Chapter 4b of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult
Parents hope you will install bots of themselves in your brain for when they can’t be around to stop you from doing things they would disapprove. If your father was the kind that yelled at you when you swiped a cookie, you might still have his voice in your head when you break your diet and go for the Oreos. Is that voice your Inner Adult, watching over you just like your parents watched over you when you were a child?
The answer is yes if you’re still a child. If you’re at the stage of your development when you need someone to tell you what to do all the time, then the bot of your parent is your Inner Adult. For most people, that’s not the case. You’ve gotten beyond that. You’ve already begun to rightfully question many of the things your Simulated Parents said, not necessarily because your parents were wrong, but because uncompromising imperatives are a child’s version of what her parents would say.
Until a certain age, children think adults know everything, including the content of their own character. If a child steals a cookie and his mother says, “You’re bad,” the child takes it on face value that he’s bad. The child is most definitely not bad, not completely. He may have done a bad thing; but he is not a bad person. Children cannot make that distinction.
Implicit in all the rules the Simulated Parents set are declarations about your character. If you fail to follow their rules, there are consequences. To this day, you may have a voice in your head, saying things like, “you’re bad, you’re a failure, you’re a fat slob, no one will love you, you big crybaby; it’s no wonder you have no friends.” These declarations don’t come from your Inner Adult, either. They’re a child’s version of an adult, acting childish by claiming the supposed omniscience of an adult.
I often see clients who tell me that their parents never wanted them to cry. Their father would say, “Stop crying.” To this day, they have trouble letting their tears flow; or, when they do cry, they feel guilty about it. It’s all dad’s fault, they say, because dad never let them cry.
When my clients say things like this, their probably not talking about their real, flesh and blood father; they are talking about their Simulated Father. A real father may say, stop crying; but he is unlikely to use it as a general rule to be applied in every circumstance. He only means to say something like, “Find your strength.” Or “I know you skinned you knee, but you’re OK now.” Or “I’m not going to let you have ice cream for dinner, so stop trying to manipulate me with your tears.” Or “You’re not the victim, here. I saw you take your sister’s toy away before she smacked you.” These are all very good reasons to say stop crying. In each case, the father is trying to help the child differentiate between occasions in which tears are necessary to call for help, from those in which there is no need for help, or when tears are corrupted by secondary gains. However, a child is not cognitively ready to make these distinctions. Consequently, he takes the father’s words and uses them for purposes in which they were never intended.
A child’s Simulated Parents are just one notch less childish than the child, but they’re still childish. They’re so black and white and so legalistic that they permit no exceptions to the rules. To be sure, there are some real fathers who are so authoritarian that any child not behaving is a miscreant and needs to be put in his place. These are fathers who have never grown up and learned the need for nuance and mercy. But, more often, it is the Simulated Father who is fascist; not because the real father was a fascist, but because the child programming the bot has a need for clear, indisputable leadership.
Bots Making Baby Bots
As I got older, my simulations proliferated as I encountered more people whose behavior I needed to predict. The Simulated Parent is kept on hand forever and used as a template for others I’ll construct when I come across someone new who resembles them. When I met a new boss, for instance, I might use my Simulated Father upon which to construct a model of my boss because they both have something in common: they were important, powerful males in my life. This way, if something comes up in which I don’t know how my boss will respond, I run a simulation with my bot father, so at least I have something to go on.
A person may easily get confused about who they’re dealing with. Many assumptions about a boss may come from what you expect from a father. We shrinks call this transference and make our living by analyzing the ways in which people are unable to see the reality of the present situation because of false expectations. Transference happens all the time. A man will expect his wife will be like his mother. A woman with a series of bad boyfriends will not be able to trust a subsequent good boyfriend because she still has a mental model of the old boyfriends. A veteran who has learned that loud noises mean danger will spend the Fourth of July under his bed. They are all transferring something they learned earlier in their life onto a present situation. They need to create some new bots.
Ideally, when I saw ways that my boss was different from my Simulated Father, I would make alterations that resulted in a whole new model, called the Simulated Boss. Having noted the ways in which my father and my boss were alike, I built a more accurate model of my boss by noting the ways in which they were different. This new model fit my boss better and give me an improved capacity to predict how he would react if I snuck out early. It enabled me to view authority figures with more granularity and less bias. But sometimes people get stuck in only one way of looking at things. The existing simulation is so powerful that it resists alteration into a more updated version.
We should spend some time examining why we have trouble seeing people for who they really are, apart from what our simulations tell us about them. It’s a common problem that bedevils humanity every day, called prejudice. Before I encounter anyone, I already have a model in my mind for how they’re going to be, based on some salient feature they have in common with an existing simulation. For instance, if I come across a Black person, and base my predictions on the color of his skin the most salient thing about him may be that he is Black. This feature may be salient, but not determinant. The fact that he is Black may not have anything to do with anything. Black people differ between each other far more than they differ from non-Black people. I would need to know this particular person before I have a true model with which to predict his behavior.
It’s easy to forget that my models are figments of my imagination. They are real only as far as a photograph is real. A photograph of an apple might seem like an accurate representation of the apple; but a photograph is two dimensional, it omits the context that’s outside the frame, and you can’t eat it. There are many ways a model fails to capture the reality of its subject.
For example, say a police officer sees a Black man busting down the door of a nice home. If his model of Black men predicts that they frequently commit crimes, the officer might assume this man was burglarizing the house. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he finds out the man is also an esteemed professor at Harvard University, the author of many popular books, and is breaking into his own home. As embarrassing as the incident should be for the officer, he’s only doing what we all do. We pick a salient feature, compare what we are seeing with our mental models, and assume we know what’s going on.
The errors we can commit in this process are many, but the system is not supposed to be error free. It’s supposed to be quick, suitable for an active life. Our ancestors who thought the noise in the cave was a bear and ran, survived, while those who investigated further, sometimes got mauled. We are, however, supposed to learn from our mistakes and revise the model to accommodate the new things we learned about reality. However, too often we rely on shortcuts instead of doing the work to get to know people. Sometimes it’s because we’re lazy or just don’t care; but I think, a lot of the time, there’s another reason. Feelings get in the way, particularly fear and shame. We will need several more chapters to get into them.
Next in the Series: The Evolution and Domestication of Feelings