How To Grow Up

Photo: amyelyse

How often do you become irrationally angry, and even though you fully recognize you’re overreacting, still find yourself unable to stop? Do you find yourself hurt by a careless word or gesture and find yourself acting petulantly in hopes the person who hurt you will recognize the damage they’ve done without you having to tell them how you feel? How about feeling jealous or insecure and showing off for someone you want to impress or make like you?

It’s not that any of these feelings are illegitimate.  We’re not consciously in control of what we feel—at least, not in the moment we feel it (over time we can change our emotional responses, but that takes work).  The problem is that we often find ourselves carried away by emotions we often don’t entirely understand and mostly don’t want, often leading us to wonder:  what can we do to better control ourselves?

The challenge we have in answering this question lies first with the fact that we’re not just one self.  We’re many selves—selves that are quite commonly at odds with one another.  If we’re dieting and come upon a tempting piece of chocolate cake, two of our selves immediately rise up to do battle, the self that wants to enjoy eating it and the self that wants to avoid the calories.  Which is our “true” self?  Does that question even make sense?  If not, how do we decide to which self we should be true?  That is, to which self will we be happier bowing in the long run?  Who is this “we” or “I” even asking such questions, anyway?

If we attempt to envision a hierarchy of selves, valuing one above another, we risk something that at first glance might sound quite strange but which ultimately proves itself a wonderfully legitimate concept:  we’ll alienate parts of ourselves from other parts as if these parts were entirely separate people.  And when that happens, when we scoff at some of our selves and their desires, they react just as if they were separate people:  they don’t like it, and they let us know it.  The self that wants that chocolate cake becomes even more fixated on eating it, refusing to allow our attention to focus on anything else.  The self that feels wounded for not having received the praise it thinks it deserves clamors for attention by drawing us toward impulsive acts, the more we dismiss its concerns or ignore them, the more petulant it becomes and the more likely we are to say or do something that risks embarrassment.  And the self that becomes enraged that it can’t have its way only gets madder when we try to rationalize why we didn’t, or even shouldn’t, dramatically increasing the likelihood of our acting out in ways that damage people—or even things—around us.

In therapy, patients are often taught this “parts model” as a way to give voice to the various conflicting and often “irrational” desires they feel, to legitimize these desires by embodying them as separate people all living within one body, whose concerns they listen to and work to compromise with.

Sometimes, in fact, we only recognize we have these parts by observing our own behavior carefully.  “Why did I get so angry about this?” we may pause to wonder.  “Why am I feeling so hurt about that?”  What makes these questions easier to ask and often frees us to admit truths to ourselves we find unpleasant or even abhorrent is conceiving of the owners of such truths as separate from our “core” selves.  If we can reach that mindset, we may actually be able to deactivate our ego enough to acquire some important information.

And once we have that information—once we know, for example, that we feel inferior to our colleagues, or unworthy of our spouse’s love—we can do with ourselves what we would do with a cherished friend about whom we learned something similar:  comfort and support them.  Care about them.  Tell them that what they’re feeling is valid.

This kind of self-talk, while not the entire answer to managing our “irrational” selves by any means, can still be extremely powerful and effective.  Just as people sometimes only need acknowledgment of their feelings, only need sometimes to be heard in order to feel satisfied, so too sometimes do parts of ourselves.  Of course, often that’s not enough.  Often, some parts of ourselves are too powerfully stirred up for empathetic listening and validation to placate them.  But we can’t begin to address their issues until we recognize they exist.  At which point then we can bring in professional help (such as therapy or anger management classes, etc.).

So the next time you find yourself acting a way that surprises you or that you wish you weren’t, don’t criticize yourself for it or dismiss your behavior as a fluke, or even worse settle on the first explanation for it that seems to make sense (as we’re cognitively biased to do).  Take a cue from children:  dialogue with yourself.  Approach yourself with a genuine sense of curiosity.  If you ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you are and give yourself permission to answer, you just might come across the real answer.  And then you’ll have taken the first step on the journey of genuine self-control.

Next WeekThe Exact Date Of Your Demise

26 comments to How To Grow Up

  • Hi Alex!

    My favorite line in The Desiderata is: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” I wonder what kind of world it would be if we treated ourselves the way you suggest, in this beautifully written post.

    You also make me wonder how I was able to give up junk food. Why has it been so easy? I practically invented opposite ends against the middle, conflicting voices battling it out. How was I able, in this one area of my life, to not be tempted by chocolate cake ever again? (Or for the cynics: two years, two months, twenty-four days, and counting!)

