Thinking inside-out

Back when I was first learning life coaching, one of my teachers literally drew an interesting analogy to how we typically tackle life. She grabbed a large piece of paper and sketched out a loose drawing of a big apple tree.

Then, she said, imagine for a moment that this tree represented a large part of your client’s life, and your client comes to you complaining that their life is filled with nothing but apples. Every day all they eat is apples, and they are absolutely sick of eating them. You then, ask them what have they done to resolve the situation. They respond “Well, I’ve yelled at the tree several times to make oranges, but it’s not listening to me.”

Now, you are probably thinking “who the hell yells at an apple tree and expect it to grow oranges?”, but this is what we actually do on a daily basis. Apples are just an analogy for the problems we have in life, the areas we want to be different.

To clarify, we tend to have an outside-in style of thinking. We try to change our external world to match what we want internally. We do this in a lot of ways. For example, if we have a job we hate, we might try to make others at our workplace change themselves to be more tolerable or we might wait expecting our job will somehow get better. You also see this in relationships, where you try to change your significant other or expect them to be different just because you want it enough.

The reason we tend to adopt an outside-in style of thinking is that we don’t like to admit our faults. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been staring at an apple tree expecting it will have oranges, or maybe that they kind of suck at finding the kind of tree they want, or acknowledging that they may even not know what type of tree will actually make them happy. In other words, it’s easier to blame a tree for not being what you want, than to take a good hard look at yourself and recognize maybe you are doing this wrong.

When you stop blaming and start taking responsibility, that’s when you can adopt inside-out thinking. Inside-out thinking is incredibly powerful, because you start with the thing that you have the most say in– You. With inside-out thinking, you let go of the trees and start focusing on yourself. What do you need to be happy? How can you change yourself to get that?

When you start using inside-out thinking, that’s when you stop yelling at trees and study to become a professional arborist. Then you know exactly what tree you want and where to find it, or even better, you become not only versed in trees, but also fishing, gardening, farming, etc. and you find something even better than trees to fulfill your life.

So, how do start thinking inside-out? A common answer would be meditation, spend some time focusing inward and learn about yourself, but obviously, meditation doesn’t suit everyone and it might not give you the immediate results you want. A more solid answer, in my opinion is to just learn to ask yourself internal questions.

Get in the habit of asking questions like “What do I want?”, “Why do I want it?”, “Am I yelling at a tree right now?”, “How can I change my behavior and actions, to have more of what I want?”, “What needs to change in me, before I find what I am looking for?”. The more you can ask, pointed questions to yourself, the better you’ll do.

That’s pretty much the end of this article, but for anybody, who wasn’t sure what this looks like in action, I wanted to share a story of a client learning this process.

I had a client, Cheryl (not her real name) who would want to spend probably at least half of every coaching session talking about everything she did right. I would sit with Cheryl and quietly listen to all of her accomplishments, and once she was done, I would go, “that’s great, so how do you want to expand on that today?” Cheryl would then get a little upset, saying “why aren’t you acknowledging everything I already did?” This would happen every coaching session, no matter how much I praised her or acknowledged her accomplishments, she would react as if I totally brushed aside everything she had done and ignored it.

It took a little bit of time, but Cheryl started to recognize that I was, in fact, acknowledging everything she did, but it was somehow not validating her. It was around this time, that we started to realize that it wasn’t me who had to recognize Cheryl’s accomplishments, it was Cheryl.

After some exploration, I learned that Cheryl was raised in a competitive family, and she had learned she needed to be driven at all costs regardless of circumstance. Due to this, she never learned to stop and appreciate what she did. If she did, she might stop competing for a moment and get behind.

So, Cheryl learned to think inside-out by identifying how her need to be acknowledged was an internal problem. She then started setting goals, where she would identify things she accomplished and mentally commended herself for doing them. Over time, she started needing validation from others less and became more at peace with herself as a result.

Tree image provided by BrianHanson2nd

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