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Let Your Past Go and Live
Freedom from Family, Relationship and Work Baggage
By Avril Carruthers
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Avril Carruthers
All rights reserved.
Slipping out of Character
Tara and Sean met while skiing and in the fire of their instant mutual attraction wondered why the entire mountain had not immediately melted. It became a joke between them — that somehow they seemed to be existing on an exalted, parallel universe.
Being in love, the world shone with extraordinary magic. Their breath stopped for long moments in the silence of pristine fallen snow. Sunlit ice hanging from trees sparked sudden tears of joy. In the exhilaration of flying down the mountain on skis they felt like gods. At the end of each perfect day their heads touched over mugs of mulled glühwein around the open fireplace where they read complete acceptance in each other's eyes. Shared laughter deepened a delicious sense of expansion and infinite possibility. Each felt they had met The One. By the end of their holiday — two short weeks — they had decided to live together. Within a month of moving in, they decided to get married. Such was the momentum of their holiday romance — but so much is ignored when we are in love that it wasn't until the wedding night that serious alarm bells began to ring for Tara. By the end of their honeymoon Tara was inwardly disillusioned, bewildered and disappointed.
And once they were back home in the city, going to work, Tara and Sean found to their increasing dismay that the person they thought to be their soulmate was someone else. Their love was not enough. In reality, their values, backgrounds and intellectual interests were poles apart — even though they had seemed in perfect agreement on holiday. Their styles of communicating were also incompatible. Sean rarely talked about his feelings and was oblivious to his own or other people's emotions. On the other hand, Tara was acutely aware of how she and others were feeling. And when she talked from her intellectual background, referring to ideas and philosophies he had never heard about, Sean laughed and called her a high-brow snob.
Tara was even more astounded at how Sean, who had happily shared housework and cooking as well as recreational pursuits before the wedding, seemed to change after they were married. She accused him of being a male chauvinist like his father, who went out to the footy and the pub with his mates while Sean's mother worked full time, held down two jobs, did the housework, mothered two kids and paid the bills. They were spending barely any time together. In alarm at her own bad judgment, Tara retreated from the relationship. Complaining that Tara was too cerebral, critical and closed, Sean used this to justify a series of one-night stands and an extramarital affair, which he kept secret from Tara but not his mates.
Despite a brief round of couple counselling, the marriage foundered within a year. Only once, on another two-week holiday together, did they manage to recapture some of the rapture of the early days of their relationship. But when they returned home, the old frustration resurfaced.
What had happened?
When Tara and Sean were on holiday they allowed themselves far more freedom to enjoy themselves. Their personal barriers dropped, they were able to accept each other unconditionally and each found the other a perfect partner. In these loving moments, they appeared as the other wanted them to be and not how they truly were. Once they were home, the constraints of their daily life and their conditioning clicked back in, and they were astonished at their differences.
What they discovered was that their Holiday Characters had fallen in love. Had they not been on holiday, neither of them would have been attracted to the other. Sadly, and with varying degrees of blame, they separated and went on with their lives.
A common charade
Tara and Sean aren't alone in this experience. We all have a number of Characters within us. There are scores more we can observe in our families and friends, colleagues, in movies or TV sitcoms that amount to a cast of thousands. They are sub-personalities, or parts of ourselves which appear automatically in certain situations. We may have different Characters on holiday, at work, at home, when driving, shopping or playing sport, or in any situation that requires a prescribed set of actions or behaviours. Our Characters are automatic in the sense that while we are 'in' a certain Character, we do not think consciously about what we are doing or how we are behaving.
For example, if we're visiting our parents after living on our own for some time, we might be annoyed if they still treat us as though we are still a child living under their roof. Still more disconcertingly, we might find we are acting in the same way we did then, even though we behave like independent adults in every other part of our lives. Characters are often automatic ways of behaving, depending on where we are and who we are with.
At work, our boss may consider we are a Desk Slave while our partner at home, who is privy to our sarcastic comments about office politics, sees us as a Strategic Game Player. Our parents may see us as a High Achiever or Loser, while our children may see us as their Heroes or Uncool. To an extent, the ways we behave with different people cement their ideas of who we are. We are then more likely to fall into that way of acting whenever we are with them.
We may not be aware that we behave differently with different people. We assume we are the same with everyone most of the time, while others behave differently towards us. While we might feel we are spontaneous, laid-back or just normal, it may actually be our personal cast of Characters, automatically rotating as needed.
