Do you recognize those moments where it feels like you are being lived? That some kind of authority is commanding you to freak out, even though you hardly know why? You look in the mirror and don’t recognize the image of the stamping kid with clenched fists, raging about what s/he’s not getting.
He simply asked me for a cup of tea. No more than that. After a long travel to come to see me, he asks me the favor of making him tea. Instead of getting up and giving him something he longs for, I feel rebellion coming up. “Why don’t you get it yourself?” It’s out before I know it. I see the disappointment in his face.
The gremlins in our mind
In order to cope with situations in our lives, we developed certain strategies. The stamping kid might have been a very effective strategy when you were young and your parents weren’t the most decisive persons. As long as you screamed loud enough, you would get that second or third cookie. And when you didn’t finish your homework, rebelling against the teacher’s rules might have saved your ass from staying in after school.
We all have a theater full of characters that we can use to deal with situations. Putting on the tough-nut-mask is very useful when we want to get something done from a phone booth worker from the customer service of a phone company when our mobile phone isn’t working well. But more often, the characters take over unrequested and get the best of us. We don’t realize that one of our sub-personalities takes over the stage management instead of just playing a part in the play we observe. Brené Brown, author of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ calls the strategies we have that ultimately keep us small gremlins.
You might be aware of a few sub-characters or gremlins you have. The stamping toddler for example, is probably quite familiar for you. Have you also met these gremlins possibly featuring in you show? *
- The diehard pessimist
- The raging to-do list addict
- The violent, vengeful murderer
- The flaming sex-maniac
- The innocent victim
- The naïve girl/boy
- The slave driver
- The control freak
- The inner critic
- The rebellious adolescent
- Your mother
- Your father
- The gossiping neighbor
*A thank you to my friend Jamie Catto who gave the inspiration for this list. He knows his gremlins well.
All these characters, these gremlins, have their own agenda. Without anyone taking lead, the characters will create their own script, leaving no space for a director. They might quarrel with one another, screaming as loud as they can to be heard and acted out. Is there a friendly way to exorcise these spirits from our presence?
The ‘Who’s driving your bus?’ analogy
You can see yourself as a bus. The different characters in your mind are the passengers on the bus. There’s the driver’s seat behind the wheel, and several places in the front, middle and end of the bus. The driver is in control of where the bus goes and how fast it drives; the driver has control over your life.
In the beginning it is difficult to find out who’s behind the wheel, because you are the character, instead of observing a character acting out. You won’t even notice that a gremlin took over, because you become the gremlin.
Who is it you want behind the wheel then? Which of the characters is capable of driving the bus without sabotaging our happiness?
For me, it’s the calm and grounded observer. She understands the gremlins and sees through their agendas. Because all the characters, how mean they may seem, have ground to act from. They essentially want to protect me, even though it comes out clumsy and hurting. My stamping toddler is just a young girl that wants to be seen. My rebellious teenager tries to convince people she is smart and deserves to be loved. My flaming sex maniac longs for touch and surrender.
Essentially, all the characters want the same thing: they want to feel safe, loved and seen.
The observer holds space for all of them, without letting them take over the wheel. They can come and sit next to the driver, or even stand next to her while they are screaming and shouting in distress. But the observer is not giving in. By letting them say what they want, the characters blow off steam and calm down. The observer listens without interrupting. And when the character is done, she tells them she sees them and loves them. That’s all. No judgments. Nobody is kicked out of the bus. The observer simply invites the character to find a comfy seat somewhere on the bus.
How to consciously choose who’s driving your bus
1. Become aware of the gremlins
The first step towards consciously choosing who is driving your bus is becoming aware of when a gremlin takes over. When my observer is behind the wheel, I feel relaxed. There might be emotions flowing through me, I might even be afraid, but nothing is taking over. I observe what is moving through me. I can step out of whatever is going on any moment. My body feels relaxed, my breathing is calm.
As soon as a gremlin takes over, my thoughts go crazy. ‘What if…’ thoughts rush around. ‘What if they don’t like me?’ ‘What if all goes wrong?’ ‘What if they will hurt me?’ I feel anxiety, insecurity and this time, they do take over. My mind focuses on a future situation or a perceived problem, often something I don’t have any influence on. It seems like my whole world turns around this situation and nothing else really matters.
At first, it can take days before you realize you are stuck in a place of no control with a gremlin driving the bus. Trust that at some point you will realize that you are not behaving how you want to behave. This is the moment that you have the choice to stay where you are – or change things.
What helps me, is literally going outside when I feel stuck within. Looking out over a beautiful landscape, the sea, or a forest makes it easier to breathe and to realize I’m not where I want to be.
You can also ask a friend to flag you when s/he feels you are stuck inside a character. Be aware that it will hurt when someone tells you and it might be hard to believe. The gremlin will want to act out even more fiercely. Agree with yourself that when you are flagged, you take a moment to yourself and take the feedback you just received in, how untrue it might feel. Could it be they’re right?
2. Decide to take over the wheel
It takes courage to drive a bus. It can feel much easier to let a gremlin drive, because you know the sulking victim will get the attention you long for, even though it’s not the nurturing kind, but the pity that will only feed this gremlin. All the characters had success at some point. They worked for you; that’s why they are still in business.
Realize that all the characters got their shot of love, approval and attention outside. They depended on others to relax in the moment. It’s like an addiction: the solution works only shortly, and you need more each time. The grounded observer realizes that an addiction never really satisfies, and true fulfillment comes from within. S/he can still ask others from support, but s/he doesn’t depend on it any longer.
The transition from being a love-addict to a self-supporting person is scary and it can bring up old emotions. But in order to take back the wheel – and ultimately control over our lives – we need to move through this stage.
3. Cuddle your gremlins
The gremlins are essentially inner children; parts of you that long to be brought into the light, to be seen. Shutting them out won’t help. On the contrary, they will wait for an unexpected moment and come back haunting you, stronger than before.
See the gremlins for who they are: little children who knock on your door, asking for your love. You can create the image in your mind where you, the grounded observer, hold a baby, toddler, cute gremlin or whatever works for you in your arms. Ask it what it needs and don’t judge the intuitive answer that pops up in your head. Open your heart for the little creature and see what happens. Most probably the problem that seemed so huge will dissolve into thin air.
Once I am in this stage I often feel my heart fill with love and my body relaxes. I can smile at myself again, put a hand on my heart and sigh “It’s all okay dear. You are being loved. You are safe here.”
The gremlins or the different sub-characters we have are our teachers. They show us where we can improve in our lives. They teach us how we can consciously reclaim the control of the direction and speed of our lives. Sometimes they seem a bit scary, but in essence, they are sweet little creatures helping us to bring out the best in us.
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