Calming the Storm Within
by Keith Miller, LICSW
Is it hard for you to snap out of your sour moods? Or have you ever done one thing but believe you should be doing another? The reason for our mood swings and inconsistencies is often a mystery that eludes us. You may even “hear” one part of you debate the reason for or against a certain action. One person told me “It’s like there’s a constant storm within me…parts of me that collide and battle together and make me anxious.”
You might be surprised to hear that you’re not alone and it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy. It is possible to orchestrate what may seem like overwhelming forces within and create the “I” in the storm; a centered place of peace in the middle of a swirl of energy. You can tap all of the energy you previously used to fight yourself and turn it into something more satisfying and peaceful.
How is this possible? First we have to re-define what is normal.
A New Normal: Natural Multiplicity of the Mind
I want to introduce you to something called natural multiplicity of the mind that redefines what is normal and can radically change your perception of yourself. Since I’m sometimes prone to be a skeptic, I was initially dubious of natural multiplicity because not only does it teach that it’s normal to have voices in your head, it encourages you to talk back to them.
Gulp! Talking to the voices? You got it right. But it’s not what you think. It’s not the delusional voices of mental illness that I’m talking about, although those fit in to this in ways I’ll explain some other time.
Most of us instinctively try to tamp down any signs of multiplicity inside of us, since we are socialized to fit in and be “of one mind” to others. As a result, we often ignore the wide diversity of our inner “voices.” These voices come in the form of thoughts patterns, sensations, or emotions. What we call “thinking” is often our inner dialogues with different parts of us.
Many people are relieved to know multiplicity is normal but ask why it’s normal to have a mind that isn’t uniform. Think about when you had to take on a role in your job or school that was very different from something you normally do. When you were in one role, you had to compartmentalize the rules of how to act in the other role. Our brain naturally does much the same thing when multiple, complex demands are placed upon it. Parts of us get created to adapt to stress and trauma or to help us connect to others and get our needs met in various situations.
The “I” of the Storm
Techniques I use called Voice Dialogue and Self Leadership facilitate interactions with your inner life to make you more conscious of it. Voice Dialogue, as the name implies, helps you gain comfort identifying and defining the various voices (parts) of you. Self leadership teaches you how to interact with your parts so that you lead your parts rather than your parts leading you. You become the “I” in the storm around which moves the varying and sometimes conflicting parts. Facilitation is practiced in therapy sessions and you are encouraged to use the exercises on your own.
Clothing the Invisible Forces Within
Each approach asks you to use some creativity and imagination in order to speak the language of multiplicity. Active imagination becomes the media upon which is rendered a representation of real phenomena occurring inside of you. (As I was experimenting with this approach initially, my rational part of me-that often thinks imagination equals nonsense-actually pointed out that the field of mathematics is highly imaginative and yet is an obvious tool that empowers us to achieve otherwise unthinkable results in the real world.)
To imagine that we have ongoing, complex relationships with our many different parts as though they are relationships with actual people is to put clothes on the previously invisible forces within us. Once clothed, these forces take on definition in ways previously unforeseen. We can learn to take a front row seat and observe these now graphically visible figures within us. In fact, we eventually learn that we are the observer, the stage, the writer, the director and the actors. Our complex brain is capable of amazing flexibility that can be used to benefit the work of psychotherapy.
As we get comfortable interacting with our many selves more directly, our parts learn to interact with us-to trust us. When this happens, people report feeling a tremendous sense of peace and calm very similar to that experienced from meditation. But unlike meditation, which seeks to empty the mind and induce a state of calm, self leadership allows you to experience calmness while being very mentally active. All of the energy inside of you that previously had no labels and no avenue for expression begins to have an organized and reliable way to communicate with you to resolve the conflicts it creates.
Why Natural Multiplicity Can Be Naturally Unsettling
Voice Dialogue and Self Leadership are powerful ways we can focus on our inner experiences. While many people feel quite relieved to acknowledge that we have such complex inner experiences, it is still a common reaction to feel a bit unsettled by the idea of focusing on them. There is natural human fear that if you spend too much time focusing on your inner experience, we will lose connection to what is going on outside of us. It makes sense because we have to understand the complex environments around us to survive and connect to others.