Characters can be just one mask, or sometimes a series of masks, behind which we hide. They allow us to feel safe and unchallenged in certain situations. However, their behaviour is so automatic that they can prevent us from consciously running our own lives.
Sometimes, as with Tara and Sean, they can lead us into disasters.CHAPTER 2
Slipping into Character
The best way to identify that we are in a Character is when we can see that the way we are behaving around a certain person or situation is somehow dictated by that person or situation. Without realising it we slip into a conditioned way of acting that is a Character.
Characters are our unconscious reactions to repeated or intense situations that occurred in our past. Usually they developed at an early age, and they continue to operate in our adult lives because we are used to them and because they 'work' for us. They are so much a part of us we believe we are our Characters.
We think we are individual, but the same basic Characters are identifiable in many people. These Characters have the same agendas and illusions, the same thoughts, desires and fears. They can be picked out by a certain look, by their body language and clothes that reflect their self-image.
We tend to notice them in ourselves first when they stop working for us, when we feel unhappy or uncomfortable in specific situations around certain people. Whenever we feel we are behaving in a way that is not truly us, it's likely to be a Character that is driving our behaviour.
How a Character begins
A Character can be formed early in our lives when painful events leave a deep and lasting impression. The way we reacted at that time enabled us somehow to 'survive'. How our parents treated us, even if they were mostly caring and loving, the way they conducted themselves, and the expectations they placed on us all play their part in determining the nature of a Character.
If we've had early brushes with domineering authority figures, we can develop a Submissive or Compliant Character to help us cope. While this may help while we are small, dependent and vulnerable, in general it doesn't help us as an adult. Alternatively, if we hate being controlled, we might develop a Rebel Character. It might make us feel strong in certain situations, and this pattern may continue into adulthood even when inappropriate, where we wonder why everyone is in conflict with us and life is so difficult.
Conditioning occurs when specific behaviours receive a reward or positive reinforcement, leading to an increase in such behaviours. Negative reinforcement or punishment can also condition behaviour, in avoidance of what we perceive as preceding — or causing — the punishment.
If winning is important to our parents and they showed us their disappointment when we did not come first, this conditions us to do well to make them proud and impress the extended family. We get so used to it from an early age that we accept it as normal. We might develop a High Achiever Character — a Straight-A Student or a Star Athlete — to please our parents, or to prove early critics and detractors wrong. The Character might not reflect at all who we really are, or how we want to be.
Looking at Tara and Sean's Holiday Characters from this perspective, each of them had developed Workaholic Characters that operated most of the week at their jobs. Their Holiday Characters were the opposite. When not concerned with responsibilities and deadlines, they allowed themselves to let go. It made them feel a little drunk, and their judgment loosened accordingly.
There are other influences that create Characters. Our religious institutions and our national, cultural and genetic backgrounds are all significant factors. Our gender and our social and financial status can be important too, as can a city or rural upbringing, or even the local climate. A Character moulded in a cold northern climate, for example, where sunlight hours are short and not to be wasted, is conditioned to be purposeful and goal-orientated. A Character developed in a tropical climate, where siestas in the middle of the day are the norm, contrasts enormously. The evening meal is late and out of doors, and there's a relaxed attitude to work and punctuality. These and other conditioning elements are so much a part of our lives that we don't realise how much they shape us.
When childhood events are too painful, we suppress our memory of them. Often we only recall these hurts when similar situations arise. Sometimes, as we reflect on certain patterns in our lives and where these began, we recall unhappy situations we'd partly forgotten about. When we can step back and see how a certain Character behaves, we can often see where this survival behaviour came from. The great gift is that in seeing this as adults we are able to make better choices.
Hey little girl
The Little Girl is a Character we often see, and Maddie had one even though she is an astute businesswoman with her own consultancy. She was independent and brilliant as long as she was not in a relationship. When she was dating and it was getting serious, she changed from a mature, smart woman into a needy Little Girl. As a child she had developed a Little Girl Character to deal with the demands placed on her by her benevolent, but intrusive, father. The Character worked because her father approved of her more when she appeared sweet and innocent, when she asked for and followed his advice, when she accepted his generosity and was affectionately grateful. Having seen his alarm if ever she had ideas that were different to his, or when she tried to go her own way, she moulded herself to try to guarantee his love. Over time she automatically behaved submissively around him. Her father's approval became more important to her than her independence, and even her own idea of who she was. She became insecure and needy of his love.