    Just curious,

    Maureen

    P.S. As a kid, Darrell asked an Ouija board about the subject of your next post, got spooked, and got reminded of that just now…

    Maureen: Tell Darrell I’m sorry I wigged him out. 😉

    Alex

  • HospiceRN

    I am trying to break a handful of small, irritating habits and knee jerk responses right now. This is really timely and helpful for me. Thanks!

  • Faith Petlon-Morgan

    As always, your wisdom is eerily guru-ish. 😉

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  • Paty

    Hi, great and timely post. Just today I got angry with my husband over something he said. It led to a long and terrible fight. I realized I had over-reacted to his comment during our fight but didn’t know how to admit it to him. Certainly if I had asked myself why I was so mad I may have realized that his comment wasn’t really that bad. Does it really work? Is there a trick to help you remember that you need to think why you are hurt? I really need to figure this out.

    Paty: It may help to identify “repeat offenders”—meaning parts of yourself that, say, repeatedly overreact—and give them a name. “Scared little girl,” for example (I have no idea if that name would be appropriate in your circumstance or not—just an example). Once a part has a name, dialoguing with it somehow becomes easier.

    Alex

  • S

    Very well written…this is such complex topic. Would love to see you go deeper into dealing with these “parts”…after all, all philosophies (at least the Eastern ones) tell us that the secret of equipoise is getting command of these various “parts.”

    S: One day, in a book, I will.

    Alex

  • Rose Dlhopolsky

    I find this “parts model” very interesting. I remember reading a psychology book many years ago that said that parts of my mind would rebel if I tried to change. These parts have lived together for my entire life and now they are being asked to live with someone new. I do not remember the name of the book. But this seems to add an additional level of difficulty when trying to change.

  • Ondrej CR

    What a beautiful insight! Thanks. I once heard a poetic native American version of this. It goes something like this … Asks a child: why some people are good and some bad? A tribe elder answers: it is because inside each of us there are two wolves who keep fighting one another—one is bad and the other good. Child: And which one will win? Elder: The one you feed, son.

  • Hi Alex, enjoyed your post (and the title as much as the post!). I’m familiar with the concept of the “selves” and often find working with it very helpful. For me, just recognizing their existence isn’t enough—as you point out. In these situations I use the “Dr. Phil approach”: in my thoughts I ask that self, “How’s that working for you?” Besides making me smile, it gives me a nudge towards more concrete ways to deal with what that self is trying to tell me.

    Works for me. 😉

  • Steven P

    Hi Alex—

    This post has given me a project. I can think of two set of circumstances where my reactions don’t seem to match with present reality but instead seem to be an over-reaction or an exaggeration. I have already named two parts within me “lonely boy” and “not good enough kid,” one or the other of which seem to be present when I over-react to a present set of circumstances.

    But I also have a question. Can it also be that an over-reaction or an irrational response happens because of a desire not to tell the truth (to others) about a current condition?

    Steven: I can easily imagine that could be the case.

    Alex

    Steven

  • Kash

    I am a mum of a son aged 7 and a daughter aged 6 who frequently over-reacts to silliness and normal childishness in my children. I get really upset when they do not do as they are told as soon as I tell them to do something. For example, in the evening after they’ve had their meal, I want to quickly give them a wash, supervise teeth-brushing, have story time and them put them to bed. I want all this done as quickly as possible so that I can have “me” time. However, as soon as their clothes are off, my children will usually start messing around, trying to do somer-saults, dancing little jigs, and doing anything but getting in the shower or bath. This makes me literally stark raving mad! I will shout and scream at them to do as they are told and GET INTO THE SHOWER! I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this, and have identified a “little girl who never allowed to be silly” and a “Mum who didn’t anticipate the daily grind of child-care.” I went to boarding school at the age of 6 and was with my parents only during the school holidays. I was never allowed to be silly and always did what I was told immediately, because the consequences could be dire. I do not have many memories of being parented by my Mum and Dad, and I find my reaction to my children’s silliness to be quite similar to that of the matrons who looked after us in primary boarding school. I feel really bad about being a matron instead of a mum to my lovely children, and worry that my explosiveness will have a long-term negative impact on them. I have recently come up with a strategy where I ask them to hold on to silly things they want to do and then show me after story time, when they can do their roly-poly’s and play horsey with each other. I don’t know if it will work. Also, although I now live in England, I am originally from Africa where I know I would have a lot more help with child-care available to me. I know I wouldn’t have to bathe my children myself every day. Parenting wouldn’t have to be as “hands-on” as I now find it. There would be a cousin, a sister, an aunt, a granny, or even a hired help on hand to help with things like this. I would give baths only when I had to or wanted to. I can forgive the “little girl who was never allowed to be silly,” but I find confronting the reluctant mum much more difficult. I feel ashamed of her and sometimes feel that if I had been aware of her existence, I shouldn’t have had children in the first place. Or perhaps I should take that reluctant mum and her children back to Africa, where her and her children might be better off psychologically despite the political, social and economic problems which made us leave in the first place.

