by Seth Eisenberg
Janet Jackson has it. Miley Cyrus has it. Saul Alvarez showed he had it when he battled Matthew Hatten. In one way or another, we all have it.
It’s called an inner cast of characters. We’ve been seeing a lot of Charlie Sheen’s characters this week. Professionals are increasingly concerned that the former Two and a Half Men star is not simply parading his cast of characters in marathon television, radio, newspaper interviews, and tweets to more than a million followers, but showing signs of a mental breakdown.
“Charlie Sheen’s abuse of his bosses, flaunting of his sex life and Twitter psychobabble have made endless headlines, but mask a sad story of violence and abuse,” Paul Harris writes in Britain’s Guardian today.
His father, actor Martin Sheen, is concerned.
In a recent interview, Martin Sheen compared Charlie Sheen’s public and private struggles with cancer.
“If he had cancer, how would we treat him?” Martin Sheen asked. “This disease of addiction is a form of cancer. You have to have an equal measure of concern and love and lift them up and so that’s what we do for him.”
Whether Charlie Sheen’s erratic behavior is a result of addictions, mental illness, or the characters that comes out when he feels attacked, maligned and misunderstood is something only those closest to him know with any kind of certainty.
Schizophrenia, which affects about 1% of people worldwide, according to the National Institute of Health, regularly includes symptoms such as false beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions) and hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations).
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That’s not the same as the kind of inner cast of characters we see with Miley Cyrus, Janet Jackson, or Saul Alvarez.
They’re able to understand and direct unique parts of themselves as healthy people navigating the situations and circumstances of their lives.
While all the attention on Charlie Sheen may turn out to be a lesson about the tragedy of mental illness, it’s also a good chance to share one of my favorite activities in relationship and marriage education classes that offers a chance to discover the unique parts of our own inner cast of characters, known as parts of self.
For example, a soldier on the battlefield might have to be in a part that’s like Rambo, Sherlock Holmes, or GI Joe. They can choose that part to help survive the challenge of the situation. Of course when they return home, that part is no longer needed or helpful. When it comes to nurturing children, the part needed may be more like Dr. Seuss, Robin Williams, Bill Cosby or another character with qualities that makes it safe to connect and inspire. In the bedroom, it may be a Marilyn Monroe or Don Juan part that takes the lead. At work or an interview, it will likely be another part altogether. Few job interviews would go very well if Rambo, Dr. Seuss, or Marilyn Monroe showed up. Although maybe some would.
You get the idea.
Virginia Satir, a pioneer of humanistic psychology that evolved into the field of relationship and marriage education, developed an exercise that begins with making a list of 10-12 parts of self that make each of us uniquely who we are. For each, we come up with a descriptive word, adjectives to describe the part, and typical phrase.
For example, “Mother Teresa, helpful, self-sacrificing, spiritual, ‘Let me help you.’” Or maybe, “Al Gore, supportive, diligent, selfless, ‘I’ll take care of that for you.'” Another could be, “Donald Trump, determined, analytical, poised, ‘I’ll succeed no matter what it takes.'”
What I discovered when I made my list was that certain parts weren’t getting the attention they needed and others were often getting too much. I also realized I had parts that I’d developed to help me survive some tough times in my life that weren’t helping me in the present. Actually, they were causing problems. Seeing that, it wasn’t difficult to thank those parts for the help they’d once given and let them go, knowing I could always invite them back in the future if they were needed.
I’ve seen many people do this exercise only to realize they’re missing a part needed to help them through a new challenge or aspect of their life. For example, someone who’s scared to speak in front of a group might need a part that gives them the courage to do it anyway. Someone struggling at work could well need to get in touch with a Donald Trump part for the energy and character traits needed to get the job done without getting fired.
When it comes to couples and families, the exercise helps them recognize that while every relationship involves some parts of people that do well with parts of others, there are often parts that don’t. Knowing our inner cast of characters lets us be the director of our own parts, captain of our own ship so to speak, so we don’t’ find ourselves in the midst of a mutiny. It also helps people who may be on the verge of losing their relationship with each other realize that it may not be the person or relationship itself that’s the problem, but perhaps parts of one person or both that may be interfering, undermining, or sabotaging the connection, love, and fulfillment that’s possible.
Recognizing, nurturing, and becoming responsible for our unique parts is a fun way to discover more about the uniqueness and wonder of ourselves and others.
Martin Sheen said loving Charlie Sheen has meant realizing “we’re not all on the same journey all the time.”
“We have to love that much more, we have to be that much more present,” he said.
That’s a good message for all of us. Whether it’s a part in ourselves or someone we love that appears to be leading a mutiny, learning to love and accept the uniqueness of ourselves and others is an important foundation to discovering what’s possible and having a real chance of contributing to the lives of those we love.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.
Virginia Satir’s “I Am Me.”
Virginia Satir’s “Five Freedoms.”