Thursday, April 13, 2006

Subpersonalities and Relationship

I posted a while back on subpersonalities after returning from D.C. That post was based on the Internal Family Systems approach to working with subpersonalities. I recently have become interested in how subpersonalities impact relationships and started reading a book by Hal Stone and Sidra Winkelman (now Stone) called Embracing Each Other (their first book was called Embracing Our Selves, which I read a few years ago).

They refer to subs as selves, which is one of the common ways of talking about subpersonalities. Their view is role-oriented in that all subs have a unique role which brought them into existence. The problem is that each new self also brings an equal and opposite self with it, which they call disowned selves. These are important in understanding our relationships, but more on that in a bit.

I want to try to explain their system as briefly and clearly as possible.

The Primary Selves

When we are born, we are just a vulnerable collection of cells without any kind of "self" in the way we normally think of a self. It doesn't take long for the ego to begin its development. Not long after the ego emerges, the first alternate self emerges, the protector/controller. Its job is to protect the fragile and vulnerable self and to control our behavior and (as much as possible) the behavior of those around us. It quickly develops an awareness of which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished and acts accordingly. It continually seeks out new info and changes its "rule set" accordingly. This is a basically rational self (although it can't express itself that way until the ego reaches rational thinking stages) that attempts to explain the world and ourselves and provide us with a frame of reference with which to make sense of our lives.

The protector/controller is usually in charge, even after we become adults -- it becomes the "acting ego" in their system. It generally does not like anything to upset its system and is often closed to outside input unless that input can help it in its role without challenging its assumptions about the world. The downside is that this self keeps us isolated from direct experience of reality. In the system these therapists advocate, weakening the power of the acting ego is crucial in experiencing a more full life. In general, I agree with this position, especially since my own "protector/controller" is a literal control freak.

The protector/controller has as its primary ally the pusher. The pusher makes lists, pushes us to complete tasks, and keeps us busy doing the things we are "supposed" to be doing if we want to think of ourselves (and have others think of us) as good people. The pusher makes it difficult to relax and just be. This is another one that I am intimately familiar with.

Another major self is the perfectionist. This self strives to make us perfect in every way it can. This self essentially wants to protect us from criticism and often works closely with the pusher to make sure we are doing everything we are supposed to be doing, and doing it perfectly. This self gets lots of positive feedback in family, school, and work, so it can get very dominant. The downside is that it prevents us from taking risks and doing things we might not be perfect at.

The inner critic, which is often the introjection of one or both parents to start with (and later, teachers, peers, and society), works along with the perfectionist and pusher to catch all of our mistakes and inadequacies before anyone else does so that we won't displease anyone. The downside here is a shattered sense of self-esteem. We may end up feeling as though we can do nothing right and that we are unlovable. The pusher and the perfectionist will then work even harder to make us acceptable.

The last of the primary selves is the pleaser. The pleaser is very good at tuning into the needs and wants of others and working to meet them no matter the cost to us. When the pleaser is running the show, we tend to forget our own needs and the result can be latent hostility. In a relationship, we have to learn to work past the pleaser to see what our true feelings are and to honor those feelings.

All of these primary selves work to protect the vulnerable inner child from pain. All of us will have one or more of these that is more dominant than the others, or some combination of them. These selves are not unhealthy unless we continue to be unaware of them and act from their needs without any consciousness of what is happening.

The Disowned Selves

Nathaniel Brandon coined the term "disowned selves" in his book by the same name (The Disowned Self, 1972). These are shadow expressions of the primary selves -- feelings and needs that run in opposition to the primary selves.

For example, in my own life, my pleaser would do its best to not rock the boat, to keep everyone happy. But at a certain point its shadow would emerge and sink the boat and everyone on it, often with as much rebellion as possible. It took a lot or work to own that I had a pleaser, and even now I think it is still a problem in intimate relationships. I'd rather swallow the anger (since I won't express inappropriate rage at an intimate partner) than take care of my own needs sometimes. This is a sure way to destroy a relationship. Learning to express healthy anger and displeasure is crucial to relationship health -- I'm still working on this one.

A lot of us tend to identify with one or more of our primary selves. This will result in its opposite being the primary flavor of our shadow material. They don't talk about it that way in the book, but that's the essence of what they are saying. Like all shadow material, these disowned selves then get projected onto objects and people in our world. If no one around us currently fits the role, our psyche will find someone or something that does.

Let me give another example from my own life. I've written here in the past about my preference for the rational over the emotional and how that has shaped my life. Well, in this system, my rational ego is the primary self that I have identified with and its opposite, my emotional self, has been largely disowned. It would not be surprising then that I have dated a lot of people who are emotionally centered. Kira, my current partner, is a perfect example. She is deeply emotional and has an enormous range of emotional expression that is probably what drew me to her in the first place.

This is where this stuff applies to relationships. We project our disowned selves onto others and we are then either drawn to them as friends or partners, or we are so set off by them that they clearly hold some part of ourselves that we can't tolerate (this last part is the classic view of projections).

Disowned Selves in Relationship

When we first fall in love, we are falling in love, partly, with our disowned selves, those parts of us that we need to reclaim to be whole people. This is the origin of that stupid line in romantic movies, "you complete me," or of the whole idea of the "better half," "other half," or "missing half" that our partner represents in relationship.

This is a normal and healthy part of relationship. But if we never get beyond it, we will either live in a somewhat shallow relationship or struggle with the end result of not owning our selves, conflict. We need to be two whole selves coming together in partnership, not partial selves looking for completion.

When the blush wears off a new romance, we start to see the other person more clearly. And those parts of ourselves that they represent then become a problem. We disowned them for a reason -- we are not comfortable with them. So when conflict arises, and all relationships have conflict, we withdraw more and more into our primary selves, becoming at times almost purely what that self represents. The less self-awareness we possess, the more this is likely to happen.

This reaction pushes the other person more and more into his/her primary self as well, and so we lose the ability to embrace one another's way of being. We tend to become extreme in our identification with our primary selves, and this leaves us disowning the partner who still represents to us that disowned self that our primary self never liked in the first place.


We must learn to reclaim our disowned selves. Sounds easy, huh? Not so much, though. The authors developed an approach called voice dialogue that they claim works wonders in reclaiming disowned selves (this is spelled out in Embracing Our Selves). The approach is basically developing a dialogue with the self and finding out what it needs and wants to be happy and a more integrated part of the psyche.

Using their own system against them, this approach seems to create problems in that the perfectionist and inner critic are not likely to want to play along with such an approach -- especially if they are the primary selves. So there must be other, less vulnerable ways of working with these selves.

Journaling is one way. Allowing the disowned self to surface through visualization and then letting it say whatever it wants to say. One can even ask it questions to reveal the same info the voice dialogue technique uses, without having to do it in front of someone and without having to move from one chair to another when changing "selves."

I think meditation and traditional shadow work also offer viable approaches.

This is only a small taste of what this book offers. As I read more, I will post anything I think might be relevant to others. Working with subpersonalities can be a powerful tool for creating a more consolidated ego, which I believe is necessary before we make and huge strides in transcending the ego.


Anonymous said...

well now, this has just whet my appetite!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this article.