Once you get to know your personal “catastrophes-in-waiting” they will wield less power over you.

Some of my inner parts are easy to spot. If I break something, for example, my inner critic will cheerfully yell, “You idiot!” Most of us also have parts that are much more subtle—so subtle, in fact, that they feel like they are us. We unwittingly see the world through their eyes.

To put this another way, this subtle sort of part represents a particular stance: towards you, or other people, or the world, or even God (or its idea of God). This stance is invariably vigilant, primed to look out for threats.

Each of these vigilant parts has an area of specialty, having sprung into existence at a time when you needed protection from a real or perceived threat. Since that moment, it has devoted itself to scanning the horizon for whatever it fears most.

Sitting with a client recently as he acknowledged a part of him that was afraid something terrible was going to happen, a phrase floated into my mind: catastrophe-in-waiting. This description captivated both of us. It perfectly captured the vigilance he felt. At the same time, it conjured images of ladies-in-waiting, who exist solely to serve their queen, remaining discreetly in the background yet ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of need.

My client later sent me the image above. This piece of art perfectly reproduces my mental image and bodily felt sense of catastrophes-in-waiting. (Many thanks to the owners of the image, David Brass Rare Books, for generously permitting me to use it here.*)

Cartoons and catastrophes

The artist himself, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803-1847) was a French caricaturist, celebrated as “the first star of French caricature’s great age, satirizing the bourgeois class in Paris in the mid 19th century:”

Art historians and critics have…described his illustrations as featuring “elements of the symbolic, dreamlike, and incongruous” while retaining a sense of social commentary,[2] and “the strangest and most pernicious transfigurement of the human shape ever produced by the Romantic imagination. The anthropomorphic vegetables and zoomorphic figures that populated his cartoons anticipated and influenced the work of generations of cartoonists and illustrators from John Tenniel, to Gustave Doré, to Félicien Rops, and Walt Disney.

Incongruous and strange? Definitely. Pernicious? Sadly, yes. Our vigilant parts can be all these things. Yet we are too close to them to see clearly when we are acting out, under their influence. We need perspective…and imagining them as catastrophes-in-waiting—half-human, half animal, dressed up like citizens of 19th century Paris—gives us a great start.

About catastrophes-in-waiting

In that Parisian era, ladies-in-waiting were expected to put service to the monarch over everything else—including their own families. In return for this devotion, they wielded influence at court.

Similarly, your catastrophes-in-waiting are loyal servants, devoted exclusively to your safety and well-being. (Thanks to my focusing mentors, Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin, for this key concept of critical or tense parts existing to serve you.) They exist solely to prevent terrible things from happening, simply by anticipating and scanning for them.

Unfortunately, though, catastrophes-in-waiting create problems:

  • They work overtime to control you. Like a real lady-in-waiting, a catastrophe-in-waiting has no direct power. But it will do everything it can to influence you to do whatever it thinks you need to do to be safe…and its tactics can be highly persuasive.
  • They have limited perspective. A catastrophe-in-waiting is hyper-focused. It’s only concern is your safety, real or perceived. It doesn’t care how many of your other needs are left unmet in the process. It’s like a bull in a china shop.
  • Their perception is selective and frequently inaccurate. In service of their specialized vigilance, catastrophes-in-waiting take full advantage of a formidable weapon: your deep-processing, highly sensitive brain. Unfortunately, your catastrophes-in-waiting can misuse your mental fire power by using it to interpret observations in a fearful way. They can go beyond merely scanning for threats, to actually fabricating them.

What catastrophes-in-waiting run your inner court?

What does a catastrophe-in-waiting look and sound like from the inside? Here are a few common examples, along with a description of the way the world looks when you see it through their eyes:

  • “Something terrible is going to happen.” This vigilant part suffers from a pervasive, chronic sense of doom, ranging from uneasiness to dread. Of course, stressful events are stressful, but they are stressful when they happen. This vigilance, on the other hand, never stops. You can tell you’ve been merged with a doom-fearing catastrophe-in-waiting if, when the merde does hit the fan, you feel a plunging sense of panic or horror, like your worst fears have been confirmed.
  • “Something is wrong with me.” This catastrophe-in-waiting feels a lot like the “something terrible is going to happen” one, but with a different focus. It feels dread that its worst fears about itself will be confirmed. You can tell you are in the grips of this kind of vigilance when the slightest suggestion that you have fallen short of your own or others’ expectations causes your stomach to sink, your cheeks to flush, and your body to freeze up.
  • “You can’t trust other people.” This kind of vigilance is particularly insidious because people are, after all, human. They make mistakes. They let you down, and may even betray you sometimes. But if you hear yourself saying, “I knew this would happen,” every time you see someone behaving in a less than stellar way, consider you may have a catastrophe-in-waiting coloring your world view.

