Think about Russian Dolls: one large figure contains another who contains another and another and another. We too have many parts to our personality: we show one aspect to our parents, another to our friends another to our colleagues and so on. And there are parts of our personalities that tend to make us act in certain ways when we become stressed.
Many of us will have experienced some kind of intense event or events, perhaps falling over hurting ourselves more than usual and being told not to cry, to toughen up. Or spending too long alone too often. Or feeling very frightened and being told that we’re being stupid or silly. It doesn’t have to be horrific abuse or a life-threatening incident: not being heard and seen properly, not being met where we were in those moments when we really needed to be, not being told, “Yes, you’re right, what you’re experiencing is real,” means that we learn that it’s more acceptable to hide those parts of ourselves away.
Very few of us are able to access these dismissed and hidden parts of ourselves with ease. We don’t like it when we become angry or sullen or overexcited and so it seems better to squash those repressed feelings down too. Some people begin to feel out of control, even if it’s just raising their voice at a friend or co-worker or having to go to the loo rather than cry in public. Some people find they begin to need the light on at night, or to check if they’ve switched off the gas, or become fearful of travelling on the underground. Very gently, things start moving further out of control, not in any huge way.
But the feelings begin to impact daily life. They might feel enraged at small things or panicky if a routine has to change. Stress? Absolutely, and there’s lots of ordinary stuff we can do to reduce stress. Some people come to therapy. All of us bring our past with us wherever we go, and it’s often appropriate to gently and at the clients pace begin to explore that.
Michael and I had built up enough trust for him to feel comfortable enough to experiment with what it was like to try speaking with his younger self. Using a spare chair I asked him to imagine that his younger self was sitting there. I said hello and spoke towards the chair as if younger Michael was sitting there and in time began asking him questions. Of course, the person who knew the answer to these questions was Michael himself who was astonished and suddenly much less sceptical.
Michael began speaking to his younger self – it always feels embarrassing the first time you talk to an empty chair - and discovered that a whole new part of his awareness was opening up. He asked questions, got answers and remembered all kinds of things many of them very pleasurable and fun. I was able to observe and note when Michael shut his younger self down by saying things like, “Oh don’t worry about that, don’t be silly” or something similar, and together we were able to think about how useful these kinds of responses were both in real life and in Michaels past.
Michael continued talking with his younger self, then found himself responding to that part; he was able to recognise a feeling of deep sadness that arose before more obvious feelings of feeling stupid or vulnerable or unworthy. He asked his younger self about that sadness and learned that if he was able to do the imaginary equivalent of holding his 9 year old self's hand and say that it was OK to be sad, the sadness quickly diminished and more shameful feelings didn't arise with such intensity and in time, much at all. Which meant that he became very much less likely to be bullied at work.
Conceptualising this process in this way made it more easy to grasp: younger Michael needed empathy, comfort, love – basically positive attention – and in providing it for him(self) adult Michael was healing some old wounds.
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