2. As within, so without.
This is a tricky one and requires context and balance. It begins with the assumption that we exist with an inner world of feelings, thoughts, fantasies, drives, desires, aversions, and all those complexities–and we exist in an outer world of people, circumstances, actions, and consequences. The principle further assumes that there is a more-than-incidental relationship between the inner and outer worlds, that they reflect and create each other in ways that are difficult to comprehend rationally.
Already we are nearing dangerous territory, opening up the possibility for that spiritually abusive maxim that a person is somehow responsible for their miseries, failures, or traumas–that these happened because the person was sinful, or did not have enough faith, or unconsciously invited them to happen. This perspective is quite damaging for someone in the depths of shame or depression. This is why I underline that the inner and outer worlds coexist and influence each other but they are separate. Even with the premise that one person’s thoughts or inner world can cause things to happen in the outer world, we must think about how that is true for every single person, which means the outer world is constantly manifesting in response to thousands of wishes, hopes, fears, and inner conflicts.
All of that said, when sitting in the therapy room with one’s therapist, we are not in a place to heal the social, economic, cultural, and historical forces that contribute to one’s suffering. What we have are the people in the room and the inner psychic images of the world we carry with us. Often what we see within are mirrors of what is happening without. The anger I feel at a person who constantly criticizes me may arise because I find my inner criticism so painful. When I feel no one listens to me, I might not be listening to myself and speaking in a way to be heard. Or the trauma my ancestors experience might be literally living in me.
When we’re feeling trapped in life or stuck in relationship patterns we hate, typically this comes with some stuckness, some limitation or attachment that keeps us from seeing all the available options. In therapy, we tend to recreate these dynamics between therapist and client. If a client feels powerless and unable to change their lives, they might look to the therapist for salvation but refuse or shoot down every suggestion the therapist makes. This creates the opportunity to look beyond the content and at the process being enacted. With some reflection, the client might discover that within them this same dynamic plays out–a part of them feels powerless and defeated, and another part of them makes suggestions that are dismissed or diminished. Sometimes even a thought that causes them to feel empowered is met with intense anxiety that feels intolerable, so the dismissal of the thought returns the person to a state of calm, though deeply unsatisfied, existence.
Looking at this reflection of inner and outer, and learning to differentiate between what is within and what is without, helps us to make deeper changes. Instead of blaming ourselves or someone else for our problems, we can look at the relationships between behaviors and begin to make shifts. If we can learn to accept the inner critic and use its advice skillfully, then we might become less defensive when a partner offers criticism, acknowledging what is useful and discarding what is not. If we can accept the presence of anxiety within us, we can respond to anxiety-provoking situations with greater calm and clearsightedness. Changing our behavior then begins to ripple out in changing systems around us.
Sometimes we need to make outer changes to promote inner wellbeing. We might step away from relationships, attachments, and obligations that feel harmful or draining. Healing the personal consequences of oppression only goes so far if the external systems of oppression continue unabated. People who do not have a strongly internalized sense of structure and boundedness tend to have it imposed upon them by systems of policing and imprisonment or mental health containment. When those who struggle with addiction, mental illness, and homelessness are provided the external supports they need, such as housing and a basic income, that outer stability supports them in gaining inner stability, leading to vastly improved recovery outcomes.
In my personal work, I have discovered profound and bizarre changes occur when I work earnestly on myself. I once worked through some unresolved grief and pain I had with a person I had known for years but hadn’t been in contact with, only to have her call me within the next day. I once sat in my therapist’s office, working on a dream about cats that I found upsetting due to some of the content. His office had a glass door to a garden, and as I described one of the cats, a living stray cat meeting my dream cat’s description came to the door and looked in on us. These “meaningful coincidences” are what is known as synchronicity, in which the inner and outer worlds seem to be communicating with each other in profound and unexpected ways. Self-work is not the solution to all ills, but it is powerful.