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What Is Your Locus of Experience?

  • Many people experience themselves from the outside in.

  • This can be adaptive sometimes, but it can also have a detrimental effect on knowing how you feel.

  • There are compelling reasons to consider working to be flexible in your locus of experience.

  • There are things that you can do to make your locus of experience more internalized.

An obscure, little-known concept known as locus of experience can have a huge impact on people who have eating disorders. It refers to the vantage point or perspective from which a person experiences their life.

If a person has an internal locus of experience, they primarily feel that they exist inside of their own body. Another word for this way of being might be “embodied.” People with an internal locus of experience have a strong awareness of their internal signals such as hunger, fullness, energy level, muscle tension, and emotions.

Locus of Experience, Eating Disorders, and Trauma

However, many people who have eating disorders tend to have an external locus of experience. This is a tendency to view oneself from the outside in, observing and judging the externalities of the body/self while ignoring the sensations inside of it.

It’s as if there were an imagined audience watching the person and this perspective trumps personal, internal experience. Another way to say this is that a person may experience themselves more as an object—a thing, without a point of view—than a subject—a character in the story rather than a prop, with his or her own set of thoughts and feelings (i.e. subjectivity).

It’s difficult to say which is the chicken and which is the egg, because it may be that the relative strength of internal signals is somewhat genetically determined. This would mean that people who begin with a more externalized locus of experience might be more prone to eating disorders because it is easier for them to disattend to their body signals.

Some people may also learn to ignore internal signals as children, particularly if emotions and other internal experiences are not valued or understood by the caregivers around them. They may develop a sense that internal experiences aren’t important and get into the automatic habit of overlooking them.

In the case of trauma, people may have learned that one’s internal signals are dangerous. Children are dependent on their caregivers for survival, and so intense negative feelings such as rage at mistreatment, profound disappointment at lack of connection, or normal sexual responses in inappropriate sexual contexts such as abuse or overstimulation can feel like threats to survival.

In these instances people don’t only overlook our internal sensations; they actively avoid them. This is referred to as “affect phobia”—the fear of feeling.

But what was once adaptive often no longer works for people who are past the physical and/or relational danger. As adults, people who have trouble knowing how they feel may find that they are unable to make decisions or act on their behalf.

The other thing that happens is the reification of the external gaze. People may feel as if the most important thing about them is how they might look from the outside, even if nobody is there. This can lead to a pervasive and unremitting sense of judgment, not just about how you look but about how you are choosing to spend your time or anything about you. How something might seem to an external gaze is more important than how a person feels.

An example of this came up recently when a client of mine recently went on vacation. She was tired and didn’t feel like touring the sites much.

When she tried to stay in her hotel and rest, though, she was tortured by negative self-talk: “Why would you come all this way just to sit in your room? What kind of person doesn’t leave the hotel room on vacation? You are doing a bad job at being on vacation. You are supposed to carpe diem and live every day to the maximum!”

The problem is that because an external voice is looking from the outside in, it can only be concerned about how things seem. From an outside perspective, it might have seemed like she was being wasteful and indulgent by not going out more.

But what was happening was that she was tired and needed rest. When she slowed down to internalize her locus of experience and act more as the protagonist of her own story, she became better able to appreciate that her experience of being tired mattered more than a vague and external-based idea that she needs to be "living it up" every moment.

Shifting Your Locus of Experience

How do we make our locus of experience more internalized? As with everything else, we go step by step and practice a lot.

Every time you successfully attend to your internal signals, you strengthen the neural pathways that allow you to attend to them in the future. Some people use structured exercises like body yoga and breathing techniques nidra to help them to refocus energy on internal experiences.

Understanding Mindfulness

To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. To be mindful is to observe and label thoughts, feelings, sensations

in the body in an objective manner. Mindfulness can therefore be a tool to avoid self-criticism and judgment while identifying and managing difficult emotions.


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