We all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about what we can be, and about what we SHOULD do. If you’ve been playing along for a while, you know I have a lot to say about the word “should.” I was talking today with a client who also has a lot of should-ing experience, and who referred to that voice as the little dictator. Brilliant.
And then I noticed something as she was talking. I noticed that the internal dictator seemed to get really active when things weren’t going well, when emotions were high, when life was throwing curveballs, when rest was in short supply and flexibility was most required. Because what helps more under times of stress than a little autocrat telling us what to do, right?! I’m already upset and overwhelmed and then this little voice in my head starts whipping off guilt-tinged commands.
And so I wondered what the little dictator is trying to do. What is the point of all of that should-ing? What is the purpose of all of that freaking out (because that is really what’s happening there, the little dictator is losing its ever-loving mind)? Knowing what I know about people, I think the answer to that is actually pretty simple. It doesn’t necessarily make things easy, but it’s pretty simple. The little dictator wants a few things: first and foremost is safety, which is typically interpreted as sameness. How is sameness safety you ask? You are alive. THAT is what the little dictator cares about. Sameness means you stay alive; difference means risk. Done. Stay the same; stay alive. So when we begin to grow, change, move around the mental furniture, the little dictator freaks out. So we tell the little spastic autocrat: “I know you’re scared. You’re safe. I’ve got this. I know you think I should stay the same, keep everything just as it has been, but that’s not working so well for me. I will make sure changing things doesn’t kill me. I promise. Sit down little dictator; I’m still in the driver seat.”
What else does the little dictator want? The little dictator wants to avoid pain. Same logic really. When we avoid pain, we avoid risk of death. To little dictators all pain is the same. Emotional pain is the same as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Both should be avoided at all costs. So when we are over-scheduled, under-rested, over-burdened, experiencing a major life event or stressor, having a conflict with a loved one, there is pain/frustration/anger/sadness. So the little dictator comes rushing to the rescue. Because the little dictator has a long list of things you should do to avoid feeling that pain, and a little judgment for putting yourself in the position of feeling it in the first place. The little dictator will demand that we punish ourselves physically (with diet and exercise, with accomplishing tasks instead of resting), occupy ourselves mentally (with obsessing about how our words and actions impact other people, second guessing ourselves, talking ourselves out of feeling things), and buffer with whatever we’ve got (food, alcohol, Facebook) in order to avoid feeling that pain. That’s a very busy little dictator, and a very busy you if you take orders from tiny autocrats.
What happens if we just decide to feel how we feel? What happens if we sit down for 2 minutes and search for a feeling in the body, a vibration that reflects what’s going on rather than an intellectual thought about how we should feel, or how “one” would naturally feel at times like these? What happens if we actually allow the discomfort for two minutes? Well, we experience discomfort for two minutes, and then we FEEL BETTER, and then the tiny dictator can calm the eff down. “I know you’re worried about me. Thank you. I’ve got this.”
The little dictator, that little should shamer, is just like a 4 year old trying desperately to get your attention: tugging at your sleeve, pulling on your wrist, tapping your upper arm, and saying: “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom….” It’s just trying to get your attention because it is freaking out. When we jump into action using the tiny dictator’s list, we just buy into all of it. We agree that we should avoid how we feel. We agree that staying the same is the priority. We decide that growth is probably dangerous. We feed the idea that everything will be better if we just do more, do right, do faster. What if we treated the tiny dictator the way we treat the nagging child, in a supremely excellent parenting moment? We let the dictator know that we hear the cries for action. We let the dictator know we see the feelings and concerns. We treat that little dictator with a little bit of love. We let the dictator know that we are in charge and that, mostly because of that, we are safe. “I hear you. I understand you’re upset. I’ve got this.”
Rest little dictator, rest. You don’t need to should me. I don’t need you to revisit my ToDo list. I don’t need to rethink those conversations. I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to keep doing what I’m doing if it’s not making me happy. I can change and still be loved. I can change and still be successful. I can change and stay alive. I can feel my feelings and not have it be a disaster. We’re okay. I’ve got this. I’ve laid out a mat for you. After you have your snack, you can go take a nap. Let me drive for a while.