The tendency of people in general, and depressed people in particular, to excessively use their own frames of reference in interpreting and reacting to life experiences is called an “internal orientation” by psychologists. The term internal orientation describes someone who reflexively uses his or her internal experience, such as feelings, beliefs, and judgments, as the sole or primary basis for forming reactions and generating behaviors.
When your focus, or orientation, is an internal one, it means much of the time, perhaps too much of the time, you are either entirely or primarily engaged with whatever is going on inside of you.
Because our attention is limited –there are more things going on at any given moment than we can possibly pay conscious attention to – by having our focus over here, it means our focus isn’t over there. In practical terms, this means that when I focus intensely on how I’m feeling, I’m not focusing very much on how you’re feeling. When I focus narrowly on how I see it, it may not occur to me to consider how someone else sees it.
Is it possible to focus too much on your feelings? The research strongly indicates the answer is yes. People can get so wrapped up in their feelings, especially their depressed ones, that they can disconnect from others and withdraw into their own unhappy worlds – becoming lost in space.
It is important to have a balance between being self-aware but not too heavily focused on oneself at the expense of engaging well with others. Logically, you would think that these are not “either –or” distinctions, that I can be aware of my feelings and sensitive to your feelings, too. And, while that’s true, too often it isn’t how many people respond.
Instead, they get wrapped up in their own feelings, focused on themselves and their depression, and they miss partially or completely what’s going on with others around them. They may even justify it by believing that because they’re miserable, they don’t need to be engaged with or responsive to others. Others can see this as insensitive, or worse, and it creates the vicious cycle of generating negative feedback, which leads to more withdrawal over and over again.
An internal orientation can become so pervasive that it leads directly to an inability to relate well to other people. It is difficult to have empathy or concern for others when what matters most to you is how bad you feel.
Besides setting up the vicious cycle just described, it can also lead to an “It’s either them or me” kind of competition. When people view the world in this “us or them” way, other people can seem like the enemy, the people who can harm you, either in word or deed. It takes a lot when you’re depressed to strive to see what’s right with other people. The typical reflex is to see what’s wrong, what makes the other person seem insensitive, lacking understanding, or even just plain stupid. By comparison, our suffering can seem noble, beyond other’s comprehension.
This “you’re either with me or against me” mindset fueled by an internal orientation is evident in “hot spots” all over the world. Even in our own political elections, we rarely see a respectful exchange of viewpoints about what might be best for the country. Instead, we engage in accusation, innuendo and character assassination.
There isn’t nearly enough of an external orientation that would lead people outside their own thinking to examine what might be as good as or even better about a position professed to be held by “them.” If it’s the position of “them,” it is, by definition, a bad one. It’s why people will support mediocre candidates in their own party rather than someone more qualified in another party. Party loyalty prevents thinking clearly or objectively.
So, what is the “us” and “them” in regards to depression? If I met you at a cocktail party and we began to casually discuss depression, how would you define your position on the subject? Would you use only your own experience as the reference point? Would you acknowledge that depression is different for different people and accept a variety of viewpoints and experiences quite different than your own? Would you try to learn anything from someone else’s experience or would you simply conclude, “they just don’t get it?”
In these blogs, I make a point of stating regularly that each viewpoint about depression has some merit, and each person’s experience is valid (though not necessarily effective). However, I also say how important it is to evaluate what any one person’s viewpoint allows him or her to do and what it also prevents him or her from doing.
Consider this point carefully: What does your view of your depression encourage in you – and does it help keep you stuck or is it what’s going to help you eventually overcome depression?
Last reviewed: 12 Dec 2010