Chapter-2 External Characters

Everybody’s Talking At Me

 It was a beautiful summer day in 1959 in Framingham, MA, a small suburban town twenty miles west of Boston. I was five years old and ecstatic to have my grandmother, who was visiting from New York, taking care of my three-year-old brother and me while my father was at work and my mother was out shopping. To me the world revolved around my grandmother. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up my answer was always the same, “A Grandma.”  I was the first grandchild, and the apple of her eye, but her three sisters all worried about one thing. They warned her when I was born, “Mary, you have to clean up your language around the baby.”  Yet as good as her intentions may have been she had many slip-ups. I followed her around like a shadow, and a lot of the activity of this day revolved around the little silver metal box that sat on our front porch. That was the box the milkman would open to find the empty bottles we left for him every couple of days and replace them with four new bottles of fresh milk covered with red checkered paper caps.  The box was a perfect size for me to sit on and the cool metal felt good in the hot summer heat as we waited there for him much of the day. My grandmother grew more and more aggravated as we returned to that spot repeatedly hoping to find its prize inside, even though we knew we never heard the sound of his milk truck all day. When my father arrived home from work and found me sitting on my makeshift perch on the front porch, I wanted to greet him with our big news of the day, “The damn milkman never came,” I innocently explained.  I was shocked to see the anger rise in his face and have him pull me by the arm into the house and start spanking me. He was saying I was being punished for using bad language. I was just repeating what I heard my grandmother saying all day long. I did not understand what I did wrong. That true story from my past illustrates how easily children assimilate the voices of the adults in their lives as their own. I wasn’t trying to swear like a sailor. I just wanted to be like Grandma. I’m sure she had the voices of her sisters screaming at her in her head as she saw the consequence of her loose lips.  My father’s reflex reaction could even have been from the External Characters’ voices in his head of how his parents spoke to him when he was a child. How many adults who have children become amazed when they hear the same words coming out of their mouths their parents used on them that they swore they’d never say when they had kids?   We all know the lines:  “Because I’m the parent – that’s why!”   “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”   “When you grow up, you’ll understand.”  “This will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you.”

It’s easy to see children using the same words their parents use on them when they talk to their dolls or stuffed animals. You are such a bad dolly. Now you go straight up to your room and think about what you’ve done. They’re already modeling and learning how to be a parent. It’s no wonder when they do find themselves in that role that the words come out just the same way, even after a couple of decades. While such a clear connection can be seen between saying things that obviously come from an outside source on an issue such as parenting, imagine the thoughts that never get said aloud that lay dormant in our minds all the time playing those messages like a broken record.

In the first chapter, you were introduced to the concept that we have many thoughts inside our heads that sound like voices carrying on a conversation if we stop to listen. The rest of the book will attempt to classify these voices, to make you more perceptive as you partake in these inner dialogues. Since, in essence, it all sounds like our own thoughts, to become truly discerning takes practice, but the rewards are well worth it when you can create clarity in your mind out of the jumble of voices.  It is truly empowering to eventually be able to be the master of your mind and seek your own counsel for answers to dilemmas that may have once caused chaos and confusion.

People are so accustomed to going outside of themselves to find answers. We will learn in this chapter that perhaps one reason we find it difficult to seek solutions within, is that our minds are already so full of other people’s voices it’s hard to wade through them to even hear what really are our own thoughts.  As illustrated above, you can see that other people’s voices quickly become our own. These External Voices may be the most difficult to distinguish from all the Internal Characters you will be meeting in the following chapters. Through reading this book, however, you will have the tools and the knowledge to unravel the essence of your true self from all the external influences that have molded you.

We are after all the sum of all of our experiences, so we are intrinsically tied to everything and everyone who made us what we are today. For instance, the words that came out of little five-year-old Debbie when speaking to Daddy was really Grandma’s voice. That may seem obvious, because those words were actually spoken immediately after hearing them, but let’s fast forward twenty, thirty, fifty years. Eventually you find yourself thinking similar phrases in your mind but you’ve forgotten who they originally came from, or that they came from anyone at all.

So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to realize that External Characters often hide out masquerading as parts of us and it is our job to “unmask” them. An old coach, a Sunday school teacher, a favorite movie star may be camping out in your memories without you even knowing it. The thoughts are so ingrained in our minds that we don’t see or hear them as different from ourselves any longer. It’s like saying that fish don’t see water anywhere even though they’re swimming in it.

Outside sources have shaped and influenced us in myriad ways. Favorite books we read, teachers all through school, sports heroes, politicians, religious training, friends, relatives, television, comic books, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue have had enormous influence on how we think about the world. If they didn’t believe they could sway our thought process, do you think political campaigns or advertisers would spend so much money to buy our vote or sell their brand?  They do it with sound bites and campaign jingles guaranteed to stick in our brains. And it works.

