The traits you dislike (and admire) in others are probably traits you possess, too.
I have the most fabulous conversations when I’m alone. Driving, exercising, flossing my teeth, I offer opinions and advice that would change the world, if only the people I’m talking to were actually there. One day I’ll laser-focus on a particular client, telling her exactly how to dump her awful boyfriend and develop some self-esteem. The next day I’ll masterfully elucidate how a friend should raise his children, or help the president better handle the media. So great are my powers of persuasion that I can go back in time, intercept Virginia Woolf as she heads out to drown herself, and help her resolve her issues so she wants to live, live, live! Also make her subsequent novels a little less weird!
I think most people engage in this sort of mono mano a mano from time to time. I’ve spent countless hours listening to clients explain what a loved one or coworker needs to hear—so many, in fact, that I finally had to make a formal policy: I don’t coach anyone who isn’t in the room. Yet when a session is over and my clients leave, I frequently go right on coaching them in my head. Recently, I discovered a way to turn these hypocritical solo conversations into a self-improvement tool. I find it surprisingly powerful. I’m hoping you will, too.
Psychologists call it perseverating: “To repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.” Our subconscious minds cause us to obsess—perseverate—about people who mirror something in ourselves that needs our attention. I often marvel as clients bewail the very things in others that reflect their own actions. For example:
“I can’t believe my kid has been smoking pot—I’m so upset, I’ve had to double my anxiety medication.”
“My boss is incredibly secretive. It’s so unhealthy—she’s creating a culture of concealment. But don’t tell anyone I said so.”
“I wish I could get my sister to stop tearing herself down. I mean, she’s not a total freaking loser like me.”
From the outside, it’s obvious these statements are masterpieces of self-referential thinking. But when we’re the ones perseverating, we don’t realize we’re looking at human mirrors. So I devised the following exercise, which I call Epistles of Perseveration. It can help puncture denial and make the changes your subconscious mind knows are most important for you, right now.
Step One: Choose A Negative Perseveration Person (NPP)
Think of a person who’s been on your mind, someone whose misdeeds really chap your hide, and who could benefit—but plenty!—from your awesome insight. Get a pencil and paper and prepare to perseverate in print.
Step Two: Unleash Your Inner Bitch
I first tried this on a day when my mind was a storm of advice for an acquaintance I’ll call Glinda. Since trying to confine my inner judgmental bitch wasn’t working, I decided to let her burn off some energy on paper. At the top of a notebook page, I wrote, “Dear Glinda, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.” Then I scrawled out all the things I’d been trying not to think.
“You’re so two-faced!” I wrote. “You fawn over people until their backs are turned, and then you criticize and undermine them. You’re sneaky and manipulative and insincere. It makes me sick!” Writing this down felt horribly liberating. I could practically hear the hormones gushing from my adrenal glands as I scribbled.
Now it’s your turn. Write a letter to your negative perseveration person—not to send, but to capture the harsh thoughts howling through the darkest caverns of your mind. Enjoy this step; most people do. The next one’s kind of a buzzkill.
Step Three: Change the Name to Stop Protecting the Guilty
Once you’ve fully expressed your thoughts to your NPP, cross out his or her name at the top of your letter. Write in your own. Now read the letter as if it’s written to you—and instead of defending yourself, absorb it the way you’d want your NPP to: thoughtfully, openly, without resistance.
In the case of my rant at Glinda, my hypocrisy was obvious. I hadn’t told the woman I thought she was vilely duplicitous—except when she wasn’t there. In her presence, I was polite. In short, I was being friendly to her face, then attacking her (if only in my mind) behind her back. I was being, in my own words, “sneaky and manipulative and insincere.”
As soon as I realized all that good advice was for me, my perseveration about Glinda turned into a humbling effort to be more honest and consistent in my relationships, with Glinda and everyone else. I almost stopped thinking about her—except as a teacher I could thank for helping me see my own problematic behavior.