    Kash: Boy, do I know what you mean. Though I don’t have the parts you so eloquently describe, I too react to my son sometimes with impatience when he’s not doing what I want him to do as fast as I want him to do it. You are far from alone in feeling what you do, though your reasons seem particularly anchored to your own past experiences. When I find myself impatient with him, I tell myself my son is only three-and-a-half and can’t be expected to understand an adult’s sense of urgency. Also, though he’s only a child, as he now says to me himself, “I like to do what I like to do.” Who of us doesn’t? Children may be small, but they want to impose their will on the world just like we adults. Give yourself a break. It’s perfectly okay to feel as you do (including feeling as if you shouldn’t have had children in the first place—I don’t know any parent with young children who doesn’t feel that sometimes, including me). That you’re acutely aware of the cause of your impatience and want to change it puts you far ahead of so many others who don’t even ask themselves why they’re impatient with their children. You may fail to control your impatience with them even now, but just knowing its cause I’m sure will help you to control yourself at least sometimes. And when you are impatient with them, you can always apologize, teaching them that we all make mistakes and as long as we own up to them, we can be forgiven.

    Alex

  • PL

    Many years ago a therapist taught me this technique…..when I find myself responding to something that has been said or done to me, in a way I know is not exactly appropriate, try to take a deep breath and count to 10. Then engage your ADULT person and realize that you are probably responding as you did as a child and always have. But now, how would you like to respond as an adult? Probably calmer, with some insight to what would be more appropriate. It doesn’t always stop my reactions, but it has helped!

  • lisa

    Childlike, it’s biblical!

  • Diana

    Alex, your topic really hit home for me! And the comments are helpful, too. I’ve been using the technique this week, and it’s helped. It’s hard, though for me to separate my current self from my much younger self. I always said that “my mind has a mind of its own.” And noticed that one side of my brain would just watch, knowing that there were events or things that contradicted the sad thoughts, as the other side did its crazy thing. And right now, it’s hard for me to separate my current self from another self that appeared recently. Any suggestions?

    Also, in the 7th paragraph when we feel inferior to our colleages or unworthy of our spouse’s love, we can tell them [our other selvs] that what they’re feeling is valid. By “valid,” you most likely mean that there is a reason these other selves feel that way, not that they are realy inferior or unworthy.

    Diana: To your first question: practice. To your second: yes, saying a feeling is valid doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

    Alex

  • David Hare

    Hi, Alex,
    Very thought-provoking post; thank you and a great reminder of the battles that go on between our ears! I think every voice and feeling we have in our minds is absolutely worth listening to and contains valuable lessons for us, even if we don’t always like them very much to begin with! I believe (but cannot prove) that our true authentic “core” self is expressed through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo which, over time, can transform “poison into medicine” and reveal the positive mission within “negative” karma. Anger, especially, is an incredibly useful emotion once we start to “point it in the right direction.”

    I find that when we do, as you suggest, “grow up,” we begin to realize that in and of itself Anger is neither good nor bad. It all depends on what you do with this incredible energy. Is your anger protecting your small ego? Your reputation? Your low self-esteem? Or is your anger standing up for the dignity of life? Do you get angry at others because you don’t want to apologize for your own mistakes, such is your need to be right all the time? Or are you using your anger to benefit others as well as yourself? Are you using your anger to magnify a problem? Or to find a solution? Is your anger keeping you stuck in the past? Or are you channeling it to improve your future? In short, is your anger destructive or creative?

    I have battled with all of the above through my 26 years of Buddhist practice and feel I am now really starting to make progress.

    Rather surprisingly perhaps, the emotion that seems to move in when anger moves out is compassion. Where anger separates us by focusing on what makes us different, compassion focuses on our shared humanity. There is a saying that only “hurt people hurt” and compassion (which of course can be strict sometimes) enables us to keenly perceive and empathize with the pain of the people we may find it most difficult to be with. I think this is when we are really touching our core, authentic self who realizes every person (and also every thought in our heads) is part of the universal life force and therefore worthy of the deepest respect.

    Thanks again for your lovely post,
    David

    http://www.davidhare.uk.com

  • Diana

    After reading the last comment, I want to share more. I’ve been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for 18 years. Only recently have I been able to catch my thoughts. Anger and irritability is also present after I do a major task, like grocery shopping or laundry (I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—post exertional relapse is a consequence.)

    I’ve been able to decrease that kind of anger. The deep sadness in my heart is always there.I keep practicing at changing my thoughts and asking myself why I feel like that.