The Little Girl Character was triggered in Maddie whenever she was in the presence of men like her father or any authority figure. In adult relationships, the Little Girl Character prevented her being an equal. Because she had disempowered herself, she had to resort to indirect, manipulative means to get what she needed and wanted. She deferred to the man's opinions, and she preferred to please him and fit in with his life than develop her own interests. Her life was moulded into his — a fact she only realised when her most recent love affair ended: his life continued as before, while hers changed radically, and even after they split up, her ex-partner's opinion of her still mattered more than her own.
The Little Girl Character is easy to pick. You might see her in the woman who smiles coyly and has a thin, high-pitched voice. She's excessively sweet. She twists her hair with her fingers and looks up through her lashes with lowered head. She uses covert manipulation, sexual games or tantrums to get what she wants. Frequently she craves attention to prove she is loved. If people consistently give in to her, the Little Girl Character becomes so automatic and entrenched that she may be quite unaware of how the Character takes over in her daily life, especially when she feels powerless. Famous examples include Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, both of whom used celebrity and public adulation to compensate for deep insecurities, while punishing themselves with self-destructive behaviour.
The Little Girl or the Little Boy may be created from a range of different family scenarios. Parents may have been distant or cold. They may have been dominating authority figures, whose love is conditional on prescribed behaviour. The youngest child in a family might adopt this role after being spoiled, or by feeling she can never measure up to the achievements of her siblings. Other Characters such as High Achiever, Mediator, Sports Star or Black Sheep may have been already taken by older brothers and sisters in the family. Often the only Character left for the youngest child is the Cute one.
Variations on the Little Girl or Boy are the Invalid/Chronically Ill, Scapegoat or Victim. An Invalid or a Victim Character develops when being sick or acting helpless are guaranteed means of getting attention or love, or being safe. In a Victim Character, fear can keep the person immobilised and tentative much of their life, long after the frightening influence has gone. Residual fear means we project the same expectation of danger or oppression everywhere, even in harmless situations, something experienced by any marginalised minority group within a society. A Scapegoat Character has somehow agreed to be the problem child in the family. This allows the other members to believe they don't have problems of their own because the focus of their attention is on the Scapegoat, who has yet again got into trouble.
What the real people inside these Characters have in common is that they all feel relatively powerless and compelled to fulfil a role that becomes expected of them.
Why can't my Little Girl Character just grow up?
The good news is that, with recognition and conscious effort, disempowered Characters like the Little Girl can mature. The Little Girl Character might fail to work if she meets someone who wants her to be more self-determined or take responsibility for herself. Alternatively, she might come to the realisation that by being the Pleaser she is no longer getting what she wants from a relationship, that her partner takes her for granted, is inconsiderate or not worthy of her over-accommodating ways.
When a woman becomes aware that the Little Girl no longer works for her, the real person within might be alarmed and dismayed, because for so long she has relied on the Character to keep her true Self hidden. She may begin to despise the Little Girl's automatic emergence whenever she is with fatherly men. The real person within is the key here. She is not the Little Girl Character but someone altogether different, someone she has yet to discover.
Growing out of a Character is like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.CHAPTER 3
Past trauma, present pain
The reason behind the automatic nature of our Characters is intriguing. Behaviour alone does not give the full picture. To change — to become more ourselves — we need to go deeper.
Twenty-year-old Rudy was upset when he came to see me. A few days before, he'd been parked at the beach with his gorgeous new girlfriend Leila, on a beautiful, moonlit night. He was in love and Leila was warm, smart and funny. Although he'd felt vaguely uneasy when they'd first arrived at the beach, he'd ignored it, looking forward to getting closer to his girl. Leila was showing him how much she wanted him too, when without warning something inside Rudy exploded and he pushed her away.
Rudy was furious, but didn't understand why. He got out of the car, intending to clear his head. Instead he found himself having a panic attack. His breathing became difficult and he felt feverish and cold by turns. The darkened beach and esplanade seemed full of flashing lights and distorted, threatening sounds. As he told me about it, his face was anxious and haunted. Not least of his concerns was that Leila now thought he was crazy.
Back we went through Rudy's past, gently peeling away layers of similar situations to see if we could source his unease. One by one Rudy experienced past incidents, discharging the emotion around them as he went. Eventually, he uncovered a situation he'd never remembered before.
Excerpted from Let Your Past Go and Live by Avril Carruthers. Copyright © 2008 Avril Carruthers. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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