Sunday, April 22, 2007

Subpersonalities -- Definintions and Origins

I've been writing about subpersonalities on this blog for more than a year without ever offering a comprehensive definition of what a sub is and how it develops. I want to remedy that with this post.

Strangely enough, nearly every school of psychology recognizes some form of subpersonalities, parts, or selves. And surely, almost every therapist has been confronted with these little selves in their clients. Yet there is almost no academic research on the topic and only one -- that I know of -- thorough overview of the existing literature.

The British psychologist John Rowan has written two overviews of subpersonality theory, one more general for the average reader (Discover Your Subpersonalities: Our Inner World and the People In It) and one more comprehensive, aimed at professionals (Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us).

In nearly four years of undergraduate psychology study, I never once was exposed to this topic or saw it mentioned in the texts. There have been a few articles in the journals, but most of the writing on the topic has been in the popular press, such as Psychology Today. The only school of psychology that I know of that explicitly recognizes and works with subs is psychosynthesis.

There have been several books on the topic, but each of them has been from a specific perspective -- most notably Embracing Our Selves by Hal and Sidra Stone (the Voice Dialogue model) and Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz. Many of the psychosynthesis therapists have written about subpersonalities within the structure of their own model.


John Rowan defines subpersonalities as "permanent or semi-permanent autonomous regions of the personality." This doesn't say much to anyone who is not a student of psychology.

Another definition 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." This is better.

Molly Brown, a psychosynthesis therapist, offers a more general definition in her book, Growing Whole:
Our various ways of being and acting are often crystallized into behavior patterns, or "subpersonalities." Because being sweet is often useful, for example, we develop a sweet little girl or boy personality. Our sense of identity gets temporarily attached to that way of being, and we think that is all we are. For a period of time, we think and feel and act as if being sweet were the only option available to us. We become trapped in a worldview (the world is threatening and I must be sweet to avoid punishment) and a personal identification (I am someone who is always sweet, never grouchy), both of which limit our freedom.
Okay, now we are getting someplace.

Gretchen Sliker, another psychosynthesis therapist (who also is a Jungian -- the two schools share a lot of commonality), defines subs in her book, Multiple Mind:
The many roles we play in the world are subpersonalities. In one setting my behavior is that of the polished, dignified, and capable professional; in another setting I am the kind, gentle, and joyful parent celebrating the delight of my children. My body posture and movement, my voice and vocabulary are different as I play each role. Yet these roles are not external to me, they are who I am.
This adds a little to our definition.

Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, refers to parts rather than subs (because that is the term his clients generally use to refer to their subs), but the idea is the same:
A part is not just a temporary emotional state or habitual thought pattern. Instead, it is a discrete and autonomous mental system that has an idiosyncratic range of emotion, style of expression, set of abilities, desires and view of the world.
This is a good definition, especially since it implicitly refers (by use of the word autonomous) to the idea of complexes, a term most often identified with Jungian psychology (Jung began using the term while still a student of Freud).
Jung described a "complex" as a 'node' in the unconscious; it may be imagined as a knot of unconscious feelings and beliefs, detectable indirectly, through behavior that is puzzling or hard to account for.
One of the key elements of a complex, which is also true of subs or parts, is that they act autonomously -- meaning that they are beyond our conscious control. This can be remedied, but not until the sub is identified, recognized as a unique self, and integrated into the self-system.

Finally, Hal and Sidra Stone, founders of Voice Dialogue (which is the foundation of Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" process), prefer to talk of subs as "energy patterns" in the psyche. Their system recognizes a multitude of possible subs, but also identifies a handful of subs that they feel are nearly universal (at least in Western culture).

Rowan's definition offers the broadest concept, but each of these -- from roles to parts to energies patterns -- contributes something to our understanding. Perhaps, at this point, it is best to look at where our subs come from -- in this way we can get a better sense of how they form, what they are, and why we have them.

Origins of Subpersonalities

John Rowan identified six broad sources of our subpersonalities. These may be seen as fairly comprehensive, although I will also present a couple of other viewpoints within his definitions.

