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You Have an Inner World: So What?

Harnessing the Wisdom of Inside Out

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

It seems like the idea of “inside-out” psychology is all the rage in America this year. From Pixar’s recently released animated film Inside Out to the Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the idea that we each have a lively, complex emotional inner world is hot, hot, hot! And I, for one, am a fan and a true believer.

Now, I know that both of these shows were in production long before my book, Wisdom from the Couch, was published one short year ago, in June 2014. So I can’t really claim that they stole my idea or anything. But “Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside, Out” was my (sub)title. First. Just sayin’.

Actually, I’m just kidding. While I might have coined the phrase as a clever subtitle for my book, it would be far from the truth to say that I invented it. Psychologist Larry Crabb titled his book, Inside Out, back in 1988, and there’ve been a few good mystery novels and even a series by the title, too.

One could even say that my psychoanalytic hero, Sigmund Freud, was an early proponent of inside-out psychology, as he excavated the buried but living unconscious inner world. And my psychoanalytic she-ro, Melanie Klein, spelled it out further by saying that we each have an unconscious internal world populated by our feelings, experiences, and memories that we experience in a very concrete way, as if various versions of ourselves and others are alive inside us. She even had the conception of this inner world being the control center of our lives with “internal objects” managed by these different parts of ourselves. From a psychoanalyst’s point of view, Pixar nailed it.

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

But even psychoanalysts weren’t the first to conceptualize our emotional lives in this way. Take your religious figures like Jesus, Buddha, and Moses and your great philosophers like Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle. They each knew something about inner hearts where meaning is born and inner thoughts that guide our outward actions.

Here are just a few bits of this kind of timeless wisdom about inside-out psychology:

  1. Psychology goes hand in hand with biology in what makes us human. The control center is not just a brain with its biochemistry and neural pathways; it is a mind with complex, nuanced emotional, social, and unconscious meaning-making activity.
  2. We all have complex feelings that exist side by side. In my book, I say it this way: “Aggression and desire, envy and gratitude, hope and dread are roommates in the inner world.” That goes for joy and sadness, disgust, aggression, and fear, too.
  3. Psychological growth comes when these conflicting feelings become integrated with one another. Joy is touched by sadness, in a way that helps joy to become deeper and love to be more real. Sadness is touched by joy, in a way that facilitates caring and bonding with others.
  4. Psychological troubles come when we disown aspects of ourselves. Feelings like anger, fear, and disgust are signal feelings that keep us safe; without them, we lack direction. Feelings like sadness and joy give us a sense that our lives have meaning; without them, we lack a sense of being real. Psychologically, we fade and crumble when we do not make room for all of the feelings and aspects of ourselves, painful though they may sometimes be.
  5. Early experiences in life affect us. They form memories that become “core memories.” The earlier they happen and the more powerful the feelings that are associated with them, the more they become the bedrocks of our personalities.
  6. These core memories can be changed over time. While the facts of the past can’t change, how we view them, how we feel about them, and the stories that we tell ourselves about them can change. Such changes affect our experience of the past which impacts the memory itself—and it is the memory that we take with us and shapes who we are. This kind of change is what I call inner transformation and is, in essence, the kind of change that depth psychotherapy like psychoanalysis aims to bring about. This is what it means to grow from the “inside-out.”

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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For more of Jennifer's wisdom, check out her book Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out and her website