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 valued. As a result we have learnt to look inwards for the solutions to our problems, fulfilment and purpose. Whilst there is certainly worth in looking inwards to better understand ourselves (introspection), it’s becoming increasingly important that we remember the importance of balance.

By looking inwards, through self reflection or someone elses support we can become familiar with our beliefs and values and better understand how our actions are affected by our feelings. This can at times help us to make some sense of our own stories or liberate us from our a perspective we were stuck in without even realising.

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 with. As a result of cultural pressures to be self-reliant we might also blame ourselves for any failure or lack of progress and become yet more self-critical and despairing. This can bring us to a painful place where we feel stuck or trapped and islolate ourselves from others.

Losing balance

If we lose a sense of balance with understanding the importance of our place in relationships with people 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 can start to see others as obstacles in our path and we might become more self absorbed or selfish without realising. Similarly if we become focused solely on helping others we might neglect our own health or needs as is so often the case.

The idea of achieving insight into a feeling or problem is a common one in the world of mental health, but we may have become over reliant on this idea. Again with insight we see the suggestion that the answers to our problems are all internal. Whilst it may sound a little woolly, at times shifts in feelings can occur through the process of relating to someone rather than digging 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.

Low moods and lost balance

Experiencing low moods, depression or other mental health issues can dramatically upset the balance in our outlook. It often makes us stuck looking inwards, unintentionally becoming self-absorbed as a result. 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 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 only makes for further loneliness.

This dynamic can at times lead to blame from both sides, and the slow slide of once healthy relationships. As a friend or relative, spending time with someone who struggles with feelings of self-loathing or is constantly 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, 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 society or simply to better understand people close to us.

burn outWithout 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.

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.

Without our own wellbeing we can’t help others

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 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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