Is your Internal Model
causing you stress?

Your internal model or models are the ways you see the world, your preconceptions, your automatic thoughts, feelings and beliefs about people, relationships, how things should be, and so on. It's also about how much control and influence you believe you have over things in your life.

An internal model is like a script for the play of your life, or for a scene from it, with all the characters assigned their personality traits and their lines, and how the scene plays out predetermined and repeated over and again. So, even when your actors change (different partner, same fights? New job, same old stress? Etc.) the basic script stays the same which means the outcome is likely to be very similar to last time, too.

Lots of different approaches to psychology have a concept that's to do with internal models, from NLP to Gestalt to classical psychotherapy. They may all use different names for it but they all boil down to something very similar, i.e. how you expect to the world to be is how it is going to be.

If you see two faces where I see one, is one of us more right than the other?

I know it might feel temporarily good to blame all your stress or bad feelings on your partner/kids/parents/the economy/ your broken down car...

Poor Basil. He could really have done with spending some time reflecting on what his internal models of the world might be. He'd have been a lot calmer.

And a lot less funny.

...but actually, that stuff is far less important to your level of stress than your internal model(s), i.e. the stuff going in you that you are probably not aware of. In fact a recent piece of research on stress and work has concluded that all other things being equal, pretty much the entire cause of stress (at least in the workplace) is how we see things, rather than realities of the job.

And indeed logic would seem to suggest that even if you can’t do anything about your boss/ex-partner/cash flow problem, that you might be able to do something about your perceptions of these things, and that this might just help you to manage your stress.

Internal causes of stress

The more rigid your internal model of the world is, the higher the chances of it getting rocked by an occurrence – such as a loss, or a traumatic event, or something more everyday like a conflict with a colleague or family member – than if your model is pretty flexible.

For example if, in your model of the world, it is extremely important that people are kind and considerate in every situation in life then a trip to the supermarket may well turn out to be quite stressful for you, possibly even traumatically so. Someone fails to give you their seat on the bus, or to return your “good morning”; people swerve their trolleys in front of you without noticing that you are there; someone is in the fast checkout queue with far too many items…. In terms of a rigid internal model about how people “should” behave, all these people are being unkind or inconsiderate, and possibly both.

If you do not have any awareness that this is to do with your internal model, and it therefore appears to you as if it is everyone else who are the causes of stress and that you can’t do anything about it… then that is a recipe for high levels of stress and upset.

If on the other hand you have models of the world that say things like “people are basically okay, they have good days and bad days, and most of them try to be nice even if they are not always able to be”, then the impact of the behavior of people in front of you in the queue or the checkout assistant will not be as negative or as intense, even if their behavior is exactly the same as in the previous example.

The only thing that has changed is you, the way you view those people and their behavior, and therefore it’s impact on you. Externally, the causes of stress may appear to be the same, but internally they are significantly different.

I know some people will take issue with this concept – hell, I have people in my own life who are very upset indeed at the idea that they may have anything to do with their own causes of stress.

I think it's quite natural and understandable to avoid the idea that something in you might be involved in the upsetting things in your life, especially if one of your early internal models is about getting blamed and shamed.

But it might be time to let it go.

What is my internal model?

To find out, you just need to listen carefully to the little voice – you know, the little one inside you, the one telling you...

  • ...that you Have To Be Perfect;

  • or that people (bosses/drivers/children/etc.) really shouldn’t behave like that

  • or that big boys don’t cry?

  • ...or whatever it is that yours is saying

These are examples of learnt beliefs or internal models that we adopted, often with roots way back in the mists of time when we were children, and we're not even sure how. In fact we are often unaware that we learnt them at all – we just see them as truths and rarely question them, and it can be tricky at first to see the link between these beliefs and stress.

The link is this: the beliefs that we created early in our lives are stored in our subconscious. The subconscious mind is like the hard drive of a computer, running the programmes to make things work exactly as they were originally input. In the normal run of things, nothing your conscious mind tells it – buck up, it's only a date/speech/deadline; etc; will get through and change it (there are ways to change it, see the Toolbox below).

And when things felt scary and threatening to us as children (which they most likely did sometimes, even if only momentarily and even if you don’t remember it), then our system makes no distinction between these threats and the herd of wild animals about to trample us to death.

So the system reacts to your boss firstly as if she were your parent who treated you in a similar manner and who terrified you into thinking you were bad, at fault, and in mortal danger of losing the positive attention on someone on whom your life depended; and also as if she were indeed, a herd of rhino charging straight for you. In other words, the stress you feel when your boss bullies you is a combination of external threat and internal model.

Which is not to say that your boss is not, objectively speaking, behaving badly – it may well be that she or he is. I certainly have first-hand experience of bosses who could give the average rhino a run for their money.

This is a potent and difficult mix. But there are ways that you can help relieve these pressures in the moment, as well as longer term approaches to becoming more centred and calm such as yoga.

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