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Internal Understanding + External Expertise = Inner/Outer Wisdom

  • How many times has the doctor told you to do something and it just didn't feel "right" to you?
  • Do you have a few tricks that always work for you to make you feel better?


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How many times have you asked an "expert" for advice and found that it didn't work for you? Or maybe you discovered some unconventional method for making you feel better that doesn't fit what you are told you "should" do. The thing is, you have been you all of your life. You know things about how you work that no expert can ever know. You know that the smell of mint makes you want to vomit, even though it isn't one of the typical aversions. You know that going for a ten minute walk will fix any problem you encounter in your day. You know that no amount of novacaine will keep the dental pain at bay. And the list goes on. This internal understanding is what I like to call Inner Wisdom.

On the other hand, sometimes you get stuck and you find that an expert can get you out of a rut. Maybe you have tried everything to rid yourself of an addiction, and nothing works. You need help, so you hire someone to help you. That expert is able to provide you with information about techniques, ideas, and solutions that have worked for many people. Finally, you get the support you need, and you use that information to make a positive change in your life. This is an example of Outer Wisdom.

Putting both Inner and Outer Wisdom together leads to a Wisdom that can help you through any difficulty and help you grow and reach your full potential. It's a balance that works like magic, when you get it right. 

You are Just Like Everybody Else, But Nothing Like Anybody Else

I have a friend who is a dietitian (her name is Casey Berglund and here is her website: Casey talks about Outer and Inner Wisdom regarding personal health and wellness. She uses it to help a person find just the right, unique eating and wellness plan. She knows the science and the common experience and you know your body. When you work as a team, you have a higher likelihood of reaching your goals.

Inner and Outer Wisdom also apply to psychological wellness. Outer Wisdom refers to anything corroborated by research or expert knowledge and experience. For example, I might recommend that you get balanced sleep, at least 7-9 hours a night, based on the research that tells us that sleep deprivation contributes to things like anxiety, depression, and decreased coping ability, to mention a few. For many people, this is undoubtedly accurate. They find that their lives move more smoothly and everything is a little bit easier when they get 8 hours of sleep. What happens if you do not fit into the "normal" box?

Research on humans invariably results in what is called a parabolic curve or a "normal curve". It looks like this:       stock-photo-71620641-lean-production.jpg

A specific curve regarding sleep looks like this:


(graph found at:

It puts all of the "normal" in the middle, with a few "trailers" at the ends. What that means is that most people fit the results in any given study of human behaviour. Psychologists usually test for 95-99% of the population. So, Outer Wisdom is true for most people, most of the time. But what about the other 1-5%? I know people who function quite well on 4-6 hours of sleep and others who require at least 9-10 hours. And, guess what? Sleep requirements change over the lifespan! Small children usually require around 10 hours of sleep in order to get all that growing in and give their brains a chance to process the millions of tidbits of information they gathered while they were awake. By the time you are an adult, you get the familiar 8 hours requirement. It changes for older adults, as well, who often require less sleep. This is what the Outer Wisdom says. This is the result of research, expertise, and fancy mathematics.

Here is the reason I like the Outer Wisdom/Inner Wisdom perspective; one of my young daughters has always needed plenty of sleep. Hallelujah, she's healthy! The other one...not so much. By the time she was 6 months old, she often preferred 8 hours...and she still does, at 6 years old, when she "should" still require 9-10. Uh-oh! I could panic about this and have serious self-doubts. Does this mean that I am failing as a parent? Nope! Lucky for me, it just means she falls in the margin of people who need less sleep.  She's a healthy, happy, energetic little girl whose Inner Wisdom knows how much sleep she needs. So, Inner Wisdom is what you know is true for you. The challenge, here, is differentiating Inner Wisdom from all the other voices in your head.. How can you tell when it's Inner Wisdom or something else, like Judgment Gremlins or the Addiction Beast? Outer Wisdom says, "stay abstinent. Anything else is a relapse." Judgment Gremlins say, 'you should be able to handle one drink and stop there." The Addiction Beast says, "I'm not addicted. I can stop anytime. I just won't drink anymore, after tonight." With all of these voices in your head, how on earth are you supposed to hear your own Inner Wisdom?!

