Internal vs. External Focus

Human beings possess the capacity for critical, self-reflective, thought. At its best, this internal process is really quite amazing. It's one of the qualities that helps us love and connect deeply with each other. It allows for personal growth and technological innovation. It helps us empathize with others. We are lucky to possess the capacity to think so deeply. At its worst, however, the same process of internal focus can be debilitating and life-interfering. It can lead to anxiety, panic, fear, and depression, amongst other things.  

Conversely, consider the canine who lives an externally focused existence: Dogs are not overly concerned with how they are viewed by strangers. Our beloved pets do not experience existential crisis or ponder their impending deaths late into the night. Instead, dogs live their lives focused on their immediate external worlds. Eat, sleep, mate, relax in the sun, play etc. Because of this, they are able to live quite contentedly, free from the mental health strife that we as humans often confront at some point in our lives. We could learn a lot from dogs. Their ability to stay present and recover from past stress/trauma, their openness to whatever new people have to offer, be it lavish treats or simple scratches behind the ears. In many ways, the lack of brain development serves them.

The lesson here seems to be that we need a balance of internal and external focus. We can use the same introspection that causes us problems for the good of assessing this balance. The percentage of time spent inwardly turned vs. focused on the external world will vary with each unique individual, but it seems that we all have a particular balance where we move through life most contentedly. Perhaps the measure of good health is not sitting perfectly in the middle, rather, wellness is about noticing when we are trending too far inward or outward and making a correction. Noticing and correcting quickly show a measure of flexibility that will undoubtedly enhance one's life. 

You may be too internally focused if you:

  • find yourself spinning out about certain thoughts (fixating)
  • have trouble sleeping at night, due to this kind of rumination
  • are spending large amounts of time by yourself
  • are not aware of your surroundings
  • feel disconnected from other people and your environment
  • are experiencing Anxiety, Depression, Panic Attacks etc. 
  • only want to engage in "what is the meaning of life?" type of conversations
  • never ask other people about what is going on in their lives
  • feel annoyed by everyone and everything
  • have a desire to live in a vacuum or join a monastery 

You may be too externally focused if you:

  • don't have a clear sense of your likes/dislikes (preferences)
  • feel passionless and purposeless
  • are regularly using drugs, alcohol, exercise, food etc. to numb out and/or cope
  • never check-in with yourself about hunger and rest cues
  • rarely, if ever, engage in self-care activities
  • feel the need to be constantly engaged socially
  • are overly concerned with your appearance
  • have trouble being alone
  • find yourself mindlessly scrolling on social media sites
  • avoid silence and stillness at all costs

Most of us move back and forth along a spectrum of these different types of focus. It's our job to notice when we're trending too far to one side or the other so that we can find balance and live a life of moderation where we intentionally move between internal and external focus in order to maximize our experience as humans.