Part II of Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us
Where do we get the idea that there are subpersonalities inside us? We’ve always seemed to have it. Primitive cultures have been fascinated with altered states of consciousness and spirit possession. They are the stock in trade for shamans. Ancient people seem to have conceived of subpersonalities as gods and goddesses. They catalogued common kinds of subpersonalities as some psychologists do today to populate Olympus with what they thought were divine powers that sometimes possessed people to do what they wouldn’t normally do. Socrates had his daemon; and Plato talked about three parts of the psyche: the appetitive and spirited, corresponding to two horses, and the rational, a charioteer who attempts to control them. St Augustine seemed to build on this idea. He may have been the one who popularized the image of the angel and the devil on each shoulder, with you in the middle, choosing between them.
As we will see in later installments of this series, many psychologists have contributed to a body of research and speculation regarding subpersonalities, but where do ordinary modern people get the idea they have many parts? If you do have many parts, where do you find them?
John Rowan’s book on the subject, titled, Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us(1990), outlines six places to look.
When I’m working as a therapist, I listen carefully, assert myself gently, and generally let my client take the lead. I work hard to keep an attitude of curiosity and compassion. When I was playing hockey, it was a different story. There I was aggressive, violent, and competitive. Which is the real me? They both are, in my opinion. One is as suited for one role, as the other is for the other. It’s good to have them both, just as long as I don’t mix them up.
Early psychologist, William James, in The Principles of Psychology (1890), posited that we all have several social selves that perform a role when called upon. Here’s how it might work. The necessity of the role shapes you into being the kind of person needed. My hockey team needs me to be one person and my clients, another. If I have more than one personality, I can easily adapt to the changing demands of the environment. Cool, huh?
Some say, and I would agree, that every one of us has the potential for every kind of personality. We all have an inner therapist and hockey player, to name two of many. If you’ve never fulfilled either role, that part may be undeveloped. If you did play the part and it was not well received, you might repress it. It’ll be there, inside you, partly activated, just waiting for its chance to get out. This is what I found when I quit playing hockey. I missed the action and found that aggression, violence, and competitiveness came out in different ways. You ought to see me on the tennis court. I can be ruthless.
One unhappy result of having all these potential selves, trotted out as circumstances demand, is you can begin to feel like a chameleon with identity problems. You don’t know who you are. Or the boundary between one and the other is so compartmentalized that you don’t even remember what happened when you were in a different part. This is the extreme dissociation found in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). If that was the case, I would have no memory of playing hockey when I was acting as a therapist, and vice versa. You can imagine how confusing that would be. There is always some dissociation, in every case. When I’m a therapist, I have trouble accessing the feelings and thought patterns I have on the rink and vice versa, but at least I can admit to spending time in the penalty box.
Sometimes it seems like I have two or more people inside me, arguing about something. Each makes a different claim and neither gives the other the opportunity to be fully heard. Or I have one part of me who makes a decision, only to have another part undo it. There’s often a conflict between my mind, which wants to keep going, and my body, which needs to rest. Then you have the famous example of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, who were fictional characters, but acted very real.
When you need to weigh the pros and cons of a decision, it can be useful to organize your thoughts by imagining two people debating. That’s fine as long as they follow some rules of order. What often happens, though, is they become so polarized by their differences that they treat what should be a reasonable debate among statesmen as a life or death struggle. One undermines the other so that nothing gets accomplished. Observers of the US Congress over the past few decades can see the result when it’s enacted in government. Well, the same thing can happen within the congress of your own mind.
I’ve had role models throughout my life who I have patterned myself after. When I was learning to be a therapist, I watched videos of famous therapists doing therapy. When it was my turn, I just acted like them; or, at least, my idea of them. I internalized their behavior till I made it my own. Method actors do something like this when they imagine a character they’re playing.
This might be how you find your way through social life. You meet someone and quickly construct a mental model of that person which you use to predict their behavior and infer how they’re feeling. These constructs live on long after the person they’re based on goes away, and then they are used with others that resemble them. It’s the reason you still hear your father’s voice shaming you or supporting you and expect any other authority figure will do the same. It’s where prejudice comes from. It’s why we have inner critics that anticipate the worst reaction anyone will ever have to you.