Marsha Linehan, PhD (the psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) refers to Inner Wisdom as "Wise Mind." She -and others- discovered that Wise Mind is reached through Mindfulness Practice. When your head is spinning with all those voices, it can be difficult to hear your Inner Wisdom, because it doesn't tend to shout like some of the others do. It's quiet and calm. In order to hear it, you must calm your body and quiet your mind. I begin my sessions with clients for this very reason. My goal is to help you utilize your own Strengths and Wisdom to overcome struggles. Starting sessions with Mindfulness Practice makes it easier to hear Inner Wisdom so that we can utilize it in our work together. Mindfulness classes and workshops are readily available in many forums, nowadays, so you can also try one so you can hear your Inner Wisdom speak. If you prefer to do things on your own, you can also try a mindfulness workbook, like this one: "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook", by Bob Stahl, PhD and Elisha Goldstein, PhD. It comes with a CD to guide you in your practice.

Taking It All The Way To Your Innermost You


So far, I've focused on Outer and Inner Wisdom regarding behaviours. The trickier balance for Inner and Outer Wisdom comes with your self-image, self-identity, and self-worth. If someone asks you to describe yourself, you probably describe your physical appearance, your roles and which groups you belong to.

 For example, you might say something like, "I am a 42 year old, white woman. I am a psychologist, a mother, and a martial artist. I enjoy writing, superhero movies, and road trips with my family.' While all of these things might be true, they describe the Outer Wisdom. Anyone can see them, simply by looking you up on the internet. Not only that, but there are probably thousands of people who share similar descriptions. It completely invalidates the unique You.


Now, try describing the Inner Wisdom You. It's much more difficult because words cannot capture the essence of a person. It boils down to "I am me." You are the only person who can possibly experience the entirety of You. You are the only person who knows all there is to know about You. So, when someone slaps a label on you or shares their perspective on you, take it in, chew on it, and see if it feels "right" before you swallow it. If it doesn't fit what your Inner Wisdom knows is You, spit it out, or at least the part that doesn't fit. Their perspective is Outer Wisdom. While it certainly has its benefits, it is only part of the picture.

It sounds so easy, when it is written down as a simple, "do this" article, but it isn't always. I'll give you an example from my own life: I am a psychologist. When I say that, I mean that it is truly a part of who I am. It isn't just a role or career. It's in my nature, it's a passion, a calling.  Fifteen years into my career, I came across a person who made me question my own Inner Wisdom. No one had ever questioned my career as a psychologist, including me. This person had some influence, it was someone I -and many others- respected. In this person's eyes, I could do nothing right. I was constantly questioned and criticized regarding my methods. In the world of psychology, constructive feedback is the norm. I've had many mentors and supervisors over the years, and none of them had ever treated me like that. Even when I made a pretty big mistake in my training, my supervisor helped me figure out what I did wrong and how I could keep from repeating the mistake. I never felt belittled or as if I had failed. In this case, my first response was to try harder. I wanted to please this person. It didn't work. I tried apologizing and looking for explanations for my "failures." That didn't work, either, and in fact made it worse. Both of us lost respect for me. I wanted to quit. I was absolutely miserable and, for the first time in my career, I dreaded going to work. I began to think about another career. I tried to come up with alternative career choices, to imagine working in another field...and came up completely blank. Nothing else fit me. Finally, after a year and a half of this, my Inner Wisdom finally made itself heard. I thought about the many, many experiences I've had of helping people. I thought of the many people who have told me I made a difference in their lives (Outer Wisdom). Finally, I quieted my mind and asked my own Inner Wisdom if I should stay in this career and the answer was, "Yes!" When I clear my mind, I know that this is an integral part of who I am. It doesn't matter if the Outer Wisdom comes from The Godfather, himself. No one knows better than you, who you are.

Using This Perspective In Your Own Life

The Exercise: Defining Inner and Outer Wisdom in your own life:

1.Write down labels and descriptions that others might see in you. If you get stuck, ask friends, family, and coworkers how they would describe you. Take into consideration the culture. For example, Western culture tends to think of people as "crazy" if they have visions, but many other cultures interpret it as a special gift.

2. Practice a mindfulness meditation. You can use a workbook, find an online guided meditation, or try Buddhify (an app for mindfulness practice). Do it until you feel calm and clear.

3. Go through your list. Cross out anything that feels inaccurate, put a star next to anything that is accurate, and hashtag anything that has some truth, but isn't completely accurate.

4. Since you are already in Wise Mind, this is a great time to check in with your own Inner Wisdom regarding You. How does your unique self feel to you? What do You (not your body, You) look like? How do you sound, taste, smell? Do you energize or calm (or both) those around you? Do you push boundaries, or stabilize that which already exists?

5. Whenever you feel lost or confused by a mismatch between Inner and Outer Wisdom, come back to this exercise. You will find the best answer for You, from You.


If you decide you would like help with this, you are very welcome to contact me for further guidance. I will be happy to work with you on finding and developing the best You!
Bonnie J Sullivan, PhD
Rpsych #3245
(403) 538-5437
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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