As a general rule, however, all the other outside influences pale in comparison to the messages children receive from their parents. The human brain, especially before the age of six, is a virtual sponge, soaking up everything into the vast template of the limbic system of the brain and formulating its world with the input received. Babies are capable of learning the grammar and syntax of any language or languages presented to them and being enculturated into the mores and customs of any culture. There are no filters to weed out the bad from the good. It all gets programmed into the open slate the Creator has provided for the child to fit into the environment he or she was born into.

The best scene scenario is that child receives all the unconditional love of an extended family or tribe of supportive voices praising the baby along its adventures of each new discovery in life. Lots of hugs and kudos, gentle corrections, food, baths, tickles and attentiveness can allow children to grow up and build healthy self-esteem. Unfortunately, many families are not able to provide for all the parental attention a child needs through its formative years because of any variety of circumstances.

Let me illustrate the deleterious effects of a constant barrage of negative messages during childhood by telling the story of what I discovered in the subconscious mind of a client of mine during our first session working together. She came to me after having been in traditional therapy for ten years already. She had raised two children with the same man, and about a year after the youngest left home they agreed the marriage was no longer working for them. She knew she wasn’t being much of a wife due to her childhood abuse issues and the fact she was sublimating much of her energy into her work in the medical field where she devoted close to 80 hours a week. Due to her people-pleasing personality she willingly gave him the house and anything else he wanted in the divorce as she had done during the marriage.

She was glad for the time alone and was devoted to her own healing, including, at her therapist’s advice, cutting her work schedule way back to only about 50 hours a week (her words) to give her more time to nurture herself. She came to me after living on her own for a little over a year, wanting to work on a number of issues that she knew she needed to address at the subconscious level. She wanted to develop friendships, which were missing from her life, but she did not feel capable of expressing herself verbally or emotionally, and had trouble trusting people. She was suffering from headaches which plagued her everyday for as long as she could remember and admitted she was only sleeping two or three hours a night for the last week before seeing me.  Since I knew she was a people pleaser I wasn’t surprised she was also overly concerned about disappointing people who mattered to her, such as her co-workers and supervisor.

She confessed she was very hard on herself when she perceived she had done something wrong and spent a lot of time beating up on herself. One big reason she didn’t think people would want to be friends with her was because she believed they would think she was “dumb, stupid, irresponsible and couldn’t do anything right.”  I decided the first thing we needed to do was to trace back those messages to where they came from, because I didn’t find those adjectives to describe her. I knew we were probably looking at some External Character hiding out whose voice had already become firmly entrenched in her and was coming out as her own Inner Judge (an Internal Character we will be exploring in the next chapter).

Now keep in mind that the subconscious mind, which includes the limbic system, is the place that holds the memory of everything that ever happened to us. There’s no need for us to have it taking up space in our conscious mind, so what’s not immediately necessary gets stored away in the vast “hard drive” of our subconscious. Just as you can open a file in a computer by calling it up with the right keystrokes, so, too, can you retrieve old memories from the subconscious that may have been long forgotten with the right key phrases. While Psychotherapists utilize dream analysis, Rorschach inkblot tests, and even “Freudian slips” to explore their clients’ inner worlds, Hypnotherapists investigate the subconscious mind head on by direct contact through the modes of suggestion and regression.

The specific type of hypnotherapy I employ and teach is called Alchemical Hypnotherapy or Alchemy. Most of the theories I present in this book come from that process and the discoveries I’ve made delving into my own subconscious mind as well as the minds of thousands of clients over the last 21 years. In Alchemy we honor the power of the subconscious mind to hold the answer to people’s issues as long as we know how to maneuver past the blocks that often buffer people from its truth.

Reminiscent of the Barbra Streisand song from The Way We Were, sometimes because memories are “too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” what happened to us. Society encourages us all too often to “put the past behind us,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” “move on” or “get over it.” And we willingly comply.  Yet often the ramifications of brushing our pain under the rug for too long comes back at us in an unfulfilling life such as my client was experiencing.  It takes a courageous soul to undertake the great journey inward to face her fears in order to turn her life around.

The method I employed with this client, in order to assure that her subconscious mind would reveal the memories connected with these negative messages she still had going around her head, was to feed her those very words and see what they brought up. So I directed her, as she closed her eyes and I induced her into a relaxed state, to go back to a time when someone was telling her she was “just dumb, stupid, irresponsible and couldn’t do anything right!”  She went back to being ten years old with her mother yelling at her to be quiet because her father was drunk again and he would get mad and violent if anyone got in his way.

There was her mother going into a rampage using those derogatory words in order to keep the kids quiet lest dad’s rage be riled. My client was seeing herself be scolded at to go up to her room and not make a sound; and if she wasn’t totally quiet it was because she couldn’t do anything right since she was so stupid and irresponsible. As ridiculous as that might sound to our adult ears, a child being yelled at by a parent will believe those things about herself.

