People can be loosely put into two groups: those who externally reference and those who internally reference. Externally referenced people are more concerned with the impression they make on other people: What do I look like? What does this look like? Internally referenced people are more concerned with what something feels like: Do I like the feel of this or that better? Externally referenced people want to get it right for others (so they will be accepted, envied, or impressive to others) while internally referenced people want to get it right for themselves (so they will feel comfortable with themselves) and are not as conscious about how other people perceive them.
I'm not saying that one way of self-referencing is always superior to the other. But I do want to stress the desirability of increasing our awareness of how we reference ourselves so that we can work out how we place ourselves on the internal-external scale. If we veer too far toward external referencing, we lose a sense of ourselves and become off-balance. If, on the other hand, we swing too far toward internal referencing, we may find it necessary to adapt to society a little more, in order to be a part of it.
We can ask ourselves whether the way we manage our emotions is prompted by what we imagine other people are thinking about us or what we know will make us feel comfortable.
Let's look at an example. Two people are sailing in identical boats. One is thinking, Look at me in my fabulous yacht; I bet everyone thinks I look cool and envies me, while the other is simply enjoying mastering the skill of sailing, feeling the breeze on his face and noticing the feelings that the open sea evokes in him. Two people doing the same thing but enjoying themselves in quite different ways.
Many of us are a mixture of these two types of people. But if we often feel dissatisfied with life, it can be useful to understand how we are referencing ourselves. This, in turn, will allow us to experiment with change.
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Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and a writer. Her latest book is How to Stay Sane.
Books mentioned in this post
Philippa Perry is the author of How to Stay Sane (School of Life)