Beware the Mad Woman in the Attic – Then Befriend Her (Sort Of)
“Each person’s madwoman is different. For you, maybe she’s more like a shadow, following you around, a perpetual reminder of what you’re not.”
– Emily & Amelia Nagoski, “Burnout”
Have you read the “Burnout” book yet?
If not, I am giving you another friendly nudge to do so!
“Burnout; The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski does an outstanding job of explaining how to effectively handle stress. It also does a brilliant job of explaining where much of that stress originates from – for women in particular.
In a previous blog about the “Burnout” book, I wrote about what happens in our body when we experience stress, and what we can do to complete the biological stress cycle. Because if we don’t complete the cycle, the stress remains stuck in our body – and that’s dangerous.
In this blog, I’m writing about a different aspect of stress: the importance of constructive and useful self talk…versus the far more familiar type of self-talk that most women (and many men) hear in their heads on a daily basis: the negative, nagging, critical voice that loves to remind us of all that we are not – or have not achieved (because of all that we are not).
Meet the Mad Woman in the Attic…
The mad woman in the attic is that annoying voice in our head that says things to us that we would never dream of saying to a friend (if, that is, we are nice people and care about the impact of our words on others). If we happen to be looking in the mirror, our madwoman in the attic might say, for example: “You are FAT! You need to lose twenty pounds. The cellulite on your thighs is disgusting. Stop eating so many damn cookies!”
Or…perhaps you’ve just put in a huge workday – but only got 80% of your tasks ticked off your mammoth to-do list. The madwoman in the attic might say: “Seriously? Only 80% of your tasks completed…again? What’s wrong with you? You are NOT getting enough done!”
“If you have beaten yourselves up for needing to say no to a friend, that was the madwoman,” say the “Burnout” authors. “If you have felt sure that a broken relationship was all your fault, that there had to something more you could have done, that was the madwoman. If you, like so many women we know, have struggled when you look in the mirror, it’s the madwoman you see looking back at you.”
If all this sounds like madness, it’s because it is. But the good news (sort of) is this: we are not alone: most of us have a madwoman in our attic.
A bit of background on the madwoman…
“Amelia’s favourite book is Jane Eyre,” explains “Burnout” co-author Emily Nagoski. “When she first read it as a teenager, she couldn’t have articulated the metaphor in the book that so resonated with her: the madwoman living in the attic. Rochester, the hero, has – spoiler – his insane wife locked in his attic. And when you think about it, who doesn’t? A demon in our past or our present that taunts us and tries to stop us from doing the things we most want to do.”
That last line is so important, I think it’s worth repeating:The madwoman in the attic is a demon in our past or present that taunts us and tries to stop us from doing the things we most want to do. Click To Tweet
But why would she – whoever she is – want to stop us from doing the things we most want to do? To keep us safe, of course! She’s only trying to help…in her own weird way.
“Each person’s madwoman is different,” explain the “Burnout” authors. “For you, maybe she’s more like a shadow, following you around, a perpetual reminder of what you’re not.”
Or perhaps she is more like “a whiny, annoying brat of a six-year-old who thinks she knows everything and will not – give me strength – shut up unless I take deep breaths for her, then she goes quiet.”
Or perhaps “She’s the skinnier, younger-looking, richer, better-dressed, prettier-by-societal-standards, lives-in-the-amazing-and-much-larger-house-next-door-with-the-perfect-lawn version of me.”
Every person’s madwoman is unique. But there are similarities. “Again and again,” say the “Burnout” authors, “women describe their madwoman as an uncomfortable, even unpleasant person. And they describe her fragility, vulnerability, or sadness.”
Which brings us to the purpose of the madwoman…
“This uncomfortable, fragile part of ourselves serves a very important function,” explain the authors. “She grew inside us, to manage the chasm between who we are and who Human Giver Syndrome expects us to be. She is the part of us that has the impossible, tormenting task of bridging the unbridgeable chasm between us and the “expected-us.” It’s a form of torture like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down each time. She’s forever oscillating from rage to helpless despair.”
If that sounds over-the-top melodramatic, that’s because it is. It’s also true.The madwoman in the attic is a melodramatic, bossy, nutcase. Unfortunately, some version of her probably does live in our head. Click To Tweet
If you think all this is utter madness, I challenge you to ask any woman in your life if she ever struggles between being her true, authentic self and being what others expects her to be.
So, what can be done about this madwoman?
“There is and always will be a chasm between you and expected you,” say the authors. “What matters is how you manage it – which is to say, how you relate to your madwoman. Turn toward that self-critical part of you with kindness and compassion. Thank her for the hard work she has done to help you survive.”
“When we can personify our self-criticism,” say the “Burnout” authors, “we can relate to it more effectively.”
To this end, the authors suggest we describe our madwoman in words or illustration: “Tune in to the difficult, fragile part of yourself that tries to bridge the unbridgeable chasm between you and expected-you. What does she look like? When was she born? What is her history? What does she say to you? Write out her feelings and thoughts. Notice where she’s harshly critical of you, shaming, or perfectionistic. Can you hear sadness or fear under her madness? Ask her what she fears or what she is grieving? Listen to her stories – never forgetting she’s a madwoman.”
My madwoman is a little like the Kathy Bates character, Annie Wilkes, in the 1990 film, “Misery,” (based on the 1987 novel by Stephen King).
As you may recall, Annie is nutty as a fruitcake. She’s also very mean to the poor old author she is holding hostage in her home. Annie sees herself as the author’s “number one fan,” but the author certainly doesn’t see it that way…for obvious reasons (I am still recovering from the infamous ‘hobbling’ scene in the “Misery” film).
Okay…so perhaps Annie Wilkes is a little over-the-top in terms of describing my madwoman in the attic. But hopefully you get my point.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t particularly like my madwoman because she’s bossy, demanding, and critical. And nutty as a fruitcake. And mean as a rattlesnake. But I gotta admit that sometimes, she’s…you know, right. Sometimes her nagging voice challenges me do just that little bit more in a day – that I am perfectly capable of doing.
But I know now when she crosses the line. I just think back to the hobbling scene in “Misery,” shake my head and poof! Annie Wilkes is gone.
To hear the “Burnout” authors describe the Mad Woman in the Attic concept themselves, have a listen to Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier podcast interview with Amelia and Emily Nagoski. The podcast is entitled, “For the Burned Out, Fried and Exhausted,” and the Mad Woman in the Attic is discussed at the 22-minute mark. Enjoy!
I listened to the podcast myself a second time recently…which came in handy for when Annie Wilkes woke me up, again, at 3:00 am to remind me that I wasn’t getting enough work done. I told her to go pound sand (versus someone’s foot), then I rolled over and fell back asleep 🙂Might you have a madwoman in your attic? If so, does she have a name? Click To Tweet
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Maryanne Pope is the author of “A Widow’s Awakening.” She also writes screenplays, playscripts and blogs. She is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and a co-founder of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To receive Maryanne’s blog, “Weekly Words of Wisdom,” please subscribe here.