A man I’ll call Brad was my nemesis while we worked on a creative project together. He seemed to embody most of my old, stressful “men” stories; a physically imposing, self-important, bossy blowhard used to getting his way. I’d done some inquiry on Brad, but I hadn’t seen a meaningful shift in my feelings about him or in the way I acted around him. I’d slapped a label on him that, while it didn’t accurately list all of his ingredients, was very sticky and difficult to remove.
Truth be told, I didn’t want to let Brad off the hook! But in not doing so, I was keeping myself on the hook. This was especially painful because I really like Brad. He’s a talented, funny, and ultimately very caring person. Still, as I traveled to our meeting place, sometimes I would anticipate conflict and irritate myself in advance, in his name.
One day while doing my inquiry, I realized I was not interacting with Brad, but with a cartoon character of Brad; someone who was always infuriating, never open to others’ ideas. I also saw that if someone else were doing and saying the same things Brad did—someone whose portrait I painted with loving brushstrokes and delicate features instead of outsized characteristics—I might find it amusing, attractive or endearing. (You know how some people are allowed to talk to you through the bathroom door, but when others do, it’s gross? Or how, when your friends walk down the streets singing with their children, it’s funny and sweet, but when you were 10 years old and your parents did it, you wanted to run away and hide?)
I discovered that when I reduced Brad to a cartoon character, I became one as well. Mine looked rather like the little boy in the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, who turns dark and smoldering when he doesn’t get his way, and acts out revenge fantasies on snowmen he builds that resemble his father.
So if Brad is not who I say he is, who is he? Perhaps, rather than a testosterone-soaked bully, he’s a strong person with strong opinions. That isn’t a problem unless I say it is. And I did say so because I saw myself as weak and ineffectual around him…which, as anyone who knows me even a little bit can tell you, is an insane assessment. When I understood this, I was free to see and treat Brad as masterful and proactive—qualities I admire—as opposed to “pushy and full of himself.” He ceased to be a thorn in my side and became a friend and collaborator.
When doing your inquiry—particularly question 3 of The Work, “How do you react when you believe this thought?”—notice how, as you attach to your stressful thoughts, you draw this person with bold strokes and outsized features to prove your point. Are your kids little hurricanes leaving your belongings broken and in disarray, seemingly taking over the entire house? Is your wife, as she’s hunkered over her laptop doing research, really an ice princess, cold and uncaring, who holds the reins of the relationship and never really loved you? What if, while dealing with your parents’ estate, you did not see your brother as the conniving monster who filched your allowance when you were children? Might you be able to communicate with him adult-to-adult today?
Conversely, watch how you, too become a cartoon character when you believe your thoughts about the cartoons. You are the woman whose kids will be the death of you; who does that woman appear to be in that moment? Powerless and harried, or enraged and shouting threats? You are the man whose wife isn’t interested in you. Do you sigh loudly in her presence, rustle the newspaper, slump your shoulders, soothe yourself with whatever’s in the fridge? You’re the trampled baby sister. Are you an ineffectual, broken-down victim, or a snarky little brat? Do you lash out like a wild beast at your cartoon compatriots, or run away like a 90-pound weakling?
When you’re doing The Work on the one you complain about the most…the one who can be counted on to disappoint you…the one who, no matter how prepared you think you are, never fails to trip you up…you can ask yourself, “What if this person isn’t who I say they are?” How would you treat them differently, show up differently with and for them, if you were dealing with a real person and not an exaggerated drawing of the sum total of your criticisms? Watch those crazy characters you’ve created; sit down with a worksheet and enjoy the show.