The first source is our social roles. We all have different selves we present to the world, what Jungians might call personas, and what some others call masks. These are the easiest subs for most of us to identify and can be an easy way into discovering our deeper subs. Whether we are a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, an employee, a friend or anything else, each of these are distinct subpersonalities for many of us. For example, I am a different person as a friend, a blogger, a lover, or a trainer. In fact, some of my coworkers refer to me as the "terminator" because of the way I carry myself, how I look, and my level of discipline. But my closest friends would not recognize me in this way at all.

The second source is internal conflicts. We may have two or more "sides" arguing within us (for example, a good angel and a bad angel, to use a cliche) that may occur frequently enough to become unique selves. Gestalt therapy and psychodrama tend to focus on this concept. Fritz Perls talks about topdogs and underdogs.

A third source is fantasy images. As we grow up, many of us identify with a hero or heroine, a movie star or a rock star, and want to be like this person. Even as adults we can admire someone enough to internalize our image of that person and adopt some of those traits. If we do this long enough, it can become a unique subpersonality. Actors can often do this with characters they are playing, and therapists can sometimes do this with clients in order to better understand their perspectives and feelings. Most of the time, however, these are simply idealized selves that we would like to be.

A fourth source of our subs is the personal unconscious. This is the realm of the complexes; the internal object (such Donald Winnicott's highly influential Object Relations approach); or the parent, adult, and child ego states of Transactional Analysis. This is also the area that Schwartz and the Stones are working with in their models. Most of these subs are created during our early years as children. The predominant position is that these are the subs that develop as a result of repeated trauma or stress within the family.

When a young child is confronted with trauma of any kind -- from physical to emotional -- the nascent self attempts to find a way to regain the love and approval of the parents. If the same type of trauma occurs repeatedly -- such as physical abuse, harsh criticism, or something else -- the response will become ingrained in the child. Any similar experience will trigger the same response -- even into adulthood. At this point, we have a subpersonality. It is a very adaptive behavior -- the psyche is simply trying to protect the fragile and vulnerable inner child (according to the Stones).

For example, a child of an alcoholic learns that the parent is unpredictable. One day s/he is kind and loving, the next s/he is abusive and angry. Because there is no way for a child to predict or control the situation, the child might adopt a sub that is as perfect as possible so as to minimize the chances of setting off the drunken parent. Or, for another child, the response might be to adopt a pleaser that goes out of its way to anticipate the needs or wants of the parent so as to minimize the abuse.

In both of these situations, the child's psyche creates an adaptive behavior that over time becomes a distinct subpersonality. The role of the sub is to protect the vulnerable inner child or psyche. The Stones postulate that one of the earliest subs to develop in all children (likely in infancy) is the protector/controller. This sub works to keep the young psyche safe from stress and fear.

The controller is what Schwartz might call a manager (a part that runs the system so as to minimize the activation of exiled parts), while the protector is a fire fighter (a part that works to calm exiled subs or distract the self-system from them -- this is dissociation). In Schwartz's model, exiles are those parts of the psyche that have been "sequestered" (relegated to shadow) from the self-system for their own protection or for the protection of the self-system. Often, these are valuable parts of the self that, in their absence, make the self more rigid, more contracted, and less fluid. Sometimes exiles are disruptive parts, such as a rebel who acts out against the abuse of the parent(s). This part may be hidden away until the child leaves home, at which point it might erupt full-blown and take over the personality for a time (months or years).

Whichever model we are looking at, the central issue in this source of subs is trauma. But it is important to recognize, as I mentioned earlier, that this is a very adaptive response --- and these subs served a very valuable purpose when they were created. The problem arises when they are still active in the adult psyche, and still unintegrated.

The fifth source of subpersonalities is the cultural unconscious. This is where the patripsych (the internal constellation of patriarchal patterns) comes from, a term made popular by the feminist movement. Rowan works with this idea quite a bit, but it is not the only form of culturally determined subs. Others might include the achiever, the dutiful student, the patriot, the soldier, and so on. Every culture will have different values that are internalized as roles or behaviors or ways of thinking.

Finally, there is the collective unconscious. This realm might also be seen as the morphogenetic fields of Rupert Sheldrake. The collective unconscious is where the Jungian archetypes come from. It is also where the higher stage subs that Ken Wilber mentions might also originate.

