A Metaphor for Self-Understanding and Personal Growth

By William V. Giddings, Ed.D.


The value of the House in Your Head metaphor lies in:

1 - helping us visualize what we do internally to distress ourselves over our stresses, and

2 -giving us a clear verbal and visual picture of what we need to do differently to keep ourselves 'cool' in the face of our stressors.

Like any good therapeutic metaphor the House in Your Head has the potential to empower us to move out of angry spirals and victim roles and into a place where, as the Serenity Prayer implies, we work on controlling what is controllable rather than what is not,

...and seeing the difference.



It is my belief that all human beings have an ongoing inner conversation with themselves about the stresses in their lives, the emotions and behavior of others, and about the fundamental human question, "How am I doing?!"

This inner, usually private, conversation (or selftalk) takes place in a "house" we all have in our heads. All of our houses are pretty similar in that they have three floors: the Attic, the Ground Level, and the Basement, ... there are no ranch syle or bi-level houses in our heads. Also common to all the houses in our heads is that they have a door on the Ground Level, and an elevator and two staircases. NOTE: The important thing to understand is that we talk differently to ourselves depending upon which floor of the house we are on at a given time. And it is how we talk to ourselves that creates the emotions we feel and behaviors that come from these emotions.

Most of the time you and I are under some kind of stress since stressors come in a million different forms -- from mild annoyances, hassles, decisions and concerns to severe problems or threats to our well-being. There are interpersonal stresses, stresses from internal physical conditions and health problems, and stresses from external events.

Some of the common interpersonal stresses we experience are putdowns, criticisms, rejection, unfairness, and insensitivity from family members, friends, employers, peers, and others around us.

Physical condition stresses range from aches and pains to hearing and vision losses to sexual dysfunctions to serious and severe diseases like cancer and Parkinson's Disease.

Then there are more external events that are stressful to varying degrees such as when a train suddenly makes the gates go down in front of us, or severe weather, or a low grade on a test, or long lines at the ticket office or grocery store, or a bill that's much higher than we expected. In fact, even though we think we aren't supposed to be, we are often stressed by or during holidays and vacations and other so-called "happy, relaxing" times.

When we are stressed, the stressors come and knock on the door to that House in our Head. We open the door, greet the stress, and often we promptly run either up the staircase to our Attic, or down the staircase to our Basement, ... and then we talk to ourselves about this stressful thing that came to our door.

Which staircase we take first may depend a good deal on the stressor, but it also depends a lot on things like how we were raised, our parents' personalities and behavior, how much and for what we were praised and criticized, and our level of selfconfidence.

And which staircase we take makes a great difference in how we respond to and handle the stressful situation.


The Attic

When we take the staircase to the Attic, we find a long room with an elevator at one end and a large, elevated chair ... our throne, at the other end. In front of the throne is a table upon which are a crown, a sceptor, and a fancy robe. We quickly throw on the robe and the crown, grab the sceptor (which often looks amazingly like our index finger!), and then we assume the "throne position," waving and pounding and pointing our sceptor as we talk to ourselves about the stressful event or information that came to our door.

In the Attic we feel resentment, rage and fury over what other people, events, or situations have done to us. We feel victimized and are furious about it.

The selftalk up here in the Attic is full of Shoulds (got-tos, have-tos, musts) that blame others or circumstances and demand that they change. For example:

"You Shouldn't have said that to me!"

"People Should be more considerate and understanding of my needs!"

"This disease Shouldn't have happened to me!"

"They Shouldn't let trains cross here at this time of day!"

"Companies Should hire more competent employees to assist me!"

"I Shouldn't have to wait in long lines like this!"

And some other common self-talk in the Attic is:

"Can't she see . . . !"

"They have no right to . . . !"

"I just can't stand it when . . . !"

"It isn't Fair!!!"

"How can they . . . !!"

Our attitude up here in the Attic is not only right, but righteous!

Rightness has to do with a position or opinion we hold about something. It allows for and listens to other, different, opinions though it may not agree with them. Its self-talk is "I think I'm right but I understand that you think you're right, too."

