Our Cast of Characters: A Worked Example

The whole post today is a worked example of how we can use the ideas discussed in the previous post “You are not the only voice in your head“.
It should hopefully help make a lot of the abstract ideas discussed there a bit more concrete. If you haven’t read that one, I recommend you read that before you read this. This will make more sense that way.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

It’s been a really long day. The project deadline is coming up soon and there is still so much to do.

We leave the office very late and we get home totally exhausted.

Our beloved is already in bed, fast asleep. All we want right now is a warm cup of calming herbal tea, and to join them in dreamland.

We open the door to our cosy kitchen/dining room. The shock of what we see freezes us in the doorway!

It looks like a tornado has struck! The place is a total mess!

There are dirty dishes scattered everywhere, with bits of unidentified stuff drying on them. Dirty cooking knives, forks and other cutlery have been left lying in random places. Pieces of raw, unidentifiable ingredients sticking to different cooking surfaces. What we hope are food stains seeping into the fabric of our dining chairs.

As we see our kitchen in this horrible state (again!), as we think of stepping into this mess to start cleaning up (again!), a terrible maelstrom of emotions begins to swirl in our belly. It grows, gathering force, rising through our chest. Many feelings competing, so powerful that they feel like a physical pressure, constricting our chest with a tightness that makes it hard to breathe. A turbulent tightness of swirling emotions filling our belly, our chest and then exploding out of our heart in a single form!


“Who lives like this?! I mean, look at this!!
How can anyone be so inconsiderate!?!  
This is not normal!! What kind of person does this??!!
And they are just sleeping!! Beloved, Schmeloved!!
Is this what they think I am!!??”

We can feel ourselves getting carried away in the torrent. The pressure and rage building up to the point where we have to do something. Damn the consequences!

We take a deep breath in

We let the deep breath out

Then we ask our council a question, “What is it, in this situation, that is making us so angry?”

Our animal practically roars it’s answer:
“Because they are doing this on purpose!!
This is not just laziness! We have asked them a million times to try to be more tidy, to clean up after themselves. They purposely ignore us!!!
And they know how busy we have been at work! They know how exhausted we will be, still they are doing this to us!
They are purposefully causing us this pain. They are attacking us!!”

The force of its answer is a burning flame, a tornado, a tidal wave!

We take a deep breath in

We let the deep breath out

We know the purpose of our anger is to protect us. Whenever our animal feels we are being threatened or being attacked, it rises up with all the power at it’s disposal, to help us destroy the thing threatening us.

So we talk to our animal, with as calm a voice as we can manage.

“Yes, this is a terrible mess. Yes, I really don’t know how a single human being can create this amount of rubbish in a single evening. Yes, we are exhausted. Yes it is unreasonable to expect us to come home from a long day at work and still have to do so much cleaning, before we can even think of relaxing or going to bed.”

“But we are not under attack.”

“We have always known they are untidy. You remember how messy their place used to be when we started dating? We never even used to enter their kitchen.
True, it is still sometimes a shock to be reminded how untidy they are. And honestly, we thought it would be something they would eventually improve on.”

“Still, we are not under attack. It is a stressful situation but there is no enemy here. I promise you we are safe. I will keep us safe. Just let me handle it.”

As our animal listens, our anger begins to dissipate a bit, but it doesn’t yet disappear completely.

Our animal brain hears what we are saying, but it is not yet totally sure whether it can trust us or not in this situation.

It slowly backs down though and waits in the shadows. Growling gently as it watches us.

Our breathing begins to calm, we can feel ourselves coming back to balance. We are thinking “It will be okay, I just have to talk to them about it”

Then suddenly, Pain!!!

A shockingly powerful pain!! It feels like our heart is breaking!!

Our child is terrified and suffering. This is one of the things our anger was trying to protect us from.

“They won’t listen!!” our child whimpers between sobbing breaths,
“We know they won’t listen! We have asked them to be tidier before!!
We have argued, we have complained! They never listen!!
They don’t care about us!! Our beloved doesn’t love us!
They might even hate us because we are always nagging them about this!! They probably do hate us!! Because we are always complaining!!
Maybe…, maybe we don’t deserve to be loved!”

