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I tend to get wrapped up in my own thoughts. A lot.
As in, I’ve gone on solo road trips and not even turned the radio on for hours. I’m very comfortable with silence.
Because of this, I’ve heard the same kinds of comments from people close to me for my whole life:
“You got really quiet all of a sudden. What’s going on?”
Or, “You have to tell me how you’re feeling — I can’t read your mind!”
Or, usually in an argument, “Are you even hearing me? Say something already!”
The strange thing is, anyone who knows me well will tell you that I can be chatty. I used to bring report cards home from school with all A’s and a little X-mark that said, “Talks to her friends too much in class.”
And if you’ve ever listened to our podcast, I think it’s pretty clear that talking — sometimes ad nauseam — about something I care deeply about is certainly not an issue of mine!
So what’s going on? Why is it that I can be so talkative sometimes, and so quiet and pensive other times?
It took me a long time to figure this out (and a lot of seeing similar patterns in people I coach), but it turns out it has everything to do with how I process thoughts, feelings, and information.
Most people in my life — my closest friends, and most of my family members, too — are external processors. Me, on the other hand? I’m an internal processor.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE AN INTERNAL PROCESSOR
Internal processing means that, when you have a lot on your mind — maybe you have a big decision to make, or you’re having a strong emotional reaction, or you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with everything going on in your life — you’re more likely to turn inward, into your own mind and emotions, rather than outward to the people in your life, to get clarity.
Here are some telltale signs to help you determine if you’re an internal processor, like me:
- You’ve been called “quiet” throughout your life.
- You tend to listen more than you talk.
- You crave alone time to be with your thoughts.
- When you’re trying to sort out your thoughts/feelings, you’re more likely to turn to meditation or your journal rather than call a friend.
- You sometimes have trouble putting your thoughts into clear words in the middle of a conversation, especially in an argument when emotions are running high.
- You’re more likely to share how you feel about something with others only once you’ve had plenty of time to think about it on your own.
- You’ll often think of all the great things you should have said later, after the conversation is over.
- You HATE being asked to talk about something on the fly — you do much better when you have time to prepare in advance.
HERE ARE SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND IF YOU’RE AN INTERNAL PROCESSOR:
- Start a journal. If you don’t already have a journal or some kind of writing practice, I highly recommend you start one. Writing is one of the best ways for internal processors to organize their overwhelming jumble of thoughts and feelings and get clarity.
- Do something meditative. When you’re trying to process so much all the time, it can help to have meditative practices to calm your overactive mind. You could just straight-up meditate, or you could do a moving meditation like yoga or taking a walk in nature. Anything that feels soothing and calms your mind counts here.
- As often as possible, organize your thoughts ahead of time. Whether it’s before a presentation at work or an important conversation with your partner, figuring out what you want to say in advance will allow you to get your message across clearly and confidently.
HOW TO BEST COMMUNICATE WITH OTHERS WHEN YOU’RE AN INTERNAL PROCESSOR
- Let people in your life know that you’re an internal processor. Most miscommunications happen simply because we don’t understand how someone is different from us. So if you can clue your friends, family, and coworkers in on the fact that you’re an internal processor, they’re less likely to take your silence personally and press you to talk before you’re ready.
- Ask for time to think. Give yourself time to figure out how you really feel about something before opening up to people in your life. And if you need processing time before responding to someone, ask for it! It’s as simple as saying, “This is really important to me, and I’d like a few hours to gather my thoughts and get back to you.”
- It’s OK to share your thoughts in writing. If you tend to have trouble articulating your thoughts/feelings the way you want to out loud, you’re allowed to gather your thoughts in writing and then send a note or email. A client of mine starts all important conversations with her husband in writing before they discuss out loud, so she has time to sort out her feelings and express everything she’s thinking as clearly as possible. She said that, while it sometimes feels silly, it works and they feel more connected than ever!
HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE AN EXTERNAL PROCESSOR
External processing, on the other hand, means that in order to understand how you feel about something, you prefer to talk it out with someone else — or even yourself! When you try to organize your thoughts in your mind, it feels like one big jumble; however, when you can talk it out, everything tends to get much clearer.
Here are some telltale signs to help you determine if you’re an external processor:
- You have a hard time keeping your thoughts and feelings inside, especially when you’re stressed or overwhelmed.
- People in your life generally know how you feel about most things.
- When you’re trying to sort out your thoughts/feelings, you’re most likely to call up a friend to talk through it.
- You love brainstorming sessions because you get to talk through ideas, which always brings you more clarity.
- When you have a lot on your mind, you feel frustrated when you don’t have someone to talk it out with.
- Sometimes you find yourself talking out loud, even when no one is there.
- You often don’t know how you feel until you say it aloud.
- You get frustrated when someone tries to offer solutions before you’re done talking through how you feel about something.
HERE ARE SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND IF YOU’RE AN EXTERNAL PROCESSOR:
- Have a few trusted confidants. It’s helpful to have a few people who you can call when you need a listening ear. Make sure to choose people who are good listeners and tend to ask thoughtful questions, instead of people who want to skip to the “bottom line” before you’re ready.
- Record yourself. Rachel is an external processor, and when she has a lot on her mind and no one to talk to in that moment, she’ll sometimes record herself talking through her thoughts. She says it’s super helpful!
- Writing works well for you, too. Writing works great for external processors, too, because it allows you to get your thoughts out of your head and on paper.
HOW TO BEST COMMUNICATE WITH OTHERS WHEN YOU’RE AN EXTERNAL PROCESSOR
- Ask for people to listen without jumping into “fix it” mode. External processors need to organize their thoughts out loud before considering what to do about it. Remind the other person that you’re not necessarily looking for solutions, just someone to vent to.
- When you’re in processing mode, make it clear that you may not be sure yet about how you’re feeling. The point of talking things out is that you’re getting clear on what’s true for you, so it helps if the other person can let your thoughts flow freely without attaching deeper significance to any of them too soon, before you’re sure of how you feel.
- Ask for open-mindedness. If an external processor feels like the other person is being judgmental or critical, they won’t feel comfortable being as open as they need to be to get to the bottom of how they’re feeling. So make sure the person you’re confiding in is capable of holding a safe space for you to speak candidly.
There are so many misconceptions about internal and external processors that cause people to reject their own internal wiring, so I want to clear a few things up.
First of all, there’s no such thing as an “ideal” processing style — one is not better than the other. They’re simply different, and both have their benefits and challenges.
Also, internal vs. external processing is not the same as introversion vs. extroversion, although there may be some overlap. On the surface, it may seem like introverts are internal processors and extroverts are external processors, but that’s not always true. Introversion/Extroversion has more to do with where you get energy (alone or from others), while your processing style is about how you understand your inner world, as well as the world around you.
Lastly, being an external processor doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re loud or opinionated or super confident. Just because you’re sharing your thoughts out loud, doesn’t mean you’re totally sure of everything you’re saying. In fact, you might be talking something out precisely because you’re still uncertain about how you feel.
Just like being an internal processor doesn’t mean that you’re quiet, not opinionated, or slow. It just means you need space and alone time to get clear on how you’re feeling and what you need to do, and once you figure it out you might become very opinionated and talkative.
WHAT’S YOUR PROCESSING STYLE?
So tell me, which kind of processor are you? What are some ways you’ve found to work with your processing style, instead of against it? Share with me, in the comments!
Kristen (& Rachel)