“Why does she say she loves me while having an affair?” “Why does he neglect his own daughter when he claims he cares deeply?” “Why does she back-stab me like that after a lifelong friendship?”
When a loved one behaves unexpectedly or seems to contradict who we know them to be, it can be confusing and unsettling at best—at worst heart-breaking or downright scary. Even more so when it’s our own behaviour that’s “out of character.”
But what defines and constitutes our character?
What is the common core of these apparently contradicting behaviours? Is there any at all? Not finding an answer to these burning questions could leave us feeling subjected to the randomness of our moods—sometimes lucky, sometimes not.
The enigmatic nature of our human heart poses a major challenge in our relationships. A single upsetting moment between two people has the power to annihilate trust built up over years. If we don’t manage to make sense of whatever happened, it can eat away at our trust in those around us, making us cautious and suspicious.
I have been trying to connect the dots between the familiar and the disturbing in my own relationships. Starting with myself, I extended my investigation of this paradox in my work as a counsellor and life coach.
Then, I finally had my epiphany—one of those distinct moments that I’ll never forget. In an instant the insight I gained united these apparent contradictions under one roof.
I understood that unpredictability and freedom of choice are two sides of the same coin. I saw that every human being is like a house of many rooms.
Countless doors in all possible colours, shapes and styles lead into different spaces—we might call these spaces love room, hate room, happy room, sad room, silent room, noisy room, friend room, enemy room. Even saint room and killer room. They are all there, in every single one of us.
Our individual circumstances and backgrounds determine which chamber we are born into. We fill that space with first memories and early connections—be they happy or sad. This is our starting point.
At some point the thought, “I am more than this,” might arise and we might gather the courage to leave our familiar abode in search of a bigger picture. Although this might seem like a natural and easy progression, but compared to the mega-task of dealing with the whole house, a limited room-sized horizon is seductively simple and comforting.
Our suppressed areas appear foreign. Before long we might start fighting them out there in others, denying that these things are all a part of us as well.
We should expect surprises as we stretch our awareness from room-size to a dimension big enough to accommodate the whole house. What a multitude of realities to handle! No wonder we often find ourselves shoved around by unknown triggers.
On the path from helpless impulsiveness to living intentionally, we must courageously face our challenges and learn to handle them. Self-knowledge and wisdom will help us to recover our sense of wholeness and peace, and allow us to access qualities in ourselves we never dreamt of possessing.
The House of Many Rooms model has led me this humbling insight: the difference between the “bad guy” and me might not be my virtuous character, but simply the fact that I hadn’t been exposed to the circumstances that might have opened the door to that room.
We ought to be careful when judging others from our privileged positions. A couple of trials later we could find ourselves drawn into rooms we never dared to imagine as part of our inner medley. Our children often seem to have the power to take us there, to trigger dormant chambers we never knew we had.
The metaphor succinctly portrays the simultaneous possibilities within us—all that we have the ability to be. There are immediate light bulb moments of recognition when we see ourselves this way. The deceitful voice of depression creeping in with its paralysing whisper of “This room is all there is” is a dark corner most of us know well.
Or the shady fear room with its debilitating tunnel vision when the sense of danger flips us to survival mode—an all-consuming state of being.
We can use this idea as an antidote, an empowering reminder to put blues and fear in perspective. We might still need to work our way out of the pit, but it won’t be so dark anymore.
A particularly beautiful example to illustrate the healing application of this idea of The House of Many Rooms is Isaac, a 15-year-old boy who I worked with in a Nairobi slum in the days following an outbreak of post-election violence.
Politicians had created a rift of fear and mistrust between the main tribes in the country, which lead to fierce clashes. Isaac had witnessed the shocking transformation in his cherished neighbours, who happened to be of the other tribe. He saw them killing his father and taking over their little house, rendering Isaac, his mother and his four siblings homeless. The experience was deeply disturbing for this young man, and he had been suffering from severe fits of rage ever since.
“From friends to enemies, just like that? I don’t get it! How should I trust anybody ever again?” was his desperate question.
We started our work together. I drew the house with a roof and many doors that Isaac had the freedom to label. “Pain room, hatred room, rage room, death room, fear room…”, he started, finally arriving at “home room, love room, family room, father room, peace room.”
I confirmed that we all have all of these rooms—from the saint-room to the killer-room.
“Do you have the killer room too?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes, I do! If I saw anybody trying to harm my children, I might end up moving instinctively into my killer room in an effort to protect them. And this is what happened to your neighbours. The roads were full of violence—one tribe against the other. Trust was gone and the options appeared to be limited to only one: it’s them or us. And now you suffer from where this experience has taken you!”
Isaac sat in silence for a while. His restless eyes and facial expression clearly communicated the intensity of his processing.
“What can we do not to move into the killer room?”
“What do you think?” I threw the ball back to him.
After another long pause Isaac looked at me and came up with an impressive answer:
“I guess we need to have a well equipped love room then, to be strong enough to refrain from retaliating.”
And so Isaac started to make sense of his traumatic experience, which was a crucial step towards healing.
A year after finishing our process, I ran into Isaac again. He looked happy and up-beat. “I know it’s true—the house of many rooms!” he confirmed, “I am the whole house, always! No matter how I’m feeling.” and with a big smile on his face he turned around and joined his peers.
“He’s got the message, obviously.” I reckoned, after catching my breath.
“I am the whole house, always!”
Thanks for the reminder, Isaac.
Author: Marianne Glaeser
Image: Tareck Raffoul
Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Katarina Tavčar