  • Diana

    Another comment: I’ve thought a lot about the idea of treating your other selves with care and compassion, as you would other people with similar problems. Even after years of supporting other SGI members and other friends, I offered suggestoins rather than telling them that they’re feelings are valid, though I did show care and compassion. That’s why it’s a bit difficlt to do that for my other selves. I’m now working on that.

  • David Hare

    Message for Diana: asking yourself why you feel the sadness can be a great question, but it depends on whether you are looking forward or backward. If you look backward you only see unfathomable karma—we have no idea what causes we created in previous lives. If you look forward you see mission and that is yours to create every day and in every daimoku.

    Try chanting until you see “Why?” as a positive, forward-looking question. So instead of “I am sad because I did…” you get: “I have experienced sadness SO THAT I CAN….” Then from your own reservoir of boundless Buddha wisdom will spring insights that complete the answer:

    “So that I can… be more compassionate / learn to love my parents / fulfill my full potential at work / find a relationship based on deep respect…” or whatever your own unique mission is.

    I experienced 18 months of deep depression after 21 years of practice and this approach eventually worked for me, as did treasuring life (mine and other people’s)—in fact I think that everything Nichiren taught depends on you deeply feeling in your heart that life is precious. This is the joy of the Mystic Law and ultimately it overpowers all sadness. 🙂

  • Sarah

    Alex, have read through your post and comments, and wow, what a great topic & discussion! I’ve gotten some helpful insights just from reading through it all. Thanks!

    Sarah: Glad you found it helpful.

    Alex

  • Diana

    Message for David Hare: Thanks so much for your suggestion.I tried it yesterday and it helped. I printed it and read your comment often, as well as the blog and all the comments.

    Thanks again, Alex, for a wonderful, timely post.

  • Thanks for this. I’ve read it a couple of times and it keeps making an impact on me. I think I spend too much time/energy fighting/critizing what I feel instead of excepting them.

  • Liz

    This totally makes sense to me! My counselor last semester said that I was a “multifaceted little diamond” and I was discovering different sides to my personality. It’s been 8 months since she told me that, and I’ve discovered a bunch of selves that all live inside my head. I thought I had a creative way to deal with my experiences, but the concept of selves sounds like a legit description of what I’m doing.

    Logical Liz: She thinks things through. Often retains the advice that parents and my best friend tell her, but doesn’t want to listen. Makes reasonable decisions. Argues with Emotional.

    Elizabeth the Emotional Basket case: Drama queen. Blows everything out of proportion. Likes to play the worst-possible-situation game. Needs Logical Liz to boof her upside the head.

    Lizzy the 5 year old: My inner child. Growing up, my mother was the “bad cop” parent, so I just gave into what my mom wanted because if I didn’t, I’d get in trouble. Lizzy is my chance to parent myself and raise myself the way I wanted to be raised (talking it out instead of yelling and extreme discipline).

    Zit Face: Glutton. Discovered her when I was 13, and I’d eat massive quantities of food without paying attention to calories.

    Dirty Mistress Facebook: Addicting games on Facebook are her forte. She shows up when I have an insomnia attack, and she makes me question my priorities (staying up until 4 am harvesting my crops and looking at stupid stuff online is more important than practicing saxophone or looking for a summer job).

    Superhero: He helps me with confidence issues. Wearing sunglasses helps trigger the superhero. The Superhero doesn’t care about looking stupid in front of lots of people (he showed up a lot during marching band season when we free-styled to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”). Fights with the Inner Critic.

    Inner Critic: Fights with the Superhero. He hides whenever there are other people in the room, but when I’m by myself, that’s when he comes out and bullies me. He makes me feel extremely self-conscious and inferior. Starts adding his opinion when I start second-guessing myself.

    This article has been very insightful. Thank you!

    Liz: That’s a great list. Sounds like you’re finding this paradigm helpful.

    Alex

  • Li

    Thanks for such a great post. It was very timely as my counselor has pointed out in my last session that I have a very harsh critic within me and I give myself a hard time. I dug deeper and realized that this harsh critic grew up with me since I was a little girl thinking that my parents do not love me and I need to overachieve and over-perform in order to get their love.

    Now that I’m all grown up, this harsh critic is still here with me, judging my failures and also secretly judging everyone else. What can I tell this harsh judge when she shows up to tell me that I cannot afford to make any mistakes or to fail at anything? Do I need to create another voice to counter her?

    Li: I would do exactly that. Any voice that doesn’t recognize the value of making a mistake needs to be educated. How did we all learn to walk? By falling down, getting back up, and trying things just a little bit differently, a way that we wouldn’t have thought to try had we not failed first. The difference between people who succeed and fail is indeed the number of times each fails—the people who succeed failing more than the people who don’t.

    Alex

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