While on the outside my client had two grown children and a successful career in a hospital, on the inside she was emotionally frozen as a ten-year-old all alone in a dark bedroom, sad and terrorized with the blinds closed tight. Even in my office during her session, she felt the tension in her arms, neck and shoulders of trying to remain still for so long and was afraid to talk above a whisper. It was clear to me she had internalized those ideas to such an extent that she had metaphorically been locked up for all these years in that scene and was feeling doomed to live there forever. The voices in her head were like her jailers keeping her alone and suffering.

Luckily, through the techniques of Alchemy, I was finally able to help her shift that scenario in her head to one where her alcoholic abusive father could be removed from the house; and the curtains, which were always drawn shut, were finally opened so the sun could dispel the darkness. I then fed counter-programming suggestions to her subconscious mind that her mother was wrong and she was actually very smart, adept and took great responsibility for keeping peace at home in a difficult situation, even as a little girl.

It will be her job now to listen to the voices in her head with a discerning ear in case those old messages should creep back in. Then instead of beating herself up she can remind herself and her ten-year-old Inner Child that those are her mother’s words and they are not true. In time she can teach herself to see her mother’s face as the External Character talking every time she hears those words and ask her mother to get out of her head and leave her alone.

As we will see in the next chapter there is a good chance her own Inner Judge has become contaminated with the voice of her mother, so she does have her work cut out for her. But in time she will easily be able to know when she’s really done something worth judging herself about and when she’s fallen back into her old pattern of taking blame for something that’s not her fault. The night after that session, she reported sleeping a peaceful and rare six hours straight, which will hopefully become the norm. Making friends can become much easier now that she is free to speak up for herself, as the voices of condemnation inside her die down. Also, her headaches should subside when her mother’s voice stops pounding at her from inside her head.

EXERCISE: Look again at the list you made at the end of the last chapter of the voices you hear in your head.

1.     Decide if any of the voices you identified are likely to be External Characters, whether or not you tried dividing them up already.

2.     Now go a step further and see if you can hear a person you know or knew saying those words and write that person’s name next to those phrases.

3.     You may find that you already gave a new name of an Internal Character to a voice you’ve now identified and are connecting to an External Character. That’s OK. You may have internalized your Aunt Edna into your Inner Cook, or your Uncle Lou into your Inner Comic.

4.     Now that you’ve read this chapter go ahead and see if you can hear anyone else’s voice from your past playing inside your head and add them to list.

In this chapter you learned that not all the voices you hear in your head are your own. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We may want to keep the words of wisdom we received from our heroes, or people who have inspired us, to help us in times of stress or to reach for greater goals in our lives. The key is in the clarity to know that we have welcomed these messages into our hearts and that they haven’t invaded our thoughts accidentally and remained as uninvited guests.

In the next chapter I will be delineating some of the voices that may have had their roots in people we knew, but morphed into a part of our own personality. We will be looking at some of the Inner Characters that comprise the cast of Sub-Personalities who make up who we are. Specifically we will start by looking at the Intellectual Characters and then we will move into the Emotional Characters.


Talking to My Selves: Learning to Love the Voices in Your Head is required reading for students of our Professional Hypnotherapy training programs.

“Debbie Unterman is one of the world’s outstanding experts in the field of Sub-personality theory and practice.  Talking to My Selves:  Learning to Love the Voices in Your Head is the culmination of twenty-five years of exploration as a therapist and teacher.  But far more than merely a textbook of therapy, it is a story about a journey of self-discovery that anyone can take who wants to improve their relations, their health, or their lives.”
– David Quigley, creator of Alchemical Hypnotherapy, Director of the Alchemy Institute of Hypnosis, author of Alchemical Hypnotherapy Manual

“We all have conversations with ourselves. Debbie Unterman takes us on a great inner journey to think about and learn what these voices mean. Our brain is connected to our body and if we want to stay healthy we must realize that the roots of disease can start with the dis-ease in our minds. Debbie reminds us of the importance of this fact in a book that is so engaging I could hardly put it down.”
– Dr. Neil Shulman, M.D., author, Doc Hollywood, Your Body’s Red Light Warning System

“Unterman makes very complicated psychological concepts accessible to everyone, reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on archetypes.”
– Karen Wagner, Executive Director, National Parents’ Rights Association

“Debbie Unterman reveals how our sometimes erratic and contradictory behaviors appear as a result of the various parts of ourselves coming to the fore, vying for attention and acting out their agendas. This book is sure to become a primer for Parts Therapy work for years to come.”
– Colin Tipping, Award-winning author of Radical Forgiveness: Making Room for the Miracle

“Self-Awareness is necessary to any personal or professional success. Talking to My Selves can get you there.”
– Dr. Rick Voyles, President, Conflict Resolution Academy, LLC