It also makes sense to naturally want to avoid focusing on your inner experiences because we know or suspect that deep within us lurk memories and feelings that could overwhelm us-feelings that could render us less able to function, make us act impulsively, change how we relate to others, or make us more vulnerable to hurt.
The Cost of Ignoring Our Inner Battles
On the other hand, if we avoid our inner world and are consumed by any of the endless distractions available to us in modern life, paradoxically, we find ourselves more at the whim of our unwanted impulses, thoughts, or feelings. Imagine a closet in which you only open the door to throw stuff inside. You soon dread opening it up because of the potential of being overwhelmed by everything all at once. So you decide to keep piling things in. The message is clear; you pay a price for neglecting your inner life. Voice dialogue and self leadership offer an organized and safely-paced way to start opening the door to that closet, labeling, and appropriating space where it is needed.
We all keep parts of ourselves locked up, hidden away from others and even ourselves. This is what that person meant when he said he felt like he was a war with himself since sometimes these vulnerable parts have a tendency to surface on their own accord. We try to keep these parts down, but that’s just not how our minds and bodies work.
It seems bad enough to have some impulse, thoughts, or feelings that we can’t control. But after battling and trying to control these parts of us, we form a relationship with ourselves that can easily make us feel helpless. As Buddhist monk Thich Nhact Hahn puts it, “If we become angry at our anger, we will have two angers at the same time.” Getting angry or frustrated at our hard-to-control impulses only compounds the problem and takes a toll on your own sense of worth. Feeling bad about yourself, in turn, tends to give the unwanted impulses more control.
Negotiating for ‘Cease -Fire’
Just as in a real war, your unrelenting criticism of yourself escalates in response to the escalation of any unwanted impulses or feelings. Neither part of you will back down from its extreme position unless there is some assurance that the other wouldn’t take over. Many people are amazed (as was I) to learn that we can talk directly to the parts of us that are engaged in unwanted behavior. For some of us this “conversation” doesn’t happen easily at first, and takes some effort. But with time and practice, we can do it almost instantly-such is our brain’s capacity to organize itself when we ask it to. We can ask our unwanted parts to momentarily cease their extreme behavior or thoughts long enough for us to realize that there are other parts of us we may have lost connection to. The constant chatter of all of our parts competing for our attention is like static that cuts off communication from less dominant aspects of our personality. It is often these “hidden” parts of us that have important information about the conflict that is raging. Working like this, we begin to separate and get to know all the various sub-parts of our personality as they no longer blur together in one confusing mass.
Like Finding a Quiet Room
There are different approaches that I will guide you to use when we’re working together. These exercises will help you focus on one thing at a time. Imagine that you walk into a convention hall and hear dozens of people talking all at once. You can’t possibly know much about what is being said and you may only hear the loudest in the bunch. But if you step into a quiet side room with one person, your hearing is perfectly clear. Much of what we will do in psychotherapy is like this as it relates to what we normally call “chatter” within us. As you come to expect that you can indeed listen to what is being said through your feelings or physical sensations, you form a direct, self-to-part relationship with the various aspects of your personality.
Each person is different in how long it takes before these improved “self-relationships” begin to affect the particular area of your life with which you wanted help. But with the persistence and patience of you and I together it is simply a question of when, not if, you will start to feel better. Through consistent and regular psychotherapy using the model of multiplicity (also called Internal Family Systems) you are likely to:
Experience clarity of thoughts and be able to make quicker and better decisions
Have more peace of mind on a regular basis
Be confident in what you want
Be attuned to the needs of your family or others important to you
Develop appreciation for what is happening that is good (have a better attitude); become more able to do “the best you can” even if it’s not perfect.
Be more able to be patient if your partner is frustrated and figure out how to resolve the frustration without feeling overwhelmed or defensive
Become interested to learn new things and expand your horizons
Find ways around obstacles that prevent what is best for you
Dream about and attain what you really want