Learning to Live From the Inside Out

Simple practices can help you gain more control over your inner experience.

Posted Aug 21, 2017

Working with clients who suffer from addiction has given me valuable insight into the power of dependence and its crippling effects. To live at the mercy of a substance or other stimulus is disempowering, damaging, and draining. But, of course, people who live with addiction aren’t the only ones who know what it’s like to be dependent. In many respects, all of us are familiar with dependence to varying degrees. Naturally, we depend on many things to get through the day. We depend on our alarm clocks to go off at the right time in the morning; we depend on other drivers to stay in their respective lanes on the road; we depend on our workplaces to stay in business so we can continue to make a living; we depend on our loved ones to provide support in our times of need. But depending on these kinds of things—which is part and parcel of everyday living—isn’t harmful; in fact, it facilitates the flow of our lives. There’s another form of dependence, however, that has a much different effect. It’s the kind by which outside forces—like life circumstances and relationships—completely dictate our internal state, hindering our capacity to manage ourselves and our emotions.

The term dependence can be a confusing one, as it’s typically used within the context of substance dependence or co-dependence. Although it’s somewhat similar in the way it manifests, the kind of dependence I’m talking about isn’t necessarily either of those things—therefore, I tend to refer to it instead as outside-in-living. Living from the outside in is exactly what it sounds like: what occurs outside dictates what happens inside. This can take many forms: having your entire day ruined any time something inconvenient or unfavorable happens; feeling bored, or totally lost, unless you’re stimulated or entertained; having your emotions completely dictated by your relationships; or lacking any sense of who you are or what you want. No matter how it shows up, outside-in living is uncomfortable, at best, and excruciating at worst. But, of course, it isn’t the only way to live.

As social creatures, we’re naturally influenced by our relationships, and our nature compels us to take cues from the outside world in order to effectively navigate our lives. But this doesn’t mean we have to relinquish control. It’s possible to gain command over our own internal experience by beginning to live from the inside out. This is a lifetime’s work, and something we shouldn’t expect ourselves to perfect; but a few simple practices can begin to reverse the course, helping us generate a sense of centered clarity and emotional independence.

Develop a Mindfulness Practice — This is a foundational first step that will support any other steps you take in the direction of developing an inside-out approach to life. Mindfulness, in essence, is the practice of intentionally paying attention to your in-the-moment experience, with a spirit of acceptance and non-judgment. The more attention you place on your internal world and everything that unfolds within it from moment to moment, the more you'll learn about who you are and what you want. A dedicated mindfulness practice can also support you in managing yourself and determining your internal state. As things come at you from the outside, you’ll be able to check in with yourself, notice what you’re experiencing, and masterfully respond accordingly. If you’re new to mindfulness, pick up a simple guide (like this one, or this one) to learn the basics and begin your personal practice.    

Check Your Filter — Everything that happens in your life is essentially neutral: it’s a series of events that unfolds, without much inherent meaning apart from what you ascribe to it. In essence, it’s your assessment and interpretation of what happens that determines the way you experience it. Your beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and past experiences collectively constitute a sort of filter, through which all of your experiences flow. While it’s easy to get caught up in the outside stuff, blaming circumstances or other people for the way you feel, it’s possible to take more responsibility and command over your life by turning your focus inward instead. Checking your filter regularly, by tuning in to the story you’re telling yourself about what’s happening—and the corresponding feelings it’s producing within you—is a useful and important way to start living from the inside-out.

Practice Responding Rather Than Reacting — Once you’ve gotten in the habit of turning inward and tuning in to your inner experience, you can begin to respond to the outside world in different, perhaps more empowering ways. An important practice to keep in mind is that of responding rather than reacting. This means intentionally creating a gap between what happens and what you do about it. Reacting occurs instinctively and automatically; when we’re reactive, we allow ourselves to become enslaved by our circumstances, thus engaging unconsciously in the outside-in dynamic. Responding, on the other hand, involves giving ourselves some space and time to let in what’s happened and mindfully consider the best course of action to take. The more you practice responding rather than reacting, the more capable you’ll become of staying in the driver’s seat of your life.

Seek Serenity — The oft-repeated Serenity Prayer, known well by those in Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups, is an invocation to know the difference between what can be controlled and what cannot. It’s about living intentionally, with an ongoing awareness of when it’s time to take action and when it’s time to surrender. It’s been my experience as a clinician that people who invite the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer into their lives on a regular basis are able to feel more in command of their experience, less easily tossed around by the waves of their lives. Seeking the wisdom to know the difference between what is and isn’t within your control can be an empowering practice—one that allows you to more serenely surf those waves, instead of being at their mercy.

Inside-out living doesn’t operate according to a one-size-fits-all model. It isn’t a prescription for a problem-free life, and it isn’t a way to eliminate all dependence on the outside world. Instead, it’s an invitation to access a clearer, more centered sense of command over your life—one that’s likely to bring about more peace and more possibilities.    

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