The amount of pain that accompanies our child’s cries is surprisingly powerful. It is almost overwhelming!

As the pain rises, the animal that was waiting in the corner starts to rise. It wants to protect us again, to turn that pain into an even more powerful anger!

We take a deep breath in

We let the deep breath out

We raise a finger to our animal. A sign that it should wait. We promised we would handle this and that is what we intend to do.

“I know it feels that way.” We say to our child.
“I really don’t understand why they are still so messy.
Asking them to be tidier seems like an easy, reasonable request. But they are still messy.
I don’t know why they do that. But I know they do love us and they value us too.”

Our child is paying attention to us now. As we begin to catch our breath, we continue

“Remember, the last time we were sick? How carefully they took care of us?
Preparing hot soup for us? Rubbing icky smelling stuff on our chest?
Looking up all sorts of remedies on the internet? Then panicking because the internet convinced them we had some terrible disease?
Or remember how much thought they put into getting us that gift on our birthday?
Or how they wake up early and make us a hot cup of coffee every morning? While we are still in the shower (yes, we do have to clean up after them then too)?
Even how they sit with us to watch our favorite program each week. A show they normally won’t like but still they laugh with us, ask interesting questions and now we have all these inside jokes based on it?

Those are just some of the ways they show their love for us.

Yes, sometimes I do wish they would show that love in the ways I ask, rather than just the ways they know how.

But don’t be afraid. They do love us. We are worthy of love. And we have it.
They have shown us their love many times, I believe we can trust that love. ”

As we speak, we can feel the pain slowly receding.

From the overwhelming agony of our very being getting ripped apart, to the dull throbbing of a wound that is still raw, but is beginning to heal.

Our child also begins to step back. No longer wailing, it curls up on a couch in the corner. Sticking it’s thumb in it’s mouth and watching us with the sleepy eyes of a child who has just stopped crying.

“So,” a very reasonable sounding voice pipes up,
“Is this going to be the rest of our life? Scrubbing kitchen surfaces in the middle of the night, while telling ourselves ‘They are really not that bad’? ”

The voice itself doesn’t carry any very strong emotion, this is our smart brain, doing what it’s best at, questioning and analyzing.

However, we can feel some of our other animal brain and child brain characters listening to the conversation, waiting to hear our answer.

“I honestly don’t know.” We answer.
“As a whole, our relationship is actually a good one.
Most of our days with them are happy in a comfortable way.

Even the messiness is not usually a problem.
Usually, we both get home early, they cook a lovely dinner and I’m happy to clean up afterwards.

It is only really a problem on days when I’ve been at work late and get home exhausted. We did promise to love them ‘for better or worse’. There is a lot more ‘Better’ in our relationship than ‘Worse’ .”

“Hmmm,” our smart brain considers,
“If that’s the case, perhaps we should just stop complaining about it then? We can focus on the instead and avoid unnecessary arguments.”

“That makes sense.” we concede,
“However, this is still a real problem.
I am exhausted and I do need to get up early for work tomorrow.
There will be a more late nights before this project is over.
And there will probably be more hectic projects like this in our future.
I think it is at least worth having another conversation to see if we can improve the situation.”

“Okay. But we have had many conversations asking them to be more tidy. They try for a little while but it never lasts long. Sometimes all it does is cause arguments.“

“Well, if they can’t be generally tidier, perhaps we can ask for something else then? A more specific way they can do something to help?”

“That might work. We only need help on days when we are working late. What if we ask that, on days when we are not home before they go to bed, they help us clean up?”

“Clean up is too general. We know they are not good at that. What if we ask for three specific things? Wipe down the surfaces, put the dishes in the dishwasher and take out the rubbish.”

“Oh, and we can send a text message to remind them if we’re working late.”

“No! Not to remind them, to ask for their help. So it doesn’t come across unintentionally judgmental or nagging.”

“Cool. So we ask them to help with the three things.”

