We all have private internal experiences (emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, and impulses), which we keep to ourselves, only sharing to a certain few. Having appropriate boundaries like this is healthy and necessary for effectively negotiating the world.
But some of us have a harder time than others showing up ‘in our skin’ so to speak – fully present with both others and ourselves. Our well-worn emotional habits create a façade and a mis-match between inside and out.
One of those habits is the social veneer of confidence and competence, which actually belies a softer, more vulnerable inside. So, what’s going on behind the façade? Most importantly, how does the mismatch derail us in our relationships, our goals, and living a purpose driven life?
The “I Don’t Care” Defense.
Angie came into my office, well put together and articulate for her 23 years. She appeared poised and confident in fact. But as I pulled for answers about how she was feeling and what her needs were, I found it difficult to get a sense of what was going on with her.
She said verbally that she ‘wanted help with her emotions.’ But sitting in front of me, her words didn’t seem to match her demeanor. I leaned in. I queried. I searched her eyes for understanding. But I noticed an uncharacteristic difficulty connecting to her.
I found myself searching for what she was not showing me. After all she did seek my services as a psychologist. But the mere suggestion of a vulnerability on her part elicited tension in her voice and body language.
Angie went on to tell me about some of the difficulties she had with others causing her emotions. She mostly struggled with irritation and anxiety, but also went through periods of loneliness and sadness due to her troubled relationships.
“You know,” she said, “when someone is just vibing you? Its like they’re trying to pull you into their stuff! Who needs that?”
“What is that like for you when that happens?” I asked. “How do you respond?”
“I just shut them out. I try to ignore it. I act like I don’t care or even notice. But it doesn’t always work.” She said, “That’s why I want you to teach me skills to learn how to not let them effect me.”
The ‘Apparent Competence’ Façade.
In the years since Angie first came into my office, I have seen this apparent competence pattern of autopilot habit show up fairly frequently. To the outside observer, the user of this habit may seem… well as I described Angie above.
Particularly to a person seeking authentic engagement, the apparent competent may come across not fully engaged, maybe somewhat superficial, and certainly not very connected or interested in others. As one person once described it, “It’s like she’s 2D.”
But before we start judging, let’s go a little deeper, shall we? If you love someone like this, or are someone like this, it might be helpful to understand this autopilot mode a bit better, so that you may be more skillful when it shows up!
Peeking Behind the Façade
As we travel this journey called life, from a very young age we all start noticing how others react to us. We humans naturally and automatically do more of what is rewarded and less of what is punished. This is completely normal and even appropriate, for a while.
Depending on our upbringing and environment, showing vulnerability is just one of many things that may be punished or rewarded. When showing vulnerability is overly punished or dismissed, and performance is overly prioritized, the resulting autopilot is often this apparent competence habit pattern.
Think about it for a second. In your own life, how often do you turn to the outside to influence your emotions and motivation on the inside? We binge watch Netflix, troll social media to distract ourselves, text friends or mom for reassurance….The list of outside to inside emotional control strategies is endless.
Again, some of this is absolutely the correct way to be effective. We stop at the red light, work for a paycheck, set deadlines, etc.
So this habit pattern can work quite well for a while, which is part of why it is so problematic. Looking to the outside for reinforcement that we are ok, may even promote pro-social, success driven, even dynamic personality traits. But, what are we missing when we prioritize looking to the outside, rather than the inside for direction?
The Cost of the Façade.
When we prioritize the outside over the inside, we may miss out on important opportunities to discover our purpose, connect authentically with others, and live a life of vitality and joy.
When there is a mismatch between your insides and your outsides, your well-being and life direction are being chosen for you by circumstances. If you think about it, outside reinforcements are extremely subject to change and unpredictability. Like an endless game of whack-a-mole, we can spend our lives tap dancing for approval and/or avoiding possible failures.
Like an addict, we can become overly dependent upon a constant fix of outside reinforcements (i.e. likes, approval, reassurances, status, beauty, promotions, etc.). You are in habit driven emotional reactivity rather than making conscious mindful choices, moment to moment from a deeper sense of meaning.
In other words, our outside doesn’t match our inside. The face we are showing, the actions we are taking, what others see is not representative of the inside, since we ourselves are not in contact with the inside!
In Angie’s case, she had grown up in a family that had exceptionally high standards for performance and little tolerance for displays of vulnerability. So her façade self was to automatically assume an appearance of impenetrability.
Not exactly what is needed in therapy. But more importantly, can you see how this facade was adding to the difficulties she was experiencing with others? The more she put up a wall, the more others tried to pull it down!
The Practice: Asking Wise Mind
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) one of the practices is called Asking Wise Mind. In this exercise, you are practicing asking yourself about your needs, from the inside. You might ask yourself, “What’s my purpose?” Or “What should I do?” Or you can ask about day-to-day concerns and decisions.
Right now, is there a question you would like to ask your Wise Mind? Some uncertainty or confusion causing you distress?
On your next inhale, along with the in breath; ask yourself this question in your minds eye.
On the exhale, listen – just listen. Notice if you start generating a mind chatter answer, or thoughts of what others would say. If that happens, redirect your attention and just listen.
Listen into the silence, as you repeat asking on the inhale, listening on the exhale, over and over again. You may notice bodily sensations, or emotions rather than a particular image or idea. If no answer comes at first, that’s okay.
After years of relying on the outside, it can be pretty uncomfortable at first to do the hard work of turning to the inside with willingness to hear the answers. The bridge between the two is built, one practice at a time, one experience at a time.
It takes patience. In many ways, building the bridge between inside and outside is a developmental process. Each time you approach that unknown vulnerable spot inside, you strengthen the bridge. One step closer to that centered feeling of presence, vitality, and the certainty that your outside matches your inside. You are on your purpose driven path.
This blog is inspired by Dr. Fielding’s upcoming book: Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up, which includes QR code linked skill videos to guide you on your journey of self-discovery and emotional self care! To get the blogs, AND a free skill video, straight into your inbox, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery SKILL WEEKLY newsletter. We can also hang out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Or YouTube for skills videos!