“What if….?”

You may have noticed the bigger fear these catastrophes-in-waiting all share: they are terrified that what they fear most will turn out to be true. If you can detect what the fear is, you’re well on the way to freeing yourself from the grip of these highly vigilant parts.

Once you’ve detected the specialty of a particular catastrophe-in-waiting, you can play the “What if…?” game with it. Using the first example above, you’d get quiet and ask,

“OK, so what if something terrible did happen?”

Then wait and listen to what comes. Let’s say you hear, “I would be shocked and caught off guard.” Reflect that back to your catastrophe-in-waiting:

“Ah, so you’d be shocked and caught off guard…and what would that mean?”

Keep reflecting and wondering what the implications would be of each succeeding message you receive from your catastrophe-in-waiting. By listening, reflecting, and wondering in this way, you begin to establish an inner relationship with this part of you.

Each of your catastrophes-in-waiting lives inside a snow globe of its own creation: a self-contained, sealed-off world in which frightening disempowering beliefs are unquestionably true. When you were a child, these things may even have been true. You didn’t have the resources you have now.

However, when you enter this fearful world—by listening, empathizing, and exploring—you bring the light of awareness with you. Gradually your catastrophe-in-waiting begins to perceive the reality of a world beyond its snow globe.

How do you reassert your rule over your inner court?

To regain your agency over your inner kingdom, begin by reminding yourself that you are king. Or queen. You have the car keys. Your catastrophes-in-waiting don’t. They can cajole, harangue, lecture, educate, or try to persuade you. They may scream at you, or create painful physical tension in your body. But they can’t act.

Next, learn to recognize the signs that you are under the influence of a catastrophe-in-waiting. You may notice a sudden, out-of-proportion reaction, or a pattern of pervasive, global worry, or a sudden sense of urgency.

One of my catastrophes-in-waiting sounds like this: “people I care about may turn on me at any moment.” This part can cause all the above reactions in me. The rapidity with which this fear can surface, even in my safest relationships, is a telling sign that it is waiting for such a thing to happen, and that this feels like a catastrophe to it.

For example, if I’m telling my partner something and I suddenly sense he’s distracted and not hearing me, I have an instant physical reaction. The suddenness of the reaction is notable, because I trust my partner, and he’s wonderfully attentive.

The sheer intensity of my reaction— entirely disproportional to the event–is a second sign of an activated catastrophe-in-waiting. This is followed with the speed of light by the third sign: a sensation of extreme urgency. In fact, if I don’t catch the first two signs quickly enough and that extreme sense of urgency kicks in, I’m at high risk of succumbing to the belief that I truly am not safe.

When that happens, I instantly withdraw, either into myself or by literally leaving the room. It’s a curious physical sensation, as if someone has pulled hard on a rope attached to a ring in my chest. I feel like I’m being walked out of the room, rather than walking myself. This is a mild form of dissociation.

We need humor and perspective

I share my example to make it clear that this isn’t a theoretical exercise. I need all the help I can get to approach these habit patterns with compassion, perspective, and most of all, humor—all the hallmarks of self-awareness and presence. I salute Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard for helping me do that, by lending me his fantastical images to represent my catastrophes-in-waiting.

Photo by David Brass Rare Books, Inc

Note: This caricature comes from the David Brass Rare Books catalogue, where a first edition of Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard’s Les Metamorphoses du Jour (“bound in contemporary quarter red hard-grain morocco over marbled boards”) can be obtained for $3500. How wonderful it would be to hold such a beautifully illustrated book in one’s hand, and to imagine that the artist himself drew that very ink on that very paper.