Righteousness, on the other hand, means "in your face with my rightness!" It is rigidly judgmental and leaves no room for talk or listening to another point of view. It doesn't want to hear it. The self-talk of Righteousness is, "I'm Right and they're Wrong, ... period! They (or this situation) Should change! And I can't feel calm or comfortable or happy until they do!!"

Even if most people would agree with our opinion and our Shoulding, since their agreement cannot change a situation that has already happened and won't affect the person or situation that is stressing us, it really doesn't help us. In fact, it sets us up to bluster and fume all the more. Thus we become more upset, not less. Meanwhile, the person or situation that caused us stress continues merrily along ... unaffected and unchanged by our Shoulds and rage.

And there's nothing worse than the "throned one" being ignored!


The Basement

If instead of taking the staircase up from our Ground Floor we pick the down staircase, when we get down to the Basement what we see is again the elevator down at one end. The only other really noteworthy thing is a BIG dumpster off at the other end of the room. We make a quick change into some dirty jeans and a drab, grungy sweatshirt that are draped over the railing and then we begin to trudge around talking to ourselves about that stress that came to our door. Here in the Basement we feel hurt, depressed, guilty, and anxious. We feel victimized and are sad and down about it. Our self-talk here is full of Shoulds that blame and put-down our Self and we wallow in our own misfortunes and inadequacies and deficiencies, "I Should have ...", or "If only I . . ."

As we walk we strew the Shoulds about ourselves onto the floor like used candy wrappers.

"How could I have been so dumb (or gullible, or naive, or foolish, or unlucky, or unfortunate, or whatever) as to have this happen to me!"

"I Should have known better! But no, not me, I always screw things up or do dumb things or have bad things happen to me!"

"Truth is, I probably deserve to be dumped on by life 'cause I'm such a loser."

"I have no control in my life. My mother (father) always told me or implied I was worthless."

From time to time we stop and sweep them up and toss them in the dumpster Then we proceed to start all over making a new pile of Shoulding and self-downing. Often it's not really a new pile, ... but is simply the same ol' S--- (synonymous with Shoulds ) simply being recycled in our minds over and over, as if by doing so we could change things or dub in a new ending to our situation wherein we would be ... more assertive, or confident, or intelligent, or physically or emotionally strong.

Sometimes that dumpster gets to overflowing!

The attitude in the Basement could be expressed as,

"You're OK; I'm not OK." Or,

"Even if you aren't (or life isn't) very OK, I Should be able to to cope better than I do! Oh, woe is me."

The Elevator

Although people usually do have a tendency to spend more of their time in either the Attic or the Basement depending on their personalities and emotional make-up, the majority of us are not solely stuck on one or the other of these floors. When we become exhausted from the energy and futility of either the ranting or the wallowing we often reach a point where we have a shift of thinking. Our exhaustion from the current self-talk makes us prone to a pretty sudden and reactive change rather than something calm and gradual. In the "House in our Heads" this is where the Elevator comes into play. In two words, it can be summed up as "Yes, …, but ..."

So, when we have been in our Attic awhile, muttering and blaming and raging about recent stresses as well as rummaging through the archives of offenses we have stored from our past, sooner or later most of us find that we've gotten exhausted from all the futile energy put forth trying to change people or events that won't change. At that time we get off our thrones, go to the far opposite end of the Attic, and with an angry shrug say to ourselves, "Well, all that's true, but..." and with that we step into the Elevator.

Now this Elevator is rather unique. For a house that has three floors, the Elevator only has two buttons: Down (all the way) or Up (all the way).

There is no button for the Ground floor; the Elevator doesn't stop there!


In the example above, being already up in the Attic, when we step into the elevator the only active button to choose is "Down." As the elevator makes its quick descent, we affirm all the angry Shoulds we've just been spouting in the Attic, but start to add Shoulds aimed at ourselves. "Yes, he Should have been nicer or more sensitive, but I Should have handled his criticism better! What's the matter with me that I didn't?!"

