Looking inwards vs Looking Outwards : Finding Balance

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Within the past century in the West in particular we have become consumed with a more individualistic way of life. Self-reliance and independence have become increasingly highly valued. As a result we have learnt to look increasingly inwards for the solutions to our problems, fulfilment and purpose. Whilst there is certainly worth in looking inwards to better understand ourselves (introspection), it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to remember the importance of balance.

By looking inwards, through dialogue with ourselves or the support of another we can become familiar with our beliefs and values and perhaps better understand our actions and feelings. This dialogue can at times help us to make some sense of our own stories or liberate us from our own prejudice and how this impacts upon our life.

introspectionHowever, if we become absorbed with looking inwards alone as a means of understanding our lives, we may fail to understand others, our relation to them and the many outside pressures we live within. As a result of the pressures to be self-reliant we might also find ourselves to blame for any failure or lack of progress and become yet more self-critical and despairing. This can bring us to a state of constant rumination.

If we lose a sense of balance with understanding the importance of our place in relationships with those close to us, we can feel less connected and more isolated. Understanding others and our place within our family, relationships and community requires us to practice empathy and look outwards (outrospection*) as well as inwards. Without this we may start to see others as obstacles in the way of our needs and our behaviour may start to reflect this. Similarly if we become focused solely on our worth to others we might neglect our own health.

The problem with too much looking inwards (Introspection)

Whilst the concept of having or achieving insight into a feeling or problem is a common one in the world of mental health, we may have become over reliant on this notion. Again with insight we see the suggestion that the answers to our ills are internal. Whilst it may not seem logical, at times shifts in feelings can occur through the process of relating to someone rather than delving around inside for insight (or as a combination of the two). Insight can at times require us to dig around looking for a concrete solution to a fluid problem, whereas the act of relating allows us to constantly explore in a state of uncertainty until something shifts.

Experiencing low moods, depression or other mental health issues can dramatically upset the balance in our outlook. It may increase our tendency to look inwards, unintentionally becoming self-absorbed as a result. This often brings about further problems of its own for both the person experiencing the issue and their support network.

Naturally if you are struggling with your moods and feeling more sensitive you are likely to be more preoccupied with how you are feeling, why you may be feeling this way and how to cope. It’s only natural to be less aware of the nuances of your relationships if you are hyperaware of your own stuff or consumed with your feelings.

lone manThis combined with the natural inclination to withdraw ourselves from people when we feel low can give others the impression that we don’t want to see them or we have little interest in their lives. This might begin to build resentment or simply give the impression that our relationship is a one way street. Should this become a cycle it can bring about a gradual decline in relationships as misunderstandings, frustration and ill feeling build on both sides.

In return as the one struggling with your feelings, you may experience this gradual distancing of friends or family as further proof that there must be something wrong with you or that you are always being let down, which can exacerbate loneliness and already painful feelings.

This dynamic can at times lead to blame from both sides, and the slow disintegration of once healthy relationships. As a friend or relative of someone who is finding things very hard, spending time with someone who struggles with feelings of self-loathing or at times finds it hard to be anything other than negative, without losing patience or presence, is very challenging. There should be no shame in admitting this and no guilt brought in being the supported party. If there is one guarantee in life, it is that we will all need someone’s support at times in our life. There are no medals or plaudits for going through dark times unsupported, neither are there any for having supported someone; yet if you support someone through their darkest times and allow them to feel heard when others may judge or blame, it will be remembered.

As the great Maya Angelou said ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel’

This knowledge can help those supporting someone to understand that this lack of interaction or interest is often not intentional and knowing this can allow us to be more forgiving and compassionate as a result. Whilst it may also allow those who are struggling, to understand the reason people may seem distant, rather than think they are somehow unworthy of friendship. Open, honest dialogue and a willingness to cope with uncomfortable feelings can be powerful in maintaining and even strengthening bonds during times of distress.

The problem with only looking outward (Outrospection*)

As with introspection there are major benefits to our ability to use Outrospection on both a personal, local and global level. We can learn to understand others better, become more empathetic, develop closer bonds and feel part of something bigger than ourselves through a sense of community. Outrospection and the pursuit of empathy are absolutely requirements if we wish to have a fairer and more just society.

burn outWhilst that is the case, without some sense of balance, some knowledge of the self, we are unaware of beliefs or feelings which may hold us back or keep us in a state of distress. If we struggle with feelings of low self-worth, we may also have a powerful need to put others needs before our own, to the extent we may become burnt out and put our own mental health further at risk.

Many who have experienced or still are experiencing distressing periods or events find renewed purpose through a desire to help others. Clearly this is no bad thing, but without balance it can impact heavily upon our own well being.

We have to consider that without well being we can’t help others, and without being able to help others, we lose this new sense of purpose. For some it is simply too difficult or painful to look inwards, so looking outwards becomes a way of coping. We may be more likely to seek worth through pleasing others as a result and disregarding ourselves. In a way we might start to lose a sense of our own identity and instead define ourselves by the help we can offer.

If it is too painful to look inwards at the things you know bring you shame or anxiety, too difficult to accept that you deserve some good in life, or your relationships are disintegrating and you don’t understand why,  then it may be time to seek out some support to help you in finding this elusive ongoing balance.

In Summary here are some points to consider:

  • Be aware those who are struggling  may at times be unintentionally self-absorbed. Try to be compassionate towards this.
  • If someone you are close to repeatedly turns down social engagements, try to look beyond yourself and show concern without taking this personally.
  • Understand that shame and blame are destructive in relationships.
  • Be aware that your health is just as important as the health of others, you cannot continually support others without some support for yourself.
  • Realise that your world view and beliefs can keep you stuck in a painful place if you aren’t aware of them.
  • Accept that all of us will require support at many points in life. This can help rather than hinder relationships if we can avoid blame.

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*As defined by Roman Krznaric in Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

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