When To Internalize?

I think there’s a fine line between internalizing our environment too much and too little. In fact, I’ve long thought that the nexus between the environment and the mind is where life, for most of us, is really played out. And, despite how much I’ve contemplated this idea, I don’t have much to show for my musings. I can, however, offer some general observations.

Let’s begin with the over-internalizers. If we internalize too much, everything that happens to us hits home. A guy I know hates to see runners along the roads. He says they remind him that he should be working out, even though he can’t seem to get around to it. This guy is internalizing his environment too much. For guys like him, every little situation serves as a mirror reflecting back who he really is. Since he resents himself for not being what he thinks he ought to be, it pains him to be reminded frequently. In short, his environment makes him feel bad about himself. The opposite can also be true.

Folks close to the former president, Bill Clinton, say that he is literally addicted to public adulation. I don’t know him, so I can’t say if it’s true. But let’s suppose it is. If this is true, Bill also internalizes his environment too much. He needs an external world to bring him happiness, so he continuously internalizes the public’s demand for his presence to bolster his self-opinion. Indeed, Dick Morris (who, admittedly, has been grinding an axe against the guy for years) says that Clinton jumped out of the recovery bed recently to stump for Kerry not so much because he loves the Massachusetts Senator, but because he needed a praise fix. I guess everybody needs something to keep them going. But, for some people, that something is definitely not their environment, or at least not a conscious concern about it.

We can call these the under-analyzers. People like this go through life oblivious to what is going on around them, especially with regard to the people around them. Some are total bafoons, and they can’t help themselves. But there are others, and I think they constitute the majority of under-analyzers, are some of our brightest achievers. They’re the most driven among us. It’s as if they’ve latched onto the formula for modern success, and they are working it for all it’s worth. There are two big problems with this.

The first is a matter of a majorly flawed premise. What exactly is modern success? I’m shocked at how many people will instantly respond with a litany of material possessions. In their minds, we are what we own. So, it’s no surprise that these kinds of people equate being successful with making a ton of cash. And…as America is still the land of opportunity, they figure out somewhere along the way that all they have to do to get cash is to work hard and make good long-term decisions. Voila…add one more to the rat race. The problem is that this model of success is backwards. I say that the problem is a flawed premise because, though it may be true that the best way to become successful by society’s modern standards is through crushing hours of work, there is no evidence to suggest that being successful by society’s standards has any inherent value. Prozac anyone? This brings us to the second big problem.

I am thoroughly convinced that the best things in life are times spent having fun with loved ones. In fact, my personal measure of success is how frequently I can make these things happen. The under-analyzer, however, does not share my sentiments. He or she will breeze right by the spouse, partner, kids, or whomever, and head off to the office, only to return home after dark when the day is all but over. He or she will, when confronted, go on and on about providing for the family and how that takes hard work. But the fact is that the environment (the family, etc.) means less than the vision of and commitment to modern success. It’s sad really, but it’s everywhere.

The thing about internalizing is finding the right balance. I’ll admit that I don’t know exactly how to figure it out. But I think I’ve got some useful guidelines. First, I think we need to be realistic and honest when we look at the world around us and when we deal with the people in our lives. That means we have to let the world in when the world is telling us something. But then we have to accept whatever it is and move on. For example, my friend who hates to see runners needs to just accept that there will always be people who work out more often than he does. He needs to either get off the couch or accept that he simply doesn’t have the time to make fitness a priority. Then, when he sees a runner on the road, there’s nothing to contemplate. It’s already settled. When we do this, we keep the environment mostly external, except when it has something new to tell us.

Knowing when the environment has something to tell us really the tough part. But I think it’s easier if we always give our loved ones the benefit of the doubt. That means we can’t ever take them for granted. I try to remember how I treated my wife when I was courting her. Then I compare (and admittedly often contrast) that with how I treat her now. What changed? If anything, she deserves to be treated better now because she has loved me for years and she is the mother of my child. Yet, I’ll sometimes leave out the pleasantries that used to roll so eloquently from my tongue. It’s as if she has, figuratively speaking, taken on the role of a house plant. She is not new and, therefore, she blends into the rest of the environment – the one I don’t internalize. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I find that simply reminding myself of these little things is a powerful tool. I give the world no influence over my motivation or my emotional state unless it tells me something I don’t already know. But I make an exception where my loved ones are concerned. I try to transport myself back to when our love was new and I was thrilled to shine it. Then, I hung on every word or gesture. I was genuinely preoccupied with the emotional state of my favorite people. The world, at least where they were concerned, was almost directly connected to my emotional hinterlands. Maybe I don’t need to be that gooey these days, but I’m certainly better off if I keep the channels wide open for those for whom I care the most. That way, I never miss the chance to internalize the good times. That’s what it’s all about.


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