The Tension Between Inner and Outer Self

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The tension between the inner self and outer self is common in the modern world. Each of us is tugged in multiple directions every day and our actions and behaviors do not always align with our core values as a result.

However, becoming aware of your inner self and how it balances with your outer self is the foundation for good mental, physical, and spiritual health. This is why it is an important aspect to consider when working on a good balance in your life.

The Outer Self

At times it is helpful to present a different outer self to the world than what we experience on the inside. Most of us weigh the pros and cons of sharing our true feelings depending on what we expect in each set of circumstances.

Our outer self is what we present to the world, and we usually try to curate it to reflect the best. However, problems arise when this becomes a habitual pattern at the expense of your true feelings.

The outer self is generally concerned with material things, such as how you present yourself (hair, clothes, etc.), as well as groups you belong to or personas that you portray. Your outer self spends its time coping with the demands of school, work, home life, and whatever other real-world distractions you experience each day.

This external world can be demanding, leaving little time for you to consider whether what is taking place on the outside of your life matches what you ultimately desire on the inside.

The Inner Self

In contrast to the outer self, the inner self is about what can't be seen: feelings, intuition, values, beliefs, personality, thoughts, emotions, fantasies, spirituality, desire, and purpose. A strong inner self means that you cope well with your emotions, are self-aware, have clarity and a good sense of your values, and feel a purpose in life. It also means that you are able to remain calm and resilient in the face of adversity from the outer world.

Conflict Between Inner and Outer Self

Problems begin when the inner self and outer self are in conflict or out of balance. In its simplest terms, a conflict between the inner and outer self refers to a mismatch: you think one thing but do another.

The greater the conflict, the wider the difference between what the inner self believes is right and what the outer self does. This conflict ultimately causes stress that can be damaging to the mind, body, and spirit.

Often, this conflict arises due to spending too little time considering your inner self. How much of the time are you "running on empty," just struggling to get through the demands of the day, without considering whether your actions and behaviors are in line with your inner self?

The conflict between the two selves can result in stress, which makes you more vulnerable to illness. Your daily functioning may also be affected. You may feel successful on the outside but empty on the inside. When this happens, you may also be at risk for quick fixes to heal your pain, such as turning to drugs or alcohol. 

One way to identify if you are experiencing a conflict between your inner and outer selves is to identify gaps between your true values and outer actions.

  • Take a moment and list your core values. These might be things like believing in the value of honesty, integrity, friendship, helpfulness, etc.
  • Make a list of activities that you do each day that is in alignment with each value. Examples might include calling friends to see how they are doing or telling the truth even when it is difficult.
  • Look for values that have little actions each day to support them. This is where you will find your conflict. If you value friendship but spend each day alone, that reflects a conflict between your values (inner self) and actions (outer self).

Balancing the Inner and Outer Self

Once you've identified the problematic areas in your life, it is time to begin quieting your outer self with a goal of connecting with your inner self. Slow down, focus on the moment, and listen to your thoughts as you go about your day.

If you still feel in conflict, consider whether you might need to make life changes to address these issues. Perhaps a new job, change of relationship, or ending of friendships might be in order.

Only you will know what specific changes might help to align you with your true inner self. While thinking about what changes you need to make, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your current life require you to stifle deeply held values?
  • What do you most want to pursue in life? Does this match what you are doing?
  • Will you feel good about the choices you are making at the end of your life?

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Go back to the gaps that you identified in the previous section, and start with the largest ones. Ask yourself what changes you will need to make to align your inner and outer selves.

For example, one person might choose to change careers or reduce working hours to spend more time with family. Another person might change his or her field of work to more closely align with his or her values.

You might find that only simple changes need to be made, such as slowing down each day and taking the time to talk and listen to others, rather than always being in a rush. Sometimes the conflict between our inner and outer selves is not that large and doesn't take that much to address.

A Word From Verywell

If you are struggling with a conflict between your inner and outer self, this could also be reflective of an underlying mental health problem. If the above steps do not work to reconcile the problems you are having, consider meeting with your doctor or a mental health professional to uncover the source of your conflict and to address it through appropriate treatment.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tajadura-Jiménez A, Tsakiris M. Balancing the "inner" and the "outer" self: interoceptive sensitivity modulates self-other boundaries. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014;143(2):736-744. doi:10.1037/a0033171

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.