There are many archetypes, including the anima, the animus, the Christ, the mother, the father, and so on. What distinguishes an archetype from a role is that the archetype is a perfected image, an ideal (such as Mary the mother of Jesus). Both the Jungians and the psychosynthesis school rely heavily on archetypal images in their work. From the perspective of subpersonality theory, archetypes can become subs when the personality becomes fused with the idealized image -- another version of a complex taking control of the self-system.


It boggles the mind to think that a topic as rich as this hasn't been more adequately explored by the clinical psychology field. When I was recently looking at the course list at the U of Arizona PhD program, I didn't see anything that even approached subpersonalities. On the bright side, some of the more progressive integral psychology programs (CIIS and JFK University) are offering classes that deal with subpersonalities, so there is hope that this topic will make into mainstream schools eventually.

Having offered some sense of what a subpersonality is and where it comes from, my next post will deal in more detail with how to identify our subs. A future post will offer some techniques for working subs.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Do you have any experience or opinion as to how adequately subs are treated in NLP?

Anonymous said...

And would you agree that less subs (parts) and more integration is better?

william harryman said...

I don't know enough about NLP to offer an opinion on your first question. I should probably remedy that at some point.

As to your second question, more integration is always better. Until subs are integrated into the psyche -- or at least brought under control of the aware ego (proximate self) -- they can act independently of our intentions and best interests.

Different approaches have different feelings about the degree to which subs can be integrated. From my own experience, subs never truly disappear, but they can cease to have an independent existence and cease to exert their influence on the self-system.

In general, the more attention we can give them -- and mindfulness is a very useful approach in this regard -- the less they become active. If we can honor their needs -- through mindfulness, therapy, active imagination, voice dialogue, and other approaches that I will get to in a future post -- they tend to become more quiet and integrated.

That's my two cents for now -- I'll have more to say on this in future posts.


Anonymous said...

great blog, i work as psychosynthesis therapist and i am a practicing Buddhist, I often work directly and indirectly using sub-personalities with my clients, many of whom are Buddhists, so they already have a notion of identifying and disidentifying with their mental states, and are working with developing awareness through body speech and mind, introducing the notion of identifying and working with sub-perosnalities goes done a storm. thank you

Anonymous said...

Sub-personalaties? Personality?

I find it increasingly difficult to understand the quasi-scientific labelling of human responses to trauma within the contextual field of this so-called 'civilisation'.

To my mind it is a series of constructed beliefs, nothing less.

To what end are these beliefs constructed?

To re-make into happy personalities that will 'fit in' to current paradigms, those whose person has been damaged by those very paradigms?

or is it ...

To free the natural autonomy, creativity and spirit of the person so that one might live congruently with ones true nature?

What is NEVER addressed, in my humble opinion, is the very basis for this 'civilisation', which is one of dominance and supposed superiority of one form. The locus of POWER remains untouched by psychology or by psychiatry, Why so?

And I have grave doubts about anyone who is a practising 'whatever'(insert religious belief) and is also a 'therapist'. That belief system will be imposed on those treated or will function as a block to their true growth as persons, simply because it is a belief that has been adopted, and not KNOWLEDGE.

Unknown said...

John Rowan says -
My new book 'Personification' gets rid of subpersonalities and talks instead about I-positions. This comes from the research on the Dialogical Self by Hubert Hermans and others. Much more elegant and disposes of all those questions about definitions, origins and numbers. It is out now!

william harryman said...


I have been reading and studying the work of Hermans and his group. Yes, it is easier and in theory it's useful. However, it loses the etiology of parts, the trauma-based foundation which must be worked with to heal dysfunction.


Unknown said...

Not always a trauma. That is why the language of I-positions is better. I used to say that subpersonalities were usually trauma based, but not so.

Unknown said...

What you think in your heart will become true.

Stephanie West Allen said...

Thank you. I really appreciated this post and will blog about it. I thought you might want to know about Dr. Bonnie Badenoch's inner community. More here:

She has a brand new book out, too, in which she discusses the concept.