And with that the elevator door opens and we step out into ... The Basement.

Down there we go into self-downing mode for awhile, wallowing in our Shoulds and feeling guilty or dumb, or inadequate without anything improving until once again we get tired of all the gloom and woe, and then we throw one more wrapper in the dumpster and head for the opposite end of the Basement. There with a guilty shrug we say to ourselves something like, " Well, all that's true, but ..." and with that we step into the elevator and push the only active button ... "Up!" Moments later as we arrive at the top floor we are saying, "Yes, I Should have been more calm and cool when he criticized me, BUT that SOB had no right to be so insensitive and mean! I get sick and tired of being treated that way!"

And with that, the elevator door opens and we step out into ... The Attic. And there we are back into our rage and hurt about others' selfishness and insensitivity towards us or life's unfairness. The King/Queen is back on the throne, getting madder and madder because no one is listening, no one is changing.

And of course, the beat goes on! Sometimes we travel between floors pretty quickly spending fairly equal amounts of time on each. But most times we seem to stay on one of the floors much longer than the other. We give the Shoulds on that level a thorough workout and appear to only take short breathers on the other floor.

Often our elevator gets quite a workout. Up and down, up and down. "Damn you. . .damn me" with no change to anything except that we probably get more upset. We are seeking the Ground floor, but are unable to get to it via the elevator

It is not until at some time we begin to talk to ourselves in a way that accepts the situation as it is instead of as it Should be that we finally get off the elevator merry-go-round.

"OK, OK, he should have been nicer and more sensitive, but he wasn't, ... and I shouldn't have reacted so strongly and obnoxiously, but I did. It happened and I can't replay it, and blaming him just makes me more uptight and mad, so I guess I need to accept what happened and work on figuring out what I can do to cool things down and resolve this problem."

When we begin talking to ourselves like this we suddenly become aware that we are on a staircase and we begin to realize that the only way to get to the Ground Level is via a staircase! …

and, one step at a time.

Ground Level

The Ground Level is the floor of our House where our self-talk about the events in our lives is rational and appropriate, and therefore most helpful. This floor isn't just a happy place, it's not as simple as that. Stress is still stress, and therefore is rough and painful and annoying, but when we respond to our stresses from our Ground floor, we let go of the Shoulds and Awfuls and we do not Distress ourselves over our Stresses. On the Ground Level our judgments are fairly brief and less intense and we spend more time in the process of accepting and figuring out how best to handle the situation. That does not mean we like, or agree with or give in to the stress. Rather, we see the stress for what it is, and thus respond to it rather than reacting to it. It is important to note here that genuine acceptance is not a wimpy, passive option, eg., "I guess I'll just have to accept it." That is not real acceptance, it is merely giving in or giving up. Real acceptance comes from clear, sharp thinking. It is assertive and active, and strangely enough is probably a little harder because of the careful thinking it takes. But the pay offs of "living" on the Ground floor are far more helpful and settling than what comes from judgmental Attic or Basement thinking. In slang terms, Ground Level self-talk is "cool."

Some examples of this kind of thinking are as follows : (note in advance that each of these examples is a little longer than the examples given for the Attic or Basement. That reflects the fact that "Grounded" thinking is a little harder, … it takes just a little more care and time.)

"Boy that was embarrassing. I really was pretty stupid. I don't know what I was thinking! But, it happened and I can't take it back or dub in a different ending. I guess I'll just have to lay low and weather the teases until it blows over, or, if I offended someone, I want to see if I can figure out a way to genuinely apologize without having to get on my knees."

"They lied to me, and took advantage of me! That really makes me mad! I have every right to feel this way, but what I don't want to do is go up in my Attic because there I'll end up turning mad into furious. That wouldn't change the situation, and would simply get me more angry and upset so the lousy feelings would last longer. Who needs it!! I sure don't want to make myself an even greater victim than I already am."

