Do you cope with stress by Internalising or Externalising?

Sports Psychology, November 05, 2021

Knowing yourself and how you cope with issues is very important to being able to live a healthy, happy, purpose driven life.

People cope with emotional deprivation and the resultant stress in one of two ways - either internalising their issues or externalising them. Of course there is a spectrum and there are commonly aspects of both coping mechanisms at play when attempting to process stress. Research suggests the style you adopt is more a matter of personality than conscious choice (more nature than nurture). As we move through life we may pivot from one style to another but our basic make up will create a predisposition towards one over the other. The parenting style we grew up with tends to help set your predisposition to coping styles. Ideally it is good for a balance between the styles so internalisers need to seek assistance externally and externalisers should learn to take personal responsibility for issues that keep arising. 

Internalisers

Internalisers are mentally active, and have a love of learning. They attempt to solve issues from the inside out with self reflection and are more open to learning from mistakes. They see life as an opportunity for self development, and will try and solve problems themselves first rather than ask for outside help. Main sources of anxiety are feeling guilty when they let people down and the fear of being exposed as an 'impostor'. One relationship red flag is being overly self sacrificing and having a growing resentment of how much they do for others. I explain it to clients as 'crossing oceans for people who won't jump a puddle for you'. 

Internalisers can lapse into externalising when they get over stressed or lonely. They can act out distress through affairs or superficial sexual meetings. Substance abuse can also be used as a solution under severe stress. 

Externalisers

Externalisers tend to take action before thinking deeply about the situation. They are impulsive and try to deal with anxiety quickly often making the situation worse. They are poor with self reflection and their default pattern is to blame others rather than look at their own actions. They rarely learn from mistakes and tend to repeat them. They strongly believe the notion that things need to change in the outside world for them to be happy. Some thing I hear from externalisers is "if only this person would do this them all my problems would go away" Left unchecked externalising coping styles results in emotional immaturity (check out my article on emotional maturity here https://everfit.co.nz/articles/time-to-mature-emotionally ) due to the fact they are looking outside themselves to feel better, and miss out on the self control work. They tend to get overwhelmed by emotion so they cope by burying their heads in the sand, blaming others, or a combination of both. 

"Externalisers think reality should conform to their will, whereas more mature people deal with reality and adapt to it." (Vaillant, 2000)

Externalisers exist along a spectrum of severity. At the extreme end are predatory, sociopathic people who only see others as resources with no regard to their rights or feelings. Milder externalisers can look like internalisers as they are non-confrontational but still have an ingrained belief that others should change. The milder externalisers can be more open to growth and self reflection as they age. 

People who are at the extremes will have difficulty living fulfilling positive lives. Extreme externalisers will develop physical symptoms, get in trouble with their behaviour, and act out of frustration with little internal guidance. Extreme internalisers are prone to emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression, and tend to get stuck in ruts with little action towards change. I have seen many clients so prone to overthinking that they become paralysed by analysis. 

The two poles of internalisersation and externalisation are two sides of being human. Everyone can show both aspects depending on circumstances and where they naturally fall on the spectrum. People that seek therapy and enjoy reading self help books are more likely to have an internalising mode for coping with stress. This is healthy if the self refection is paired with action to change. Sitting and dwelling on knowledge without application is pointless. On the opposite end people who are externalisers will likely end up in treatment due to external pressures like police, courts, marital ultimatums, and rehabilitation. Much of addiction recovery is trying to nudge externalisers toward adopting a more internalising coping style and taking self responsibility. 

Simple Solutions

Match the inside work with external feedback from the right sources and you will thrive. Use any past trauma to learn from, rather that let it define you. A car has a large windscreen and a small rear vision mirror so we can keep our main focus on what's ahead and use the rear vision occasionally. Keep staring in the rear vision mirror and you will crash.  

1)Surround yourself with uplifting, motivating, truthful people that want to see you reach your potential. This is easier said than done. Allowing yourself to meet new people or seeking help from experts in the problems that you are facing, while being open to feedback on how to change can be uncomfortable. Susan David states "Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life."

2)Work on your self. Entrench habits that work on your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Self improvement is mostly an inside job. If you sit and think about what habits are serving you, and what habits are barriers to you being all you can, then you can start to change them. The first step in change is awareness. Again this is very uncomfortable, but very powerful. 

References

Psychodynamic Approaches to Personality Disorders, Glen O., Gabbard, MD. Psychiatry Online, July 2005. 

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents - How to heal from distant, rejecting, or self involved parents by Lindsay C. Gibson (2015)

Emotional Agility - Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life by Susan David (2016) 

Can't Hurt Me - Master your mind and defy the odds by David Goggins (2018) https://everfit.co.nz/articles/everfit-book-review-can-t-hurt-me

Brad Dixon is a sports physio, coach, and wellness evangelist based at EVERFIT Physio & Coaching. His passion is promoting enhancing daily habits that nudge people towards potential and save the planet. His book ‘Holistic Human’ is available here - https://everfit.co.nz/Store/Category/Book . The power is in our daily habits! Connect with Brad at www.everfit.co.nz, Facebook, Strava, Instagram (@everfitcoach), and YOU TUBE https://youtube.com/c/EverFITcoach 

Looking over Lake Tarawera. Photo taken by Vaughn Poutawera