What Do I Do with the People Inside My Head?

Part I of Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us

Image from Routledge

It’s not uncommon to feel that there is more than just you inside your head. There seems to be a board of directors, at best, or a squabbling family, a mutinous crew, or a polarized congress up there, at worse. You may feel that someone sort of takes over, at inconvenient times. You hear a voice, maybe not the auditory kind, but a disparaging and derogatory point of view that makes you feel like crap. At the very least, you’re often divided, unable to make an important decision and follow through.

Looking through the literature on this kind of thing, I find the phenomena given quite a range of names.[1] Here, I will call them subpersonalities because that’s what my guide on the subject John Rowan in Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us (1990) called them. It’s my intention to go through his book and devote a series towards what he can tell us about it. I’m doing this in preparation of my own book, Meeting the Voices in My Head: Searching for An Inner Adult, which I’m writing and hope to complete soon.

There are several risks we run when we try to learn about subpersonalities. The first is that not everyone wants to admit they have them. Some of these people don’t seem to want to admit to something they believe would make them look crazy. Having voices in the head is associated with schizophrenia and they don’t want to be called schizophrenic. They’re correct that having auditory hallucinations is associated with schizophrenia, but if your auditory hallucination improves your functioning in some way, or at least doesn’t worsen it, then no responsible clinician will call you schizophrenic, for schizophrenia must include a decline in functioning. At any rate, having auditory hallucinations is, at most a subset of having subpersonalities. Having schizophrenia is when subpersonalities take things to a dangerous extreme.

There are others who don’t admit they have subpersonalities because they don’t frame things that way. They might say, for instance, “I swore I would not take another drink, but then I had a relapse.” They don’t conceive of themselves as being split in two, one part swearing abstinence and the other part falling off the wagon. That’s fine, as long as their intent is to accept responsibility for their actions, but it may be useful if they played with the idea that there are two parts of them, if they want a deeper understanding of how the relapse happened and what they can do to prevent it.

This brings us to the third risk we run when we learn and claim to have subpersonalities. It’s necessary to take responsibility for our behavior. The alcoholic is quite right to say that he took that drink, even if it’s the devil in him that made him do it. There are some people who try to duck responsibility. The Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi, was one. He, and his defense team tried to assert that the person who committed a series a heinous murders was not the same person who was accused of the crime. This defense was not successful, so let it be said that having subpersonalities does not absolve you of any crime.

Here’s the fourth risk we run when we grapple with subpersonalities. On one hand, we need to reify the subpersonalities, embody them by personifying them. On the other hand, we don’t want to take them so seriously that we begin to believe they’re real. We’re not talking about actual little people inside us. Subpersonalities are fluid and erratic processes that are so difficult to grapple as processes that’s it’s useful to pretend they’re people. They are a useful fiction.

The fifth risk is that, in talking about subpersonalities we might be seen to be talking about multiple personality disorder, as it used to be known, or dissociative identity disorder (DID), as it is called now. It’s good they made the name change, for that clears up some of the confusion. They changed the name because having more than one personality is not, in itself, pathological, but can actually be quite useful, as we will see. The pathological part of the condition has always been the dissociation between the subpersonalities; one hand often does not know what the other is doing. To some degree there is always some dissociation between everyone’s subpersonalities but in DID, the amnesia one subpersonality might have of others is complete.

This brings us to the sixth risk we run when talking about subpersonalities. The very word, sub-personality, implies a hierarchy within the system. Most researchers think that’s the case, or ought to be the case. They would like to see a king ruling over the subpersonalities. They call this king various names: Ego, Self, Adult, and so on, but the idea is the same. If there is no one in charge, someone needs to be. This attitude may be needlessly monarchistic. I don’t know why there can’t be a democracy of subpersonalities, even if no one has never tried. I will admit, though, that often the alternative to a king, is anarchy.

Having mentioned the risks of studying subpersonalities, why do I do it and why do I invite you to come along? Some of you may say, because they’re there. To others, I can only say that if you experience your own subpersonalities, you might better learn what makes them tick before everything devolves into chaos.

In the next section, I will describe how subpersonalities are experienced by ordinary, well-functioning people in the natural world.


[1] Rowan writes that shamans throughout millennia have had the idea of spirit or demon possession. Plato spoke of three parts of the psyche: rational, appetitive, and spirited. St Augustine died with his old pagan personality alongside a Christian one. Freud called them the ego, the id and the superego; Jung, complexes and archetypes. To Federn, Berne, and John Watkins they were ego states. Lewin called them subregions of the personality. Perls had the topdog and the underdog. To Klein, Fairbairn, and Gun they were internal objects. Balint talked about the child in the patient. Mary Watkins’ name for them was imaginal objects. McAdams called them imagoes. Hilgard observed the hidden observer. Tart had identity states. Denzin wrote about the emotionally divided self. To Winnicott, Lake, Janov, and Laing there was the false or unreal self. Gurdjieff called them little I’s and Goffman, multiple selves. Stone and Winkelman thought they were energy patterns, and Mahrer, deeper potentials coming to the surface. With Mair we talk about a community of self, and with Ornstein we talk about small minds. To Gazzaniga and Minsky they were agents and agencies within the mind. The name Gergen, Martindale, O’Connor, and Shapiro gave them was subselves; and Strauss or Rossan, subidentities. To Markus they were possible selves. Whether with Kihlstrom or Cantor we talk about self-schemas. T. B. Rogers thought they were prototypes. They are alter-personalities if you go with Beahrs, or subpersonalities if you go with Assagioli, Redfearn, and Rowan. Most people these days are familiar with having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Everyone is talking essentially about the same thing. 

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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