The “Red Flags” of an Inward Mindset

the Arbinger Institute

At Arbinger, we often write that an inward mindset is self-focused. That it creates blindness to others’ needs, challenges, and objectives. That when we are inward, we see others as objects rather than people.

But it can be difficult to recognize exactly when we’re being inward. When we have an inward mindset, our own narrative and emotions are overwhelmingly strong. Our perspective seems like the only one possible.

Becoming aware of our own inwardness is a first (and large) step towards shifting our mindset.

So let’s get a little more specific. What does it actually look—or feel—like to have an inward mindset? How can we know when we’re being inward?

Common Signs of an Inward Mindset

Over the years, we have noticed certain common characteristics of an inward mindset. These are thematic trends, not absolutes. Still, they provide a more specific idea of what it looks like to be inward. As you read the list, consider when you might have done these things.

With an inward mindset, we often…

  • Feel “right” or justified. We convince ourselves that our way is the only way; our truth is the only truth. Our perspective or course of action is of course the right one!
  • Become defensive. We feel we must prove our rightness. We close ourselves to others’ suggestions or ideas. We might feel attacked by those suggestions.
  • Blame. In our need to justify ourselves, we search for external causes to our problems. We fail to see our own contributions to circumstances.
  • Horribilize” others. We see the worst in others, so that we can justify ourselves and blame them.
  • Feel victimized. We think, “Why me?!” We see problems and challenges as happening to us, through no agency of our own.
  • Label others. We make black-and-white characterizations of others. We put others into boxes that help us justify ourselves.
  • Exaggerate differences. We distance ourselves from others. We allow ourselves to say, “Well, I would never…”
  • Exaggerate values. We take principled stands that support our perspective and enable our justification of ourselves.
  • Focus on ourselves. We think only of our own perspective, needs, and challenges. We see only how we have been affected by a situation.

Personal Red Flags

In addition to these general themes, each individual has personal “red flags” that characterize their own brand of inward mindset. For example:

  • One Arbinger employee, for example, knows that he becomes very sarcastic when he’s inward.
  • Another gets very self-critical and begins worrying about what others think about her.
  • A third can feel herself getting angry. She begins talking more loudly and talking over others.
  • A fourth shuts down and withdraws. He stops speaking, listening, and engaging with the people who are frustrating him.
  • And a final employee notices that his internal dialogue—his “head chatter”—significantly increases.

These examples illustrate the myriad ways an inward mindset can show up for individuals. The common thread is that they are self-focused and self-protective. They shut out others’ perspectives, needs, and concerns.

Physical Red Flags

One type of personal red flag involves our physical responses to challenging situations. When we feel threatened, we can go into a flight-fight-freeze reaction driven by the primitive emotional center of our brains, the amygdala. This is a critical element of human survival, allowing us to quickly respond to sometimes life-threatening situations.

Here’s the problem with the fight/flight/freeze response as it relates to inward mindset: Our brains cannot differentiate between physical threats that warrant such a response and non-physical, relationship-based stressors. When we feel our identity or ego (our self-justifying image) is being questioned, for example, we can experience a fight/flight/freeze response inappropriate to the situation. We may act in ways we later regret—ways that harm our relationships, for example.

The physical signs of a flight-fight-freeze response—especially when no physical threat exists—can be helpful in identifying when we have an inward mindset. It’s relatively easy to know when our heart is racing, our throat is tight, our muscles are clenched, and so on. These physical symptoms can be warning signs that let us know when to press pause and check our mindset.

What to Do?

As mentioned above, becoming aware of our own inward mindset is more than half the battle toward changing it. To cultivate this awareness, try first identifying and writing down your personal red flags.

Then start noticing when they appear. It might be easier, at first, to set aside time each day to reflect and identify times of inwardness. Gradually, build your capability to recognize your red flags in the moment.

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