Rejoining Joy

Ways of living

Lighting and Lightening

Moving toward authenticity.

Trianna felt a lifeless burden on the inside pulling her down. It felt like a dark region in the middle of her self that stopped her from being herself. She was sure people noticed and that they wondered what was wrong with her. She wanted to change and become happier, but did not know where to begin. Her husband and child would be happier too, she thought, if she could only start.

Billy was wild and knew it. He enjoyed his reputation as someone who could not sit still and who could not be counted on. He felt that there was a pounding, heavy drum keeping away the calm side. But after his last brawl in which he had his lovely nose broken because he had tried to bum a cigarette, he decided that he should shape up and get a job. However, he asked himself where to begin.

Probably, you recognize these scenarios or know people who fit them. You might be a person who is more internalizing and prone to depression and anxiety or you might be a person who is more externalizing and liable to get angry and in trouble. However, each of us has both sides to different degrees even if one predominates, so it is best that you learn how to deal with both of them when they get out of hand.

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The best strategy you should use when your behavior is at the extreme is to seek the middle ground. If you are too internalizing, you should concentrate on what helps to make you brighter on the inside instead of darker. If you become too externalizing, you should do what it takes to act with more restraint and feel lighter on people instead heavier on them.

Lighting and lightening are strategies that can lead to more balance in both internal feelings and outer actions. The doom and gloom can become more zoom and boom, and without being overbearing and aggressive with people. Or, the anger and troubles that follow you might recede so that you become more regulated and motivated.

You might jump from one side of the equation to the other, and go from being externalizing to internalizing, or vice versa. If your mood pendulum swings quickly like that, it might be hard for it to find more balance that lasts with little effort. It might be exhausting for you to fight the extremes in your mood and behavior if you do not know where you can find the middle and how to get there.

Many of your attitudes, actions, thoughts, and feelings are automatic ones that repeat because they are easier to use and they have worked in getting you through the day. However, as much as you keep repeating them, they never seem to work all the time in helping you in the situations of the day. Indeed, sometimes they cause either you or other people great distress. Think of your supervisor or boss coming down too hard on you and you just take it and try to learn what he wants. However, when you get home you break down and cry and no one can help. Or, think of your colleague trying to take advantage of you and you automatically tell him off, even though the supervisor or boss is nearby. Later in the day, to try to relax, you need a few drinks, but you clue out when your child asks for help with homework.

The behaviors and ideas that you have might be automatic because you want to chunk or reduce them after they become habits that you use frequently, so you can use them without thinking too much. This process is adaptive, or good for your psychology, because it leaves you room to learn other behaviors and ideas.

However, other types of automatic behaviors and ideas develop because they stop growth rather than help it. For example, in becoming less automatic, you might free buried memories that seep through with the lifting of the automaticity in behavior. Freeing one part of behavior to gain flexibility might free other parts that you might have wanted to stay buried because you are not ready to deal with them, the time is not right, they are hurtful, and so on. Indeed, they might have been buried so deeply in your psychology that they are unconscious memories and normally you are not aware of them and they are not accessible.

For example, you might internalize not only because it is part of your basic personality tendencies but also because you had been abused and had to be quiet during the abuse to the best that you could, or it was so depressing each time it happened. In contrast, you might externalize because it is more than a basic personality pattern of yours—for example, you had been hit so hard so many times as a youngster that you developed a rage that now comes out easily.

In either case, you could have continued to get on with your day as a child, go to school, not share what was happening with your teachers or classmates, and so on. As the teen years passed into the adult years, your habitual ways of dealing with people and problems became automatic in either the internalizing or externalizing direction, or both, You buried the causes as too hurtful to confront and the people who caused your suffering as too difficult to confront. 

When you begin to realize that the time for positive change has arrived or that you should prepare for it, there will be a world of hurts that might be released and some that are totally unanticipated. You might uncover deep secrets about yourself or your family, aside from learning about the hurts that you had felt and how vulnerable seemed your life and the world. However, in the process of wanting to change, you will learn how much there is a positive side of you that wants to grow and come to terms with the past no matter how hard it is going to be. You are your best change agent. Other people and sources can help you, but the great voyage of change is yours to undertake. Once it starts, you will sail into the brighter seas and lighter waves of your future. 

Trianna and Billy have started out on their trips of change, and the seas are leading to a middle ground in their mood, attitude, actions, and thoughts. This ground is a surer one to stand on, and people will feel comfortable standing on it with them.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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