Many children have invisible friends that accompany them wherever they go. I know I did. Even now, I often imagine an interlocutor listening to me when I figure things out. In fact, one is there now, as I write, playing the part of a future reader. I sometimes stop writing and read what I have just written through his eyes. He catches a lot of problems I might have missed. When I write fiction, the characters populate my head. I sometimes lie in bed wondering what they will do the next day. All this is very useful.
The characters that appear in your dreams are also subpersonalities. You created and placed them on the stage to perform as simulated people. You may think you’re dreaming of actual people; but no, it’s a dream and the characters there are your own creation. They represent as much, or more about you as they do about the real person. So, when you dream of having sex with a beautiful woman who works in the next cubicle at your actual job, you can tell your wife you weren’t dreaming of sex with your co-worker, you were joining with a female part of you in joyful union. If you admit that, you actually do have the hots for your co-worker, your therapist will say you have the hots because she resembles your subpersonality. We’ll never know for sure. Dream interpretations can only be judged by what they reveal.
Subpersonalities figure into the relationships you have with other people, including those you are closest to and believe you know the best. First of all, you never really know them. At best, all you have is your idea of them. We see this most clearly in the ideas an adult child has of their parents. The image they have of their mother, for instance, may be based on facts, but they are facts that were interpreted by a child. Once these models are formed, it’s difficult to revise them. You might be continuing to rely on the simulated mother you constructed when you were a child long after you could have gained a mature understanding of your actual mother.
The same thing can happen between adults, even those who are in committed relationships. You’ve seen this. When you fall in love with someone, it’s easy to dismiss all the red flags that should have warned you of problems. You’ve constructed an idealized image of your beloved. Then, when you cannot ignore the problems, it gets to be that you can’t see anything but the problems, so that even the nice things he does are framed as dastardly attempts to pull one over on you. You have created the image of a monster out of the person you once loved. These images are more subpersonalities.
If this wasn’t bad enough, you have some subpersonalities that you’re not proud of. I wasn’t proud of getting into fights in the hockey rink, even though the sport sometimes demanded it. It’s hard to acknowledge the dark side, so sometimes we project it on to others. We accuse them of acting just like our subpersonality acts, to get the spotlight off us.
We see this happen often when people are looking for a mate. She has trouble disciplining her kids, so she picks a mate who’s comfortable doing it. She thinks she’s solved her problem, but she could have solved it herself. She could have learned to be an effective disciplinarian by bringing out that side of her but chose not to because she really doesn’t like that part. She outsourced the task to him. Well, guess what? She won’t like it when he does it, either. He’ll later seem excessively cruel and abusive to her.
If you can recognize the subpersonalities you have, including the ones you keep locked in the basement, you’ll be more patient with those who let theirs out. If you can recognize the subpersonalities of another, and he acts like a dick sometimes, you’ll know that it’s not because he is a dick, he’s just playing one for the occasion.
Altered States of Consciousness
Another time you may experience your own subpersonalities is when you are shitfaced drunk or under the influence of some other drug or activity that lowers inhibitions. I get more spontaneous and take social risks after I’ve had a few, when I wouldn’t otherwise. That’s because that side of me has been repressed somewhat. Many people are drawn into and get heavily involved in chemical use, just so they can feel free. It would be better if they could learn from the experience, so they don’t need to use the chemicals.
Perhaps this is how psychedelics can liberate people of old dysfunctional patterns of thoughts and behavior. The drugs unlock the dungeon where you keep those subpersonalities. The real challenge, though, is to not just lock them up again. It’s important to follow up those experiences with the real labor of integration. You need to take those released prisoners and find them a home and a job in your society.
It takes time to do this work. Subpersonalities do not arrive on the scene, announcing their presence, and hand you an owner’s manual so you know what to do with them. They often come disguised as you or others, so you must see through the mask to recognize the difference. You must experience them, have some kind of framework to know them by, be willing to enter into a relationship with them, and live with them. Only then is some kind of integration possible. Integration does not mean they all go away. Believe me, you shouldn’t want that because they all serve some useful purpose. Integration means you live together. It may mean you all play harmoniously together under the direction of another subpersonality, acting like a respected conductor, or it might look differently. I would not be the one to tell you how you must do it, but I will give you some ideas in a later installment, when I go through the therapeutic approaches to the issue. Anyway, it takes time, so that we very seldom see younger people who are able to wrangle their own heard of cats. Most older people don’t either, even though they, perhaps should have done so by now.
Next, as promised, I’ll describe the various therapeutic approaches to subpersonalities, so you can see how therapists handle them.