When I have imaginary conversations with my past selves, which I’ve found helpful as a way to gain more perspective on my experiences, I’ll often picture myself giving them a hug and telling them everything will work out all right. There are other times when I keep more emotional distance and simply give them a few words of advice to consider.

I have to admit I lost my temper not long ago, though, and (virtually) yelled at one of them. I had nicknamed her Drama-Queenie because she popped up from my subconscious several times over the past few years loudly demanding attention for her many woes, which in her mind amounted to ghastly tragedies—although I couldn’t make any sense of them in the here and now. She looked like a nerdy 1980s student with big hair, pastel purple corduroy pants from the discount store, and an unfashionable sweater to match.

Sometimes when I was just doing household chores or some other ordinary stuff, Drama-Queenie wandered into my awareness and started moaning, “I’m in pain! It never gets any better! I can’t live like this! I don’t understand why I am always in so much PA-A-AIN!” She reminded me of the character Deanna Troi, the empathic ship’s counselor from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who was infamous for wailing about pain whenever she got near an agitated alien.

Where Drama-Queenie came from was a mystery, and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what she wanted me to do about her pain, either. It was frustrating. So when she showed up again, I got annoyed. My first thought was, “Oh, shut up already! Take a hike!”

She disappeared; and then I felt bad about it afterward, as if I had done something unkind to a puppy or other defenseless creature. After all, inner-child work is supposed to be about giving younger selves the love and attention that they didn’t get in the past, so that they can feel better about themselves and carry those feelings into the present day. Yelling at them (even though mine generally aren’t children) is a big no-no.

So I decided that I should try to make things right with Drama-Queenie by giving her a fair opportunity to vent her feelings, even though I couldn’t fathom what they might be about. When I brought her through my imaginary magical mirror to the beach at Channelwood, it was low tide on a cloudy afternoon with a cool east wind blowing off the ocean. Drama-Queenie stood scowling in her cheap sneakers next to a big, smelly, half-rotten pile of seaweed.

She promptly turned to me and shouted, “What is this awful place? I never said I wanted to be here! Why is everyone always pushing me to do things that I don’t want to do?”

Her whiny voice was loud enough that I could hear a faint echo, although she wasn’t directly facing the cliff. I gave her my friendliest smile and told her, “This is just a little corner of an imaginary world. Feel free to say anything you’d like. And if you want a louder echo, all you need to do is turn a little so you’re facing that way, where the cliff is highest.”

Following the path of my pointing finger, she glared at the cliff and raised her voice to a pitch that would have done an opera singer proud, shrieking, “World, you SUCK!”

A few rocks rattled down the cliff face as the echo reverberated. Several large crows launched themselves into the air from a tree just above, flying in a wide arc over the waves as their cries blended creepily into the lingering echo: “Awk! Awk! Awk!”

Drama-Queenie watched them for a moment with a look of satisfaction before she said to me, in a much calmer tone, “Okay, so are you going to explain what we’re doing here?”

“Well, first of all, I want to apologize for yelling at you the other day,” I said. “Maybe I don’t understand why you are in pain, and maybe you don’t know why either, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to ignore your feelings. When people are in pain, they need something done about it. So I thought we’d just go for a little stroll while we talk about things, and maybe we can figure out a solution.”

She didn’t look at all enthusiastic as she turned to gaze farther down the beach, where more dead seaweed and other unappealing debris had washed up with the tide. In fact, she looked downright sulky.

“The island has pretty hiking trails,” I suggested. “If we walk just a short way past the tree where the crows were sitting, there’s a path up the cliff.”

I started walking in that direction without waiting for an answer from Drama-Queenie, as I didn’t expect there was much chance of getting a meaningful one. After a minute or so, she followed along behind me, stopping to kick a seashell every now and again. Sand flew into the air, carried away on the wind.

“You’re in pain all the time,” I continued, trying to restate what she had said. “And you feel that people are always pushing you to do things you don’t want to do. Is that where the pain is coming from?”

As we rounded a curve in the shoreline, the cliff smoothed out and became a hill with a much gentler rise. A grassy path led upward.

Grassy path leading up to the top of a cliff.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Drama-Queenie still trailed along behind me, chewing a mangled-looking fingernail before she answered. “Yeah, maybe. I dunno. Whatever I do, they’re not nice to me. Someone needs to stop them from being so mean all the time.”

