What's been eating you exactly?

Once there was a rabbit that made a daily visit to a vegetable garden with a corner full of cabbages. On every previous day, he would nibble on some cabbage leaves and then assimilate what he ate. The cabbage leaves turned into more rabbit. It seemed there could be no other way for assimilation to happen. The cabbages did not have mouths, teeth or digestive systems. Empirical evidence assessed by modern scientists confirmed that the process of assimilation was asymmetrical. But on that day, the rabbit got assimilated by the cabbages and became more cabbage. When other rabbits asked him "what's been eating you lately?", he truthfully answered "those cabbages". Assimilation proved to be a symmetrical process, a two way street.

We assume we're using a figure of speech when we say that something is eating us. We convey that same metaphor with expressions like "it's been gnawing at me lately" or "it left me feeling devoured". What we're saying in so many words is that we've got some emotional baggage. We've been through a negative experience that convinced us to change our minds in a big way. We're now convinced that we're no longer safe, trustworthy, smart, capable, worthy of respect, or some other disqualified quality we had valued in ourselves.

It initially seems that we internalize the negative impression of ourselves. We have a new way to get on our case, to be critical of ourselves and to express unhappiness with our conduct. However, as time passes with no relief in sight, it's more appropriate to imagine that we've been internalized by the experience. We're like the rabbit that turned into the cabbage. We've been assimilated by the negative experience and turned into more of it. It's still gnawing at us. It's exactly what's been eating us.

When we've been eaten by an experience, we are living a confined life inside it. We cannot get out of it. Trying to be different or to get over it once and for all cannot succeed. We're trapped inside a story that offers no escape on the level of what happened, what continues to occur and what cannot happen otherwise. We can only deny the experience, pretend it didn't happen and wish it would go away, all the while remaining deep inside it.

There is a way out of the negative, internalized experience. It calls for some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance. We need a series of contradictory, convincing experiences to shatter our predictions, preconceptions and predilections. We need persuasive proof that we've definitely got it wrong about ourselves, what really happened and what's possible from now on. We need to internalize a new deal that eliminates the old one. We then complete that initial process of assimilation with elimination of what's been irrefutable on the inside. We find we've moved outside of everything that's been inevitably true and unavoidably persistent. We're in a new place with a lot more space to explore.


  1. G'day Tom,

    Would eureka moments & epiphanies be forms of cognitive dissonance?


  2. Yes indeed minh! When that's happening, we say things like "this is too good to be true!" or "this cannot be really happening!" or "no way this is not a scam". We cling to our predictions to avoid cognitive dissonance until the contrary evidence becomes overwhelming.

    Thanks for stopping by!