I was first introduced to demon feeding at Spirit Rock, that oh-so-California Buddhist-ish institute nestled in the hills of Marin. Demon feeding is a creative exercise in which you give shape and form to your inner “demons” and then create a relationship with them in order to stop fighting your darker instincts.
Years later, I encountered a distinct but similar exercise at the Coactive Training Institute, a coach-training program. CTI guides participants through an inner exploration in which they encounter and define their “crew,” inner allies that represent specific positive attributes you can call upon for help.
Both of these approaches are helpful, but I’ve found they didn’t allow room for the many parts of my clients’ personalities that fall somewhere between “demon” and “ally”: the often annoying, sometimes useful bits of ourselves that nag or whine or shout advice at us. I find my clients get more out of a kind of amalgamation of the two above techniques: one designed to help you get clarity on the forces that move you, and create productive, collaborative relationships with them.
1. Name an Inner Character
An inner character is a cluster of thoughts that point in the same direction. Some example characters my clients have identified include Good Boy, Perfectionism, and Paranoia. Good Boy is a hard worker and people-pleaser who follows rules, goes the extra mile, and doesn’t like to offend people. Perfectionism cares a lot about quality and is willing to spend enormous amounts of time sweating small details. Paranoia likes to imagine how things will go wrong and what people are saying about her behind her back.
I’ll ask that we name a character when I notice my clients telling me about unhelpful thoughts they’re having, or repeating patterned behaviour. I’ll ask something like, “That part of you that gets really impatient when your team brings excuses: what do we want to call that?” Or, “That instinct to revise the deck twelve times: What do you want to name the part of yourself that asks for that?” You don’t have to dig through your history to find a character. It’s sufficient to start with a single thought or action you want to investigate and ask, “What do I want to call the part of me that prompted that?”
2. Draw It
Once you’ve named your character, the next step is to imagine its physical form. What do its eyes look like? What is it wearing? How does it move? Is it humanoid or not? Does it have a gender? How tall is it? What’s its posture like? What are its hands like? I strongly encourage you to get out a pencil and paper and sketch the character, or create a collage that represents it. Put this image somewhere visible.
For example, one of my old favourites is Competitiveness. He and I are old friends.
Some people like to imagine characters that look human: “Competitiveness looks like a 13-year-old version of myself playing basketball.” Others like to use more abstract, cartoony visuals: “Competitiveness looks like an octopus playing chess.”
2. Describe How It Acts
Once you’ve sketched out the shape of your internal character, identify how it acts. What phrases does it use? What is it interested in? When is it apt to show up? What does it want?
Take Competitiveness: Competitiveness loves winning! He loves winning so much he’ll invent competitions just so he can win them. He feels safest and most comfortable when he’s on top, and he tends to forget when he’s actually on the same team as the person he’s competing with. His favourite phrase is, “I’m going to beat you.” He wants to be stronger and more successful than the people around him; he’s very interested in how much money other people make, and how much they can squat. He often shows up when I go to the gym, and at board game nights.
Advanced students: at this point, I recommend you step in to your character and live inside it for a little while. Place your body in its shape. Move like it moves. Mutter or scream or yell or whisper its catchphrases. Give it a voice. Acknowledge that it is part of who you are.
3. Engage in Dialogue With It
Deciding how you want to approach your relationship with your inner character is the final step of this exercise. Ask yourself, “What does this character want for me? What do I want from it? What will I tell it when it shows up at inconvenient times? Where can I employ it?”
For example, when Competitiveness shows up, I often just need to remind him that the ‘enemy’ and I are actually on the same team. I tell him that now’s not a great time, but I’m playing tennis this weekend and I’d love to see him then.
You might be tempted to fire many of your internal characters, to simply tell them to leave whenever you notice them. I’d recommend taking a more amicable approach. Find contexts where you and these characters can play. For instance, you may not want to move in with Pessimism, but since she’s actually pretty good at pointing out valid risks, you might want to put her to work on your risk-analysis team. Maybe you find out that while Special can get in the way of you empathizing with people, he makes a great toastmaster when you’re called upon to give a speech.
4. Living With Imperfect Advisors
Just as you are neither saintly nor villainous, so is your internal council staffed by imperfect, messy advisors who are doing their best. Censoring them or yelling at them won’t help.
Give your weird voices a playground. Make them your friends. Take them out for lunch, or go for a long walk with them. You might be surprised at how much they have to offer you.