The idea that our minds are made up of many different distinct feeling states referred to as parts, internal objects or sub-personalities has been around for a long time in many psychological and spiritual schools of thought. I think we can all identify with the fact that we can sometimes feel conflicted inside; one ‘part’ of us wants to do something while another holds us back. We can feel as though we have a committee in our heads between two opposing voices. These voices, if we listen to them through techniques such as mindfulness and inner witnessing, can appear to be like personalities; like an internal family of parts within.
One of the definitions of a subpersonality is;
“a complex of thoughts, feelings and even body sensations which is capable of acting as a complete person for shorter or longer periods of time”.
It is important to remember that all of these subpersonalities or parts of our personalities have developed for good reasons; they are personality structures we developed to cope with the situations we found ourselves in as infants, small children and young adults. They helped us survive in our family of origin and in our culture and society.
Viewing ourselves from this perspective, and letting go of the concept of ourselves as one unitary state, reinforces the fact that our minds are are made up of multiple and dynamic forces (the fundamental belief of the psychodynamic approach). The mind can be viewed as consisting of ever changing and shifting feeling states responding to the external world; to the environment, to other people – and to our inner world; somatic cues, our senses, perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The growth of neuroscience and neurobiology only reinforces the complexity of the human body/brain which shapes the concepts of mind, self and helps to address the even bigger question of consciousness.
Thinking of ourselves as being made up of ‘parts’ can make us feel less identified with any one state over another at any given time and help us not to be totally hijacked by any given feeling or emotional state. For example, if we are feeling really angry, instead of saying “I am angry” we can say “a part of me is angry” and recognise that there are other parts, if we stepped back to notice them, that are not angry. And if we step back from all our parts altogether, we can perhaps make contact with the true witness of all of the parts that form us; our “true” or “higher” selves.
Working in this way, in therapy, can be very empowering. It helps to promote self knowledge and self regulation. The idea is that as self energy, or in psychodynamic terms, “ego strength or awareness” is built up and reinforced, people can carry their own “therapist” around with them. People can become more aware or their internal landscape and build up healthy ways to self soothe as opposed to engaging in thoughts and behaviours that create more inner conflict and anxiety, causing parts of themselves to become even more polarised and exiled.
In order to get in touch with some of the parts straight away, it can help to bring to mind a person or situation which brings up strong emotions. As you close your eyes and bring the person or situation to mind, notice the feelings, emotions, sensations in the body that arise. Name them. Then perhaps give a title to that set of emotions and feelings – the feeling state or the ‘part’ or sub-personality. You may want to give it a name, a title (Know-it-all, Judge, Critic, Caretaker, Pleaser). Ask yourself how old that part is? What is its role? What does it believe? Is there another part it relates to? What does it want for you? What does it need?
As you begin to identify these distinct feelings states, personalities or parts that arise regularly through observing repetitive internal conflicts and defeating patterns of behaviour, you can begin to get curious about whether the roles or strategies that various parts seem to carry out our are still helpful or beneficial. Are some parts too strong and overpowering? Do they need to relax a little? If they are protecting against difficult feelings emerging, what might they be and what or who is that part or us?
The most important thing to hold in mind at all times when working in this way and identifying self states, or subpersonalities is that all parts are welcome and at first, the primary task is to be curious and compassionate. Observe, witness, notice without judgement. The next step is to pay attention and work with parts individually; to begin to update their roles and their relationships to other parts. In the analogy of the committee meeting in your head, some of the members around the table may need to change and adopt a different strategy that may have dated back to a previous period of life (such as childhood or adolescence). All ‘members’ will have to try and work together. The chair or facilitator again will be the Self; the objective, impartial witness who, when parts step back and allow it, will take the lead.
Give it a go. And if you do make any discoveries, let me know.