Inside-Out: Calling people to thank them, because you appreciate expressing gratitude in conversation.

Outside-In: Working hard to convince your partner to marry you.
Inside-Out: Taking time to define what marriage will require of you.

Outside-In: Nodding along with a relative’s ill-informed opinion.
Inside-Out: Sharing what you believe, without trying to convince them.

One of my guiding principles is that I will pursue a creative life without trying to manage people’s responses. This sounds lovely, but it is so difficult. One day, I’d like to be able to welcome criticism like you might greet a tough trainer at the gym. I can spend my life trying to avoid pushback, or I can accept its inevitability and use it to my advantage.

This week I’d like you to think about how people’s imaginary reactions dictate your behavior, from your political and religious beliefs, to your career choices, to what hat you put on when you leave the house. If you were guided by your beliefs instead, how would you act differently at work or with your family? I imagine it will take a lifetime, but slowly I’m learning to lower the curtain on my imaginary audience and act from the inside-out.

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