The Thinking Process: Solo or Group Activity?

Seek Others or Go Within


What are you like when you are dealing with a real crisis? Do you talk it through with your friends? Post on social? Or do you close in? Get insular, get very quiet?

Internal processors and external processors respond very differently to personal issues, and not just times of crisis. Any big decision or event that has a lot of moving parts can spur the processing of information differently.

External processors need to talk about what is going on. Internal processors require space and silence in which to think and feel.

I am an internal Processor. I can and will talk about stuff all day long, but if something is really wrong with me, I go into vacuum-of-space silence. It can even take days before I will share with my husband, who is my deepest intimate.


I have twice had friends accuse me of relationship missteps because of this natural way of being for me. The first was when I was getting divorced and a friend said I always hide “the tell.” I hadn’t been sharing my relationship troubles along the way so it was a surprise to her that the relationship was ending. She said I was a “hider.” 

I took this to heart and felt bad for my friend that I had committed some friendship infraction by not letting her in. It was bad enough that I was going through this tumultuous event and hadn’t been ready to share, but added to that was the belief now that I had hidden the truth.

The second time was when a different friend reproached me for never sharing anything until I could tie it up with a pretty bow and bring it to the conversation fully formed. Again, I took this to heart and felt bad for years because I felt like I couldn’t have a genuine conversation about what was going on with me and all I could do was put on a performance. This lead to a lot of oversharing and sharing before I was ready.

Neither of these charges against me were or are true. Both of them came with the explicit complaint that I was doing it wrong and needed to change this about me to be more authentic and to be a better friend. Relationships are kinda my thing so when someone I value offers criticism in this arena, I take that seriously.

It wasn’t until I learned about internal and external processors, though, that I understood how wrong they were about me, and how wrong I had been to let their assessment of me have any affect on my own perception of myself.

To be sure, internal processors can make people feel blindsided and a little like they’re coming into a conversation already in progress. This is a social grace I have had to learn because it does matter to me that my people feel included in my life. I am no loner.

It’s (Not) Personal


As an internal processor, I need space and time to think things through. This is why I have had a consistent morning pages practice for 15 years (minus a couple of spotty seasons around years 11-13). This is fundamentally why I am a writer. I cannot think deeply out loud. I have to think on the page or in the silence of nothing distracting me (a core reason why busy–culture is so damaging to internal processors). I need boat loads of alone time. Sometimes I want to escape to a cabin in the woods just to be alone with my thoughts. Luckily my current life is pretty quiet and allows me space for this.


External processors, on the other hand, need to talk about stuff with other people to know what they think. They don’t need other people to tell them what to think. They just need the back and forth to sort out their own thoughts and feelings.


Neither way is better, of course, but understanding these differences is sort of like a lens on a love language. If your friend needs to talk it all through, giving the gift of precious gab can be soul renewing for them. If your friend doesn’t share until things are a little farther in the action than you think they should have shared, that doesn’t need to be judged as a snub. It’s much more likely that they needed time to consider some stuff about it before launching it out into the world.


As an internal processor, if I do share something, it means I’ve got it to a place where I would genuinely like help sorting out the next steps. Or maybe I’ve even gotten stuck in my own thoughts. I’ve gone as far on my own as I needed to and I now need the intimacy of conversation (spoken or written will usually work equally well for me because of my love of the page, but this isn’t necessarily true for all internal processors).

My people and I sustain fruitful conversations daily about the deep thoughts as well as the fluffy stuff. But only after I have done my internal processing. No pretty bow, just a solitary sorting that has taken place usually on the page before I turn the focus outward.

Our society may privilege one way over the other, as is often the case with introverts and extroverts, but neither is inherently superior. The real juice comes from knowing how you are, and knowing how your people are. Knowing when you need to sit still and get quiet to think through a problem in the midst of a busy day. Or knowing that you need to be a part of a community, online or in person, where you are seen and heard and valued. These are base needs of internal and external processors.

Process We Must, However We Do It

In the end, we must process. If we don’t, all the issues get stuck in our tissues, and that results in pain: physical, emotional, mental. Finding my way is a chief pursuit of my life. My way is not always the majority’s way, so sometimes it’s harder to excavate and discover. But discover I do, mostly by myself and on the page, and then sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can bring it forth like pretty present with a colorful bow in case it might help others.

Article © May 24, 2024 Susan James, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. This article and many others are available at