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How 'The Flight Attendant' Perfectly Captures Our Critical Inner Voice

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Cassie Bowden is back, and if season one of “The Flight Attendant” was a case study for inner child work, season two is a master class in how our critical inner voice can completely sabotage our lives until we address the underlying trauma fueling it. This season, our perfectly flawed heroine finds herself in danger yet again, this time as a volatile asset for the CIA. A complex plot of intrigue focused around international espionage, murder, and a body double seeking to frame Cassie takes her on a whirlwind adventure to hell and back.

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Fascinating plot aside, the true genius of this show (aside from the brilliant performance by Kaley Cuoco) continues to be its creative and accurate depiction of mental illness. Cassie is an alcoholic who is trying to work the AA program without much success and continues to behave in ways that are impulsive, volatile, and often selfish. And when she slips up or faces any kind of danger, she not only resists the help of anyone else, but she is immediately transported into her head where we literally see her arguing with parts of herself (all played by Cuoco with the exception of one).

These parts, aptly named “the gold dress one,” “the impossibly sad one,” “the black sweater one,” and “the f***** up teenager,” show up individually and in chorus. Their words are painful and yet familiar to many of us who have extremely vocal inner critics.

“You’re a broken self-absorbed piece of shit who deserves to die.”

“You don’t deserve to be happy because you make everyone else around you miserable.”

“You’re worthless.”

“Just get it over with already.”

“The world is a f***** up, unfair place where dads die and moms hate you and you lie to yourself and everyone around you and it doesn’t get better.”

And on and on. At one point we even hear the song “You’re So Vain” playing in the background like a disturbing mantra she plays to herself to remind her why she doesn’t deserve better in life.

This visual depiction appears to be based upon a legitimate psychological theory called Internal Family Systems. In this approach, parts are identified less as different personalities and more like sums of an emotional whole. When said parts are triggered, this can manifest in perfectionism, self-aggression, regression, self-sabotage, and shame. The model includes three distinct categories of parts: the “Exiles” represent those parts who have unresolved trauma and are the emotionally vulnerable ones (the f***** up teenager and the impossibly sad one), the “Managers” who for better or worse just try to keep things functioning and can be highly perfectionistic and critical (the gold dress one), and the “Firefighters” who tend to act out of desperation to keep the “Exiles” from coming forward and can be impulsive or have addictive/self-harming behaviors (the black sweater one). The work is to first accept these parts as aspects of our true self, and to resolve the conflict between these parts, which generally involves recognition of and compassion for the ways in which they (we) have been hurt.

Interestingly, we witness Cassie do just this after trying to fight her parts and push them away, which only made these inner voices louder, more cacophonous, and more aggressive. One turning point is when she attempts to reconcile with her estranged mother who tells her, “I love you, but I don’t like you,” a painfully accurate feeling when someone you love has behaved in ways that have consistently harmed or betrayed you because of their unresolved mental health issues (something I relate to intimately regarding my own mother). Cassie has to take a really hard look at how her drinking caused her to do things that she would otherwise find reprehensible and truly apologize for her behavior, something that’s really hard to do.

The second catalyst to Cassie finally submitting to her parts and thereby to her own healing is when she almost gets killed. In this confrontation and near-death experience, she acknowledges for the first time that “I am a deeply flawed, sad, alcoholic, narcissistic thrill addict and I don’t like myself very much. But it’s who I f****** am and it is enough for me.” It was a profoundly moving and thought-provoking scene that clearly sets her on the path to not just healing her deepest inner wounds but her relationship with her mother.

After finishing the series, I got to thinking about my own parts. While I recognize so many similarities in my own thoughts, I’m not entirely clear as to which thoughts belong to which part per se. I’m well aware of my hurt inner child and her reactivity to perceived abandonment, which often fuels my debilitating perfectionism and terror of trusting others. But I am not entirely sure of where some of my other darker thoughts come from, the self-destructive ones that encourage my disordered eating or overworking and almost paranoia that I’m not doing enough to deserve to be alive. And more importantly, I’m not always clear on what triggers them or how. I just know that once they are activated, it’s like my brain has been hijacked and my inner critic is on a runaway train to terrorize Monika Island. As my husband often says, “Nobody could ever be as harsh or as mean to you as you are to yourself. Why do you do that?”

The answer is, I don’t entirely know. While I’ve done a lot of trauma therapy and am well aware of the underlying history that has made me this way, the self-talk hasn’t seemed to resolve as much as say my somatic triggers/responses. It would be amazing to have a visual representation of these parts in the way that they exist in this series and to be able to talk to them. I guess for me the ongoing work will involve trying to make peace with all of my self.

Maybe if I could show some empathy for those parts, they wouldn’t be so vocal, persistent, and controlling in my daily life. But for now, I’m going to marinate on the insight Cassie had and how she appears to be a beacon of hope for healing. And I’m going to acknowledge that I am a deeply flawed, anxious individual who expects too much from herself and from others, who puts too much stock in validation by others of her value, and who falsely believes that being needed by others is the best way to not be abandoned. I often don’t like myself, but it’s who I am and that is enough.

Image via YouTube.

Originally published: May 31, 2022
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