"I'm scared and worried and down about this disease. And I'm also pretty embarrassed and self-conscious about how I look to others. I still have a hard time really believing this happened to me. It's like some bad dream! Well, I don't appear to be able to cure it and I don't have a lot of control over the pain and symptoms but if I can stay out of my Attic-rage and my Basement-dumpster then at least I can do my best to keep myself fairly "cool" and take care of myself. If I start (or continue) taking Elevator rides then I'll simply make myself sicker and my symptoms worse and more obvious. I may not be able to control the damn disease, but at least I can work to control much of how I think and respond to it. "

Yes, we are the ones who can choose the Ground floor where our self-talk, emotions, and behavior will be more grounded, more appropriate, and more helpful.

In any interaction between people, both people are always responding to the situation from one of the floors of their house. If the other guy is in his/her Attic or Basement the easiest thing is for us to go to one of those floors in our own Head and get into a yelling or wallowy, guilty place. But just because you are real upset with me does not mean I Must get real upset, too. (Or vice versa.) Regardless of which floor other people are on in their Houses, we can choose to stay on our own Ground floor and hence handle their "stuff" more accurately and appropriately and better.


Quick Check

Now here is a quick check to see if you're clear on the self-talk and feelings that occur on each floor of your House.


1. Early morning. A mother and two daughters are getting ready for school and work. The girls are in the bathroom arguing over the hairblower and mirror. Mom yells at them from the bedroom:

"Would you two shut up! I get so sick and tired of hearing you argue every morning. I told you not to yell at each other in the morning and to take turns. Don't you ever listen to me?!"

Oldest daughter responds, "It's not my fault. She's the one who always starts it!"

Younger daughter replies, "(in tears) I'm sorry, I just wanted to be sure my hair was right. From now on I'll just go to school without doing my hair."

In this scenario there are three persons. Which floor of their Houses are each of them on? Which ones do you predict will use the elevator?

[Answer: Before it's over (and that may take hours or all day or even longer) it's likely all three will do some elevator stuff. And when they get back together that night after school and work there will be some residual stuff going on because the Attics have not let go of the anger, and the odds are good a new bout will easily be triggered soon. Funny how the self-talk in the Attic and Basement have a way of accumulating, and of course that simply feeds the fires of rage and gloom.]

2. Father criticizes son in front of friends about hitting the baseball like a girl. Son blushes, gets very quiet, and acts ashamed.

What floors are both on? If the son had said, "Hey, Dad, I'll work on it, but you don't have to put me down," what floor would that come from?


3. Wife to husband. "We never get much time together any more. Don't you love me any more?" Husband: "Can't you see how busy I am trying to make ends meet?! Gimme a break!"

Which floors are they on? If the wife had talked more from her Ground floor her husband might not have gone to the floor he did. What might she have said that would have dealt with her concern without putting him on the spot?

[How about something like: "Thanks for working so hard to make ends meet for us. I can see how hard you struggle with it. It's been difficult for us to find much time for each other. But I miss being closer. How about we schedule a time for ourselves 'cause being spontaneous just isn't working right now and it will be easier to let go of the daily hassle if we have a plan to spend some time together. That way instead of intruding on other plans it will actually be part of the plans.]


In conclusion, most everyone values being "cool," but it's not easy to get there. I'm a cowboy at heart, so let me put this into a western metaphor: when there's trouble out there and we want to re-gain the peace it's so much easier for us to simply draw our inner verbal gun and shoot from the hip (at others or ourselves) than it is to draw, take aim, and then shoot (i.e., Grounded shooting). But the former way often doesn't hit the target or injures the target-person more than necessary and frequently makes a mess of things or gets us into bigger trouble. So we keep on shooting and shooting, … turning skirmishes into wars. And driving peace further away. Whereas when we aim, we focus on the target and are far more likely to hit it squarely and cleanly and with minimal shots (i.e., our points of view). Then we can re-holster our gun and move ahead. Instead of going to war to impose a peace (a contradiction in itself) we fire only a few careful shots and put our guns away. Only then can real peace, inner-peace, come and sit softly on our shoulder.


Take good care of yourself!


Visual Summary of The House in Your Head