By now she was starting to sound like a five-year-old with a playground grudge, but I thought it was an improvement over her earlier attitude. At least she had given me a smidge of useful information. We reached the top of the hill, where the path meandered through an autumn meadow of tall waving grass and wild asters before narrowing to become a forest trail.

“Okay, that gives us a place to start,” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage. “Now we just need to sort out what needs to happen so that everyone will be nicer to you.”

“If I had any idea of how to do that, I’d have done it already,” my still-sulky companion objected, with what I had to admit was impeccable logic.

“Yes, I’m sure you would,” I said agreeably, keeping my doubts on that score to myself. “But much of what we know is buried deep in the subconscious mind, and things can turn out to be a lot more complicated than they seem at first. That’s why it helps to talk about problems. Sometimes an answer turns up, even if it might not have looked like there was one.”

Drama-Queenie stepped over a tangle of roots as the path narrowed farther, until there was barely room to walk side by side. Thick leaves closed in all around and over us, filtering out most of the late afternoon sunlight.

“Well, okay, I guess that might work sometimes,” she said in a doubtful tone. “But if other people are being hateful, then how is talking about it going to make them act any better?”

“Good question,” I said, as I picked up a fallen branch and tossed it into the bushes. “Why are they being hateful?”

“I dunno, they’re just mean I guess.”

“What do you think made them mean?”

This time Drama-Queenie took a little longer to think about it before she answered. “Maybe someone was mean and hateful to them.”

“You’re probably right,” I said. “That’s often how it works. I wasn’t being nice to you when I told you to shut up, and then you got angry and shouted at me when we were on the beach. You didn’t do it because you were naturally mean or hateful. There was a reason why you were angry.”

Drama-Queenie frowned, chewing on a fingernail again. “But there’s no good reason for anyone to act hateful when I make a mistake. It’s not like they’re perfect, are they? Of course not. But if I can’t do everything just the way they expect, or if it’s something I don’t want to do, then they get nasty. It’s not fair. I can’t go on like this. Sometimes I feel like they’re trying to kill me.”

“You poor kid!” I exclaimed. “No wonder you feel like you’re always in pain. That’s way too much of a burden, trying to guess what everyone wants and to do it perfectly all the time. And you’re right, stress can kill you if nothing is done to stop it. Thousands of people die every day from health problems caused by stress. So you’re not being too dramatic at all.”

She looked at me with wide eyes, plainly incredulous that anyone would tell her she sounded reasonable. “Really? You think so?”

“Absolutely. No doubt about it,” I declared in a firm tone, raising my voice for emphasis. Just ahead of us, the underbrush rustled, and a startled rabbit came out from behind a bush and dashed across the trail.

“And getting back to your earlier question about how to make people act better,” I went on to say, “what I’ve found most helpful is to keep in mind that they don’t usually have a plan to be nasty. Rather, they react to something that happens in the moment; and because their reaction is mostly subconscious, they may not be aware of what triggers it.”

“Well then, how in the world am I supposed to guess what might set them off, when they don’t even know? Sometimes talking to people feels like going for a walk in a field full of landmines. I try to figure out what’s safe to say, but it seems like nothing ever really is.”

“There’s no need to overthink any of this,” I advised. “You just need to give them something positive to focus on. When you do, they’ll switch over to a better subconscious script without even knowing it. Act cheerful, give them a big smile, tell them you’re glad to see them, and show at least a little enthusiasm for whatever they say. You don’t actually have to do what they say, but they’ll be much nicer about it if you act friendly and considerate when you do something else.”

We came out of the forest trail onto a wooden path that followed the shore of a clear blue stream. There was a break in the clouds just above the trees to the southwest, and the setting sun’s warm rays peeked through for a moment.

“Just around that curve in the path, there’s a nice little bed-and-breakfast place where you can stay for a few days and get some rest,” I told my companion. “It’ll help you to feel better. The owners are hard-working and very friendly, and they make a delicious old-fashioned rice pudding that they swear is the perfect cure for melancholy feelings.”

Although her sulky look didn’t entirely go away, I spotted just the tiniest hint of a smile starting to form as we walked farther along the path.

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