Happy Friday! Made it through another week. I thought I’d talk about something a bit more mellow today. I mention it a lot but I’m not sure I’ve ever explained what it is.
What exactly does it mean when you internalize someone or someone else’s actions?
In developmental psychology, internalization is the process through which social interactions become part of the a persons mental functions, i.e., after having experienced an interaction with someone else that person subsequently experiences the same interaction within him/herself and makes it a part of their understanding of interactions with others in general.
Well that’s fine and dandy, but what does it mean?
I break this down to two different aspects. Internalizing someone/a relationship or internalizing behaviors
To internalize someone means the relationship you have with them feels real to you. When you can see, recognize, and connect those outer experiences you have with someone, the relationship you have with them, to your inner feelings and hold onto them, that’s internalization. It’s making an experience, a relationship, real to you in both your mind and your emotions.
For example: My relationship with Roommate. I’m just now starting to internalize her. I’ve known her for years. We’ve been living together for the past 2+ years. Cognitively I know we are friends, we are there for each other, hang out, talk… but I’ve always had this emotional distance and disconnect when it comes to believing we have a relationship that won’t just spontaneously disappear. Like a surface hologram that you can see but can’t touch. Internalizing our relationship has made our friendship something 3-dimensional that I can actually hold onto. I know that even when she moves, we will still be a part of each other’s lives because I can feel her presence on a deep emotional level.
It’s accepting something but also believing it. In that belief is the knowledge that there is something that has an aspect of permanence. I can feel it like a small swelling in my heart.
By extension, for me, the lack of internalization is recognizing that the feelings I have for someone are fleeting. I may really like someone, I may know that all our actions and interactions point towards a label of friendship, I may enjoy spending time with them, and genuinely enjoy their company when we are in each other’s presence…. But without being able to internalize them there’s no emotional reassurance that they’ll continue to be a part of my life experience. There are definite aspects of lacking object constancy going on here.
When you are able to internalize someone or something, it’s the opposite. It’s being able to form that object permanence. It’s knowing that they are a real and important part of your life in a way that is more than merely cognitive. It’s true. I’ve made our relationship a part of who I am in a way that isn’t dissociated, it’s connected.
To internalize behaviors is a slightly different thing. This meaning has to do with Acting In. When you turn your behaviors, feelings, and thoughts inward, that’s internalizing. When you take the behaviors, feelings, words, and actions of someone else, and interpret those things as if they were all directed at you, take what they say or do to heart, make those emotional connections a part of yourself, this is also internalizing. This is a destructive form of internalizing. Often those of us with BPD do this. Being hypersensitive to how people are, we can read too much, empathize too much, and take on the pain, anger, or hurt of others as our own. Or interpret it as if it’s directed at us in a way that causes us distressing emotions. This often leads to feelings of shame, misunderstanding, anger, and fear. It’s believing something is our fault even when it isn’t, with a conviction that often leads to us taking some kind of physical or emotional action on it. Cutting as punishment, berating ourselves for not being perfect, criticizing what we did or didn’t do to be exactly what they “needed”, etc. When you turn your feelings in on yourself, that’s internalizing.
Bottling up and letting everything implode in on you.
For Example: When your boyfriend comes home from work, quiet and brooding, and it feels like maybe it’s your fault so you have to make up for it, when in reality it could just have been because of an annoying co-worker or a douchebag boss. That spark of panic wells up in your chest as you frantically try to figure out what you did and if you can fix it, or that shock of anger when you know you didn’t do anything to deserve his mood. Sometimes you even know that his mood is due to something else but it still FEELS like it’s your problem. And instead of letting those feelings go, being able to release them in a productive way, they harbor inside you and stew.
Internalizing isn’t always negative and it is quite natural. It is how people learn social norms. When you see how people around you act, and this is what you come to understand is “normal” and acting this way becomes your norm without conscious thought, those are internalized actions.
I talk about internalizing people a lot because I have a very difficult time connecting to people. Much of this is due to my dissociative defense mechanisms. I can’t trust people because of all the trauma I’ve suffered. One of the ways I know I’m making in progress in therapy is that I can feel connected to people, even in their absence. I’m still in sort of the beginning stages of being able to do this with some people, but I’m getting there.