When you read your NPP letter, it may be obvious you deserve the very feedback your inner bitch is handing out. If not, look more deeply. For example, if your NPP is a bully but you’re a mild-mannered sort, notice where you’ve allowed yourself to be intimidated; cringing is half the bullying dance, and you may have been dancing it all along. Or if your NPP is fanatically controlling and you’re generally relaxed, notice that you’re trying to control this person’s controlling-ness. If your NPP wastes money and you’re frugal, see where you’ve squandered currencies other than money, such as time or attention (for example, by perseverating).
The wonderful thing about recognizing your own worst traits in your NPP is that your letter will be rich in good advice. By perseverating, you’ve explored all sorts of ways in which your target—that would be you—can do better. In fact, the bitchier you’ve let yourself be, the clearer the instructions.
Step Four: Choose A Positive-Perseveration Person (PPP)
Taking your own negative advice is strong medicine, but for some people the second half of this exercise is even harder to assimilate. Please persist through these last three steps, though, or you’ll miss half the messages from your human mirrors.
For this step, choose a positive-perseveration person—someone you think about in a grateful, admiring, even envious way. Often these people will crop up in your solo conversations, but instead of ranting, you’ll find yourself listening, repeatedly remembering something they said or did.
Not long after composing my letter to Glinda, I visited a dying friend I’ll call Sue. Sue didn’t want to talk; her esophagus was blocked, and although she was receiving fluids via an IV drip, her mouth and throat were terribly dry. I sat beside Sue for half an hour before noticing that my mind was repeating part of a poem from a collection called Thirst, by Mary Oliver: “Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home. / Red-cheeked from the roused wind, / I’ll stand in the doorway / stamping my boots and slapping my hands, / my shoulders / covered with stars.”
I know this poem because I’m mildly obsessed with Oliver’s work, in a way that definitely counts as perseveration. Phrases from her poems often fill my mind like looped recordings, repeating as tenaciously as my advice to NPPs.
To comfort myself as I sat beside Sue, I began silently reciting other Oliver poems (“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” “And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away / from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”). After a while, though I hadn’t moved or spoken, Sue looked at me, smiled, and whispered, “That feels good.” Then she slowly relaxed and fell asleep.
I took out my notebook, turned to a fresh page, and began to write: “Dear Ms. Oliver, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.”
Step Five: Unleash Your Inner Adoring Puppy
I hope you’re following the process here: Choose a PPP—a person you admire and appreciate—and write an absolutely honest letter to him or her. When I do this, I become as worshipful as a rescued pound dog. “Thank you for walking away from busyness to linger in nature,” I wrote to Mary Oliver. “Thank you for finding words to say what silence teaches.” If she’d been there, I would have given her all my chew toys.
Step Six: Again, Change the Name
Once you’ve written to your positive perseveration person, repeat step three: Cross out his or her name and substitute your own. Read your own feedback, absorbing it without resistance, because once again, you were really talking to yourself.
My letter to Mary Oliver stunned me. For years I’ve chastised myself for periodically ignoring e-mails and appointments to disappear into the mountains or the African savanna. But now I saw clearly: My AWOL adventures haven’t been a waste of time! When I travel, I’m hunting and gathering messages that comfort me not only in the hubbub of life but also in the face of death. I’m no Mary Oliver, but something in me has been trying to follow her example.
What does your PPP letter tell you to love within yourself? For which of your attributes are you unconsciously grateful? Whatever you’ve written, now is the time to accept it. Embrace it as you’d want your heroes to embrace your appreciation. You really are that person.
It’s helpful to remember that our subconscious minds continuously seek out human mirrors and hold them up to our conscious awareness. Looking deeply at our own “reflections” expands our awareness of our worst qualities (so we can correct them) and our best (so we can enhance them). Perseveration letters can transform your solitary conversations into powerful dialogues, because the person you’re talking to—you—starts to hear. And when that happens, in small but deeply significant ways, your good advice really does begin to change the world.
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).