How Linus Created the World

At Least the One Inside Your Head

Image from Pxfuel

You remember Linus, the comic strip character who drags his blanket around? His blanket is helping him transition from being a baby to someone who can take care of himself. Linus has learned he can’t count on someone always being there when he cries. So, he’s begun to cope. He’s found better ways than to call his caretaker all the time. He adopted a blanket and, as we shall see, created all the people in his head to take the caretaker’s place.

In this series, I’ve been reviewing the psychological theories of subpersonalities, the board of directors of your brain. As far as I know, none of these theories offer an account of how you got those parts. There’s no developmental theory of subpersonalities. This article is my attempt at creating one.

When Linus was a baby, he began creating the world inside his head when he discovered that something could simulate something else. His thumb, for instance, shared some of the same properties as his mother’s breast. He couldn’t get milk out of his thumb, but he could suck it just the same, and it felt similar enough in his mouth. He realized that, when the breast was not available, sucking his thumb could comfort him while he was waiting for his mother. He made his thumb a simulation of the breast.

Later, he did the same thing with the blanket. The blanket was warm and cozy like his mother. It might have smelled like her. At one point, she may have given it to him. At that moment it was no longer an ordinary blanket, it had become a security blanket, what Donald Winnicott called a transitional object. Blankets and thumbs are not the only simulations we use to trick ourselves into feeling secure. Inner voices do it, too.

The Internalized Parent
When my kids were small, I gave them dozens of things they could have used as substitutes for me. Their rooms were filled with stuffed animals, pictures, toys, and books. I like to think it all comforted them when I couldn’t be around. Something must have worked. They’re now fully capable of living their lives without me. But I imparted more than just material things. I sang nursery rhymes, told stories, made dad jokes, and issued commands I hoped would stick. I meant for them to carry my voice all their lives, a voice saying all the things I never wanted them to forget. To the extent they retained them, those are their “security blankets”, too.

Whenever we were about to cross the street, I’d say, look both ways, even though I was already looking both ways for us. I said it because I was trying to give them something to remember when I wasn’t around. Now I hope they have a version of me in their heads, repeating the injunction, look both ways. It serves many purposes at once. It’s good, practical advice that can keep them from getting hit by a car; it’s an ever-present reminder of their old Dad; and it can give them confidence at a busy intersection.

We all form mental simulations of our early caretakers and use them for the rest of our lives. These voices are always commenting on what to do and who we have become. They also help us predict others’ behavior. When you were a child, you did what any good meteorologist would do when she wanted to predict the weather. She’d create a computer model, punch in a few numbers that indicate temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover, run the program, and see if the picnic will be rained out. That’s what’s you did in your mind when you were a child and wanted to know if your mother would get your toy for you if you dropped it from your highchair. You created a bot, based on your experiences with your mother. You carefully observed her actions and plugged all that data into its program.

As you got older, simulations proliferated as you encountered more people whose behaviors you needed to predict. The simulated parents are kept on hand forever and used as a template for others you’ll construct when you come across someone new who resembles them. When you got a job and met a new boss, for instance, you used a simulated parent or a simulation of a previous boss upon which to construct a model of the new boss. This way, if something came up where you don’t know how your new boss will respond, you’ll run the contingencies with an old simulation, so at least you have something to go on.

You don’t only construct simulations of all the people you know, you’ll also construct them of all the people you might come across. For instance, you probably have an inner critic or two whose job is to point out all your shortcomings. I have an inner writing critic who’s on the clock right now. No actual person has ever been as critical of my writing as my inner writing critic because it’s designed to provide me with all the negative feedback that anyone could give me. I can thank my inner writing critic for helping me catch many errors in spelling and grammar. Inner critics are also “security blankets”, although they may be too negative to think of them that way. As long as my inner writing critic confines itself to constructive feedback, it can give me the confidence to send my work out for publication.

All the various kinds of security blankets enable us to venture out into the cruel world because they make us believe we are not alone, but there’s another reason. Security blankets are perfect for covering up our insecurities.

The Security Blankets in a Coverup
A thumb cannot give milk, nor can a blanket give real security. A security blanket is just a blanket, and the mental simulations you have of your parents, bosses, partners, kids, or critics can never match the actual people portrayed. Nor can the meteorologist account for everything in her weather-predicting program. All these simulations give you the illusion you know more than you do.

It’s important to update your simulations. For instance, when you find out that your boss is not like your father, it’s time to make some adjustments. But it’s hard for simulations to change. We give them the same free will that real people have, so they can be just as stubborn.

For instance, when I was a kid, growing up in a small town, filled with only white Americans, I was taught to believe certain things about anyone who was different. I had simulations of Black people, foreigners, etc., constructed out of what I was told on TV, ready to predict their behavior if I ever was to meet a real one. I have since learned many of my simulations were based on erroneous data. It was hard to admit it, though. People can be resistant to changing their beliefs. It’s like taking a security blanket away from a baby.

Consequently, internalized voices often poor copies of whoever they’re supposed to represent. But wait, it gets worse. They are also a child’s version of who the actual people actually are. The images I have in my head of my father, mother, boss, and inner critics are images a child would have.

For instance, 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.

I’ve come to believe that when my clients say things like that, they’re probably not talking about their real, flesh and blood father; they’re talking about their simulated father. A real father may say, stop crying; but he’s 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 your 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. Those are all very good reasons to say stop crying. In each case, the father is trying to help the child learn to differentiate between situations that call for various feelings. But a child is not cognitively ready to make these distinctions. Consequently, he takes the father’s words and applies them generally, instead of for the particular purpose they were intended.

