I don’t know better than you how to live your life.
I don’t know better than people I sometimes care for when they’re unwell.
I don’t know better than the rest of my own system. I couldn’t be any of my other parts better than they are.
In fact, my conscious or rational mind doesn’t know better than the rest of my mind.
If I tried to take over your life, on the basis that I know better than you how to run it and that I’d do a better job, there are two predictable outcomes – you would fight me every step of the way, overtly or covertly, desperately trying to preserve your own freedom and dignity. You would fight me even if what I trying to make you do WAS good for you, or felt helpful or needed, or would actually make your life better. Because those needs are less important than the need to be in control of your own life. It is a fundamental human need to be autonomous. The freedom to choose, even if our choices are terribly flawed. This is part of the foundation of our sense of dignity. We will be incredibly, instinctively ‘self destructive’ in situations where people are trying to take over our lives, simply to try to restore a sense of control. Rebellion is a common human response to control.
The second predictable outcome to my control would be your submission. Obedience is another common human response to authority. The more authority I have, the more likely you are to obey me. The more other people obey me, the more likely you are to obey me. The more I get you to believe that you are very, very bad at running your own life, and I could do a much better job, the more likely you are to obey me.
People express these conflicting responses – rebellion and submission, in a variety of ways. Some people, usually a minority, will rebell whatever the cost to themselves. I will see this as proof that you are out of control and need my intervention.
Some people will flick between times of rebellion and times of submission, expressing deep ambivalence and conflict about their relationship to this person in authority. I will ethos as proof of your unstable nature and inability to be consistent, proving that you need my direction.
Some people will become highly manipulative and passive aggressive, submitting openly but covertly fighting. I will construe this as you having poor boundaries, behavioural issues, and an inability to engage in normal, warm human relationships, proving the need for my management.
Others will become highly compliant and withdrawn, obeying all control and hoping that submission will stop anything worse happening to them. I will construe this as your passive nature, that you are clearly unable to direct your own life and see it as proof you need ongoing parent type support.
The nature of how we think and process our own experiences makes it challenging for us to hold this conflict in our minds. If I have taken power away from you, but also met your needs at times, you may find it impossible to openly criticise me. If I have a very hostile response to criticism, very defensive, and a lot of power to punish you, you may learn to never criticise me.
I will criticise you however, particularly if you disobey me or manage to try something for yourself which goes badly. Many things you try for yourself will go badly because mistakes is how we learn and the longer I’ve been able to keep you from making mistakes the less chance you’ve had to learn. I may also shame you for criticising, requiring you to constantly express gratitude to me for the very hard work I’ve done in helping you. You’ve been a heavy burden and very hard work at times, trying my patience, terribly ungrateful, rude, passive, and hostile. You will be constantly how inadequate you are and how much you owe me. The biggest things you owe me are gratitude and silence about anything I don’t like to hear.
You may internalise my ideas about my competence to run your life and police and suppress even your own thoughts and feelings – fighting your natural instinct to rebell and hating yourself for feeling that way. Now you have turned against yourself. You distrust your own impulses. You fight to stay in control of your feelings and urges, feeling shame about them. They are the enemy, proof that you are weak, sick, and incompetent. Further proof that I am right to direct your life.
You are also exhibiting signs of chronic disempowerment or institutionalisation. You have trouble making decisions on your own. You feel very anxious when you can’t get clear feedback that I our other authority figures are happy with you. You are incredibly vulnerable to the slightest shift in mood or sign that you are out of favour. You lack motivation and energy. You lack creativity and spark. You feel out of control, depressed, and miserable.
If you have turned against yourself strongly and effectively, you are so dissociated from your own feelings and impulses you would swear you are not unhappy. Your life and health shows the signs of profound unhappiness but you yourself insist that you are fine and that I love you and have your best interests at heart. If you were an animal, we might describe you using words such as tame, docile, or domesticated. Something essential about you has been crushed. You are incredibly uncomfortable around people who are not crushed. You tend to have an authoritative, brutal, detached relationship with anyone you are in power over.
I am exhausted and frustrated by your constant neediness. I am angry about your occasional criticism or rebellion, and your passive aggressiveness infuriates me. I may be desperately looking forward to the day when you start to run your own life and not need me anymore, or I may be dependant upon your gratitude to cope with my sense of emptiness, my chronic emotional starvation from never being real and open and vulnerable and having my own needs met.
I may not have started this process. You may have become afraid or overwhelmed and collapsed in my arms, looking for someone to follow and investing me with both the power and responsibility to direct your life. I may look like the bad guy but actually be suffering terribly, exhausted and totally confused about how to hand control back to you without you just being dead by the end of the week. I may live in terror of your irrationality, your self destructiveness, your bizarre, violent impulsiveness, your lack of self compassion or patience. When I try to leave you may harm yourself, attempt suicide, stalk me, stop eating, or destroy my reputation. Roles act as hooks. If I take over, you are likely to collapse. Equally, if you collapse, I am likely to take over.
I may be your parent, your doctor, your best friend, your partner, your shrink, your kid, your minister, your small group leader, your boss, your carer.
I may be the dominant part in your system, doing my misguided best to help us all function. I may try to take over (or be dumped with) every other role, not sharing any power or responsibly with the rest of you. I am good at some things but very bad at others. I am deeply frustrated that other parts fight me, disobey me, even hate me. I think my good intentions are enough and I don’t understand that being so intrusive is always harmful even when I’m doing it from love. The more desperate and afraid I am, the more control I take away. The more control I take away, the more my system shows the signs of disempowerment and alienation.
I may be you rational mind. Treated by your culture, your family, your shrink as the only bit of your mind that is really ‘you’, the only bit that should be in charge at all times, the only bit that can do what you need to survive and live, put in charge of every other system and function, and called to account for unconscious dreams, fears, desires, for threat systems and triggers from old wounds and pleasures, for fragmented memory structures and hallucinatory sensory input.
I confabulate stories to fill the gaps from when I was not running the show. I deny all other aspects. I claim to be the only self, the only voice, the only reality. I delete other perspectives, fight with them, silence them, and try to take over their roles. I remove instances of loss of my control from our master narrative of self. I pretend I am always aware, always online, always in control and ignore all the times we cycle into other states of awareness.
Sanity, I am assured, rests in my total dominance. Health is me being in control. No more daydreaming. No more idiosyncrasies. No more irrational fears. So I take over instead of being part, and we become less. Silenced voices fight back in rage or wither in isolation. We become less than whole. Instinctive systems are dysregulated because of my intrusive micromanagement; slow to kick in when needed, randomly intruding when not needed. Emotions are frequently ignored as ‘irrational’, cutting me off from the vast knowledge in omy unconscious mind. I have almost no intuitive capacity to understand myself or other people. I am terrified of diversity, difference, altered states, lots of control, dreams, spirituality, mystery, and human vulnerability.
Or I can recognise that I am part of a whole and step back. I can be the reflective process that helps us to learn. I can regulate the empathy that leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. I can gently challenge the irrational and bizarre thoughts and impulses that would lead us down terrifying paths, while recognising they are the flip side of our sensitivity and capacity to look for patterns. I can channel input from the unconscious and give it equal, but not more, weight with what I already think I know.
I can acknowledge the wholeness of self that is more than just me, my illusion of singleness, my illusion of conscious control. I can learn to tune in, learn to listen well.
And we can breathe, can speak in many voices, can recognise each others expertise, can work together. The brain is an argument, says one of my favourite neuroscience books (Into the Silent Land). The brain can also be a conversation, can also be a song.
So can our systems. So can our relationships, our families, our culture.