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Internalizing versus Externalizing: What are they and what do they mean to you?

Broadly speaking, Internalizers are those who tend to blame themselves when something happens or when things go wrong. Their first thought is, "What did I do wrong?" and they go there very quickly, even automatically. Everything is their fault and they tend to feel guilt, shame, and remorse. They tend to feel hurt rather than anger, which they have difficulty expressing. They tend to worry and ruminate and they lack self-confidence. They are afraid to let their feelings show easily.

By contrast, Externalizers tend to project blame onto others for problems and difficulties. They rarely accept responsibility for anything and are always looking for someone else to blame, even for their own failings. Their first thought is, "Who is at fault for this (along with the corollary thought, `it can't be me!')?" They are easily frustrated and tend to react to frustration with anger. They can have an inflated sense of their own importance and can be insensitive to another's feelings. They often lack a good sense of empathy, or the ability to put themselves in another's situation.

This is of course a continuum, not a dichotomy, so most of us have both characteristics, tending to one side or the other, depending on the circumstances. Most of us may be externalizers in some situations (such as when a company loses a form they've sent) and internalizers in others (such as when they've forgotten something). But some people are almost pure types and for them life can be very difficult; both for themselves and for those around them and in relationships with them. If you think about it, you've probably known both kinds and perhaps (if you're really honest) you can identify these tendencies in yourself.

If you're strongly on one side or the other it can cause you problems in relationships with others. Internalizers have a great deal of difficulty handling and accepting even mild criticism. Criticizing their behavior is like attacking their entire self-worth as a person. Sometimes they respond with complete self-loathing and guilt and engage in immediate self-criticism as if to say, "You can't criticize me as much as I can criticize myself!" This often has the effect of causing the other person to withdraw because they don't really want to cause hurt and pain. Paradoxically the Internalizer is then spared further criticism. Externalizers, by contrast, often become angry when criticized and may "lash out" at the criticizer as a way of deflecting blame from themselves. They may say things like, "You do the same thing," "I'm justified in what I do," or even, "I don't do that but you do!"

Two internalizers in a relationship tend to blame themselves first for any problems and may try to out-do each other in self-blame. Two externalizers in a relationship tend to engage in shouting matches as each tries to blame the other. A relationship consisting of an internalizer and an externalizer may result in an agreement that everything is the internalizer's fault. The externalizer is angry and the internalizer is miserable.

What to do? In both cases it is helpful to reduce the automatic tendency to respond immediately. Take a deep breath and relax. Second, it is helpful to really listen (for five minutes or more!) to the other person and what he or she is saying. Third, it is helpful for externalizers to ask themselves, "Does the other person have a point?" (even though it may be overstated). Someone once said, "Cherish your enemies — they will tell you things your friends never will." It is helpful for internalizers to ask themselves, "Am I really to blame for all of this? Or can I accept only a little or even none of the responsibility?" Sometimes role reversal can be helpful, in which each party argues from the point of view of the other, although no one really likes doing this.

The first step, however, is to recognize your own style. A psychologist can help you do this and can suggest additional coping strategies for you. But only when you recognize what you are doing can you begin to change.

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D., ABPP

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