The simulated others are not pieces of other people injected into your mind. They are parts of you, fashioned to act like others. They are children pretending to be adults. Your most troll-like inner critic is not someone with authority, but a middle school bully.

It might be tempting to try to teach your inner voices what you would like them to say; to make your inner critic more kind, your simulated father less authoritarian, have your simulated mother send you on fewer guilt trips, or any of them be more adult. You can’t do it. These voices have a will of their own. It would do you no good to hand a script to your simulated mother and tell her what to do when you drop your toy. You granted it free will, so it can behave real people you cannot control.

The Self
I’ve attempted to show how your inner voices developed out of a need for transitional objects. The inner voices are security blankets, in a sense. The simulations represent real people or people you may come across, but they are only representations. No security blanket can cover reality. There will always be an x factor for everyone you meet. You can never know anyone completely. For a security blanket to work, there must be a suspension of disbelief. You must trick yourself into believing the simulation and the real person are the same before the transitional object can give you any security.

Everything I’ve said also applies as much to your self as it does other people. The idea you have of your self is not your self. It’s a child’s version of it. An adult version of the self is full of nuance, contradiction, and complexity. A child just slaps on labels. Labels cover more than they reveal. They are just another security blanket engaged in a coverup.

From the very beginning, I labeled my kids. I said they were wet, hungry, tired, good, bad, and so on. I was describing them at that moment, not their very essence. They internalized these labels just as they did everything else. They still have my voice in their minds telling them those things. Out of my, and other people’s labels, they accumulated materials for a construction project. They built a self-concept. The self-concept is not the true self any more than the mental simulations of others are the same as the people they represent. The self-concept is just a bunch of labels that cover up more than they reveal.

You built a self-concept by accepting labels that are slapped all over you. They give you is also a security blanket. It gives you the confidence to go into the world because you have some idea of what you’ll do and how others see you. Even if all you have are negative ideas, they are better than no ideas at all. Just like any security blanket, the self-concept engages in coverups.

As a therapist, I’m constantly tearing off labels. A person walks into my office, covered by labels. Woman, White, Millennial, stupid, and slut. She doesn’t even know herself with all these labels. She accepts these labels because they purport to tell her who she is. She displays them so people will know how to treat her. But none of her labels entirely define her and they limit her from fulfilling her whole potential. She’s an engineer, so she doesn’t fit the stereotypical idea of a Woman. She’s not a typical White person because she came from poverty, or Millennial because she doesn’t spend all her time on her phone. The negative labels are worse. No matter how many academic achievements she has, she’ll be convinced she’s fooling everyone and really is stupid. She’ll always have a voice in her head, calling her a slut and won’t be able to express her sexuality without feeling shame about it.

My job is to coax her to give up her labels. I’ll question the prevailing wisdom and expose the cultural bias about what woman means to her. I’ll analyze how she uses the labels in a sentence. When she says I am stupid, that’s different from saying, I have my stupid moments. I’ll play with alternative meanings. Slut doesn’t have to mean something shameful; it can refer to a freedom of sexual expression. The point is to undermine the power the labels have over her and to show she is more than her labels.

As her therapist, I must look past the labels to see the real person. But, at the same time, I traffic in labels. She comes in with her labels, but she leaves with mine. I redefine her as depressed, a trauma victim, a pill addict, or bulimic. Every label opens up a new field of understanding, but they are still labels that cover other things up.

Because I have an obligation to understand people, I slap all my labels on her so I can pretend I’m not lost in a hopeless, meaningless whirl. When I meet that woman and call her depressed, I think I have a handle on her; but I really don’t. I’ve only identified one small thing about her. There are still many things about her that will always elude me. My label for her is my security blanket.

I would go so far as to say that your feelings are also security blankets that cover things up. They are just another kind of label. To say, I’m angry, is to refer to what is, hopefully, a passing state; whereas I’m good at basketball, is an enduring quality; but they are both labels we may accept for ourselves. I’m angry refers to a particular set of sensations of arousal, together with a social situation. How is I’m angry a security blanket? It names what’s happening and gives you a course of action, which is better than not knowing what’s going on and not knowing what to do. However, I’m angry, never is the whole story. It’s a cover story, engaging in a coverup.

If I’m meeting with a client who wants help managing his anger, I’ll have him tell me about a time he was angry and together, we’ll deconstruct it. We’ll examine the social situation and his sensations. If we do this long enough, we’ll come up with dozens of other interpretations of the event, as well as other courses of action. I’m angry is revealed to be a security blanket that covers a much more complex event.

What does I’m angry coverup? It often covers up feeling hurt, vulnerable, and powerless. It’s a heck of a thing, but the loudest, scariest, angriest person around is often the weakest.

The Stage Manager
As I’ve been writing this series on subpersonalities, meeting my own, and studying the theories, I’ve often wondered who or what is behind it all. Is there another subpersonality, hidden backstage, casting them in roles, and telling them when to go out on stage? I think I know who it is, now. It’s Linus, the transitional object maker, creating simulations to take the place of what’s missing, whether it be a caretaker who doesn’t come when I need her or knowledge I don’t have.

When I was a kid, I had a red, plaid blanket I dragged around till it was so dirty, tattered, and torn my actual mother tried to throw it out. I saved it from the garbage. It was a substitute for my mother. I wouldn’t let go of the thing until I developed different parts of myself, to be substitutes for the blanket.

When will I stop carrying around all these parts of myself? When will the stage manager stop putting on his play? When will these voices go silent in my head? It’ll happen when I no longer need the comfort of another voice, when I no longer need other points of view, when I can be at peace with the unknown.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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