 “Oh! Remember what that book ‘Men are from mars, Women are from Venus‘ mentioned? It had an exercise to communicate stuff in a loving way when you’re upset! Should we try that?”

“Awesome idea, where did we keep the book again?”

The conversation becomes more and more lively as ideas start flying back and forth.

At this point, it is no longer clear which voice is suggesting which ideas. But that is okay.
Our council of characters is united again. All their different powers and skills are coming together to solve the problem.

We finish wiping down the last surface. Feeling much more positive than when we first got home.

The problem is no longer that big as it looked initially. We are even a bit excited to try out some of the suggestions our council has come up with.

Finally, once we are done, we head inside to join our beloved in bedroom. As we enter, we notice a shoe they have left lying in front of the door.

We smile, shaking our head as we step over it as we crawl into bed.

“That’s okay”, we and our council think in unison, drifting off to sleep.
“We’ll just ask them to pick it up in the morning.”

Phew!! I hope you enjoyed that.
More importantly, I hope it provides a good template for using the idea of our cast of characters to deal with intense complicated emotions.
It is a common mistake, when dealing with such emotions, to try to identify the single issue or problem we need to find and resolve to feel better.
When we can’t find a single problem to solve (or when we succeed in solving one aspect only to end up feeling worse), we get overwhelmed and give up on the whole idea. Without realizing it may have been working.
The purpose of this model is to give us a more intuitive tool to work through this kind of feelings.

The Deep Cleansing Breath:
This is a surprisingly effective technique for calming down , in the moment, when we are being overwhelmed by strong emotions. It brings temporary relief and clarity, which we can then use to try to identify and address the underlying cause of the problem.

Simply, we inhale very deeply. Slowly if possible. Not rushing at all. Filling up every corner of our lungs with air. Then we exhale as much air out as possible. More slowly this time, bringing our lungs back to their normal size. Some people recommend counting to three on the inhale and counting to three on the exhale.

If it helps, we can visualize the anger, fear, heartbreak, etc. as a small part of us that has been so overwhelmed with emotion that it is glowing hot, like a hot coal, and starting to burn. This burning creates a lot of smoke inside us, making it hard for us to clearly see the original source of our pain so that we can help.
When we take in the deep breath, we are breathing in clean, cool, peaceful, calming air. As much of it as possible.
That clean, cool, calming air comes into our lungs and, because it is cool, settles underneath the hot, smoky angry air. The hot smoky air now rises to the top of our lungs. When we exhale, we are exhaling all that hot, blinding smoke out of our body and it gets blown away. Leaving us much clearer.
We are literally breathing in calmness and exhaling anger, breathing in peace of mind and exhaling fear, breathing in love and exhaling heartbreak.

Keep in mind this is temporary though. The underlying issue still needs to be found and resolved. The glowing coal still needs to be put out.

For Further Study

The Road Less Travelled – By Scott Peck
Yes, this book again! Oh, you’ve already read it? Awesome!
I recommend it here because it talks about ways we can talk to our inner voices. They don’t just believe anything we tell them. We need to be honest, authentic and informed when talking to them. We actually need to actively search for true answers to their worries so that we can encourage and train them to work with us better. And, it turns out, the truth is actually good.
I’ll talk more about this in future but why wait and listen to me, when you can learn it yourself from this book? 😊

Mindset (Updated Edition) – By Carol Dweck
I only recently read this book. Otherwise, I would have recommended it many, many times already.
Our ability and method of interacting with our cast of characters is greatly affected by how we view our ability to change, our ability to grow. This books digs into that perception. We often under estimate our brains flexibility (elasticity). We underestimate it’s ability to adjust to our changing experience of the world in positive ways. We think “I’m just a grouchy person”, “I’m no good at math”, “I can’t make friends”. And those beliefs themselves become cages trapping our cast of characters and making it impossible for them to grow.
Carol Dweck is a Developmental Psychologist, considered one of the foremost experts in her field. In this book she discusses ways we can tap into our brains massive potential, simply by acknowledging that that potential is there.

This video really isn’t educational 😒, it is funny though.😊


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