How to Create a Therapeutic Alter Ego

Cliche Alter Ego Man Repeller

Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am a Maxxinista. Well, that’s not exactly true. Karen, my therapeutic alter ego, whom I created to organize my tupperware, take the blame for my online shopping habit, and demand to see your manager, is a Maxxinista. I created Karen when I first moved down to Alabama for grad school, when the whole international-eccentric-art-girl aesthetic I brought with me from a media job in Taipei was garishly out of step with my new life. Technicolor fur collars in the South? Forget about it, honey.

Prior to school, I’d spent a few years outside of the U.S., mostly in the region of the Philippines that my mother is from and across Southeast Asia. During this time, I basically started a new life every six months. I was a beauty queen, a tourism director, the content manager for Jet Li’s now-defunct martial arts website. And every time I changed course, I’d had to make new friends, new routines and reinvent myself to adapt to a different environment. But the move to Alabama felt different. If every other shift I’d weathered was the result of some spontaneous now-or-never jump into the unknown, going to grad school was a much weightier decision. It was a choice to stay in place, to put down roots, to try to make a life I would want to hang around in for a while.

Taming all my chaotic spontaneous whimsy into a new life that demanded so much order was disorienting. None of my old tricks worked. This is why I invented Karen. Before Alabama, I’d never needed a fully fleshed out alter ego. But she became a necessary part of my life here, enabling me to think and interact with the world in new ways.

Karen is the part of my personality that adapted to tend to the parts of me that were once deprived or wounded and then grew up believing themselves to be permanently deserving of that deprivation and those wounds.

Karen is partly modeled on the sweet middle-aged Southern women I teach yoga to and absolutely adore. They always hit me with the freshest goss from bible study and wear jewelry to yoga that is obviously their “casual” or “sport” jewelry. Karen is somewhere between these ladies and the dewey wellness moms of my California youth, with just a dash of Fran Drescher in The Nanny (the objectively best show for fashion and brash femme domination of the 90s). Karen records my voice mailbox greeting. Karen tried pure barre. I get her things that she likes, such as house slippers and a tiny hot plate for her tea mug. I let Karen take the wheel when I can’t stand one more minute deciding how to sign off an email; or paying bills that need to be mailed; or sending a text that says, “sorry hun, just seeing this how are you??” when I know damn well I saw it a while ago but just needed some Me Time.

But Karen is so much more than, like, a jokey internal personal assistant (although, tbh, she is also that and it is very fun). Karen is my portal to a calming, clean, orderly world. She has the ability to control her surroundings and her life in a way that I didn’t really have a model for in my youth. My parents were Shakespearean actors, I grew up hella barefoot in northern California, and my family sitch was often in a state of low-grade calamity. Karen is in some ways the descendant of the wealthy fun-mom that I always saw at the mall from afar, wearing her yoga pants and flipping her professionally highlighted hair. These ladies, with all their privilege and their Macy’s credit cards, seemed to be doing really well. They seemed happy and calm and even if I now know that they may have been just as fucked up or more than me and my family, there are some things I wholeheartedly believe the Karens of the world are just better at than me and my folx. Such as:

  • feeling comfortable in public spaces,
  • feeling entitled to respect,
  • feeling deserving of clean, nice, frivolous things that belong only to them,
  • and maybe above all else, an expectation that life is going to work out for them, that they can have what they want in this world, because why wouldn’t they?

Karen is the part of my personality that adapted to tend to the parts of me that were once deprived or wounded and then grew up believing themselves to be permanently deserving of that deprivation and those wounds.

If, while reading this, you thought, Dang, I want to fill up my deprivation shame pockets with abundance and heal myself through whimsy! Then, buddy, you came to the right place. I will conclude today’s dive into my admittedly zany coping mechanism by offering a quick and dirty step-by-step guide for finding your own therapeutic alter ego and putting that baddie to work in your life.

Step 1: 

Picture yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable. For me, that situation was going to school on time for my classes like a normal human and not spending hours teaching myself how to use coat hangers to create a massive fishtail braid hair crown that would make me appear imposing and sculptural. For you, it might be talking to your boss, or like, at the free weight section of the gym. Whatever. Picture yourself there, then try to imagine the person who could walk right into that situation and be totally at home, in control, at ease.

Step 2:

Once you have a clear picture of this person in your mind, imagine sitting down and talking to them. What are they into? Karen is a Pinterest fanatic, she bullet journals WELL, she doesn’t see anything wrong with getting her coffee at Starbucks, etc. Which Olympics do they prefer? Karen: Winter, she loves figure skating. Dog person or cat person? Karen: birds person. Think about what they would wear, how they would sound, which of your friends they would like, which would they hate. The way to know if you’re doing this step right is whether or not the answers delight and thrill you.

Step 3:

Get the alter ego some stuff. I got my day planner at Barnes & Noble. It is rose gold, it has an all pink interior theme, and at the beginning of each month there are inspirational quotes including this actual quote from Brad Paisley, “Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.” Karen LOVES this planner, so I got it for her. And I use it, and every time I use it, I honestly have to keep myself from giggling in public. There are other things, too: I have outfits that Karen picked out for me, sunglasses that are hers. These are slightly more subtle than the rose gold day planner, but every time I put these things on, I feel this calming sensation like I got to tag-out for a while and let someone else drive this ol’ skin vessel.

Step 4:

Practice. Part of Karen’s whole vibe is that she is pathologically clean and orderly. So whenever my life feels particularly sloppy or my to-do list monstrously long, I close my eyes and play the Karen game. I just slip right into her headspace and use her motivations and the joy she gets from a perfectly arranged desktop to help me power through my malaise. Find an activity that you dread or that makes you feel anxious or small, and try closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths and really sinking into your alter ego before you leave the house or the couch or whatever to go do that big bad scary thing.

Step 5:

Talk to me all about this in the comments section!

Being a human is really really hard. It’s difficult to go through life and do the hundred uncomfortable or intimidating things we must do every day in order to get where we want to go.— It’s nice to have a funny, strange, inexhaustible support system to lean on when things get tough. And it may be a hard pill to swallow, but a lot of times in life, that support system will have to be located within the confines of our very own minds. Let’s honor those parts of us that are currently sitting on the bench, underutilized. Let’s give them names and buy them friendship bracelets and enlist all the inner resources we can to keep going. I honestly can’t wait to hear yall’s thoughts on this. Karen wishes you a blessed day.

Graphic by Madeline Montoya, Photo by Rose Hartman via Getty Images. 

Sarah Barnes

Sarah Panlibuton Barnes

Sarah Panlibuton Barnes is the internet version of your eccentric neighborhood recluse and Senior Editor at Repeller.

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