Going Deeper with Jung

Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us, Part 5

Image from Rutledge

I had a sense of my own subpersonalities since I first realized my imaginary friends were imaginary, but it wasn’t till I started to read Jung, long before I thought of being a therapist, that the nature of these non-being beings became clear. Jung introduced me to the contents of my unconscious. He gave them names, told me what they were doing there, and what we might do together. Since becoming a therapist, I’ve moved away from Jung. He and his followers can sound a little woo-woo and I have an image of being a practical, no-nonsense, kind of therapist to uphold. A certain kind of underserved clientele flock to me because they think the mental health world is glutted with flakiness. I, personally, don’t have a problem with what is called flakey, but I would feel partly responsible if a client left my office saying, “I knew it. They’re all the same. These shrinks are nuttier than their patients,” and went back to drinking and beating his wife.

When I say I moved away from Jung, I mean I stopped speaking Jung. I still think in Jung, though, or at least my version of it. Because I’ve stopped speaking it, I might be a little rusty in writing this part. But John Rowan, who’s book Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us(1990) I am reviewing here, has inspired me to try. Perhaps by having delved into non-Jungian psychology I’ve gained a perspective on it. Perhaps I can see what they all have in common.

For all of Jung’s apparent flakiness, he began his work by grinding out an empirical study of association tests. He would say a word and see what word the subject immediately chose in response. After analyzing this data, he found groupings of associations called complexes. He noted:

…complexes interfere with the intentions of the will… they produce disturbances of memory… they appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way. In a word, complexes behave like independent beings. (Jung 1936)

While complexes certainly cause some discord, they should not be considered necessarily pathological. They represent areas for growth. To Jung, the subpersonalities are guides towards wholeness and should be celebrated as such. All you have to do is allow these subpersonalities to speak their minds, interact with one another, merge, separate, integrate, differentiate, and transform. To do this, you need to afford them the respect you would a group of friends. This process is called active imagination.

To engage in active imagination, you fix upon a particular image and allow a fantasy to develop in which it’s personified. In psychoanalysis, this is usually done in response to a dream because it is in dreams that the unconscious is thought to break through the Ego’s defenses. The therapist has the patient think of each image as a subpersonality. Next is to initiate a dialogue between you and the dream figure. You must allow the subpersonality to speak as it will without determining in advance what it’s going to say. Unfortunately, a lot of people have trouble doing this because it involves channeling an imaginary being. Other times, it is faked or forced; but when it’s done earnestly, the client comes away with a new understanding of an important part of them.

Active imagination is what I do when I write fiction. I create a character, make him as real as I can, put him in situations, and then see what he does. Other fiction writers prefer to start with plot and then create characters. They make better plots, but the characters often seem thin and wooden. When using active imagination, it’s important to develop the character first, so she can take you to the unexpected. It’s only in the unexpected that you can ever grow.

This can be terrifying work for both the client and the therapist. Clients resist it because they are accustomed to trying to shut out and close down disruptive parts of their psyche. They’re afraid it’ll make them bad or crazy. That’s the fear of flakiness factor I spoke about. Many therapists are terrified because it looks as though they’re encouraging hallucination, dissociation, and fragmentation, perhaps even creating a dissociative personality disorder. But trust me, by taking yourself apart, you end up more whole.

It sometimes helps to give the subpersonality a name and many imbue it with a ready-to-wear character and story. The Jungian analyst James Hillman is fond of using the Greek Gods; but, if you don’t know mythology, you might use fictional or movie characters, or the like. I have mixed feelings on providing a cast of characters, complete with descriptions to the client. I want them to do more than recognize their subpersonalities, I want them to relate to them. Jung may have understood the benefits and dangers of this approach better than Hillman. Later in his career, he developed the idea of complexes into the concept of archetypes. Archetypes are patterns of association that you are born with. However, they do not come to you ready-to-wear. You tailor them to fit your own experiences.

The most common archetype to come up in therapy is the Shadow, that part of you that you like the least. At early stages of your development, you may not even know you have a Shadow; you only see it and reject it in others. For some, the Shadow is a nasty character, prone to hate. Others see it as weakness. Still others recognize that it turns to hate so it will not feel weak. The Shadow corresponds well to the IFS notion of the Exile.

Another common archetype is the Persona, or the face you put on to others. Its main job is to hide the Shadow from the world. Another favorite is the Anima, the image of a woman, and the Animus, the image of a man. Jung was a pioneer of the idea that we each contain qualities of the other sex within us. Transactional Analysis’ Parent, Adult, and Child states can also be thought of as archetypes because, while the particulars of how to be a parent, adult, and child vary, there are many commonalities. There are dozens more well-known archetypes: the Devil, God, the Wise Old Man, the Crone, the Trickster, the Fool, the Hero; and archetypal motifs, such as the Apocalypse, the Hero’s Journey, the Deluge, and the Creation. I would add addiction/slavery to that list of archetypal motifs. Not least among the archetypes is the Jungian idea of the Self.

The Self is a confusing notion because we commonly use the word differently. I normally use the word self to mean my known self, the picture I have in my head of who I am, as illuminated by my consciousness. Right now, I’m a writer, for instance. To write this piece, I’ve gone on a bit of a Hero’s Journey. The Hero inside me has been exploring the ways psychologists have treated subpersonalities, and is now returning home with what I’ve found. I wouldn’t know I’m expressing the Hero’s archetype if I didn’t know Jungian psychology, but I would still be trying to be a Hero.

My Persona at the moment is to be the type of writer I’m trying to present to you. I’m not trying to come across as a Hero, but I do want to be a scintillating writer, the better to keep your attention. If you knew the truth, you’d know that writing is hard work for me, and I seldom feel scintillating when I do it. To find some scintillatingness; I tap into other archetypes, like the Fool who does the unexpected, because being spontaneous can be scintillating. It’s helpful that I already have a playful side to myself. I’m comfortable with being a Fool up to a point and I have not cast all the foolish parts of me into the Shadow.

I’m not able to tell you what’s in my Shadow at the moment because the Shadow, by definition, is in the dark. It’s outside the boundaries of my known self. My Inner Critic gives me a hint, though. My Inner Critic is now telling me everything that’s wrong with my writing, how un-scintillating it is. Then I have another one who says I’m trying too hard. The Inner Critics are not the Shadow, though. They’re trying to protect me from the Shadow. However, I might throw a little light onto the Shadow if I asked the Inner Critic, so what? What would happen if I wasn’t scintillating, or was scintillating too much?

I think I know the answer because I’ve done some Shadow work. If I wasn’t scintillating, you’d stop reading, as you would if I went over the top. I would then be alone, standing here with a prize from my Hero’s Journey that no one wants. I would feel humiliated, powerless, and utterly abandoned. I trust you know something of that feeling even if you aren’t a writer. I like to call it the Abyss, but I could just as soon call it the Shadow. Whenever I refer to the Abyss, people seem to know what I’m talking about, even though none of us can put it fully into words.

Getting back to the Self; the Self, in the Jungian sense is much more than my known self. My Self includes the Shadow. To put it another way, I’ve got this big hole inside me, that Abyss I was talking about, that I try to fill by getting attention. I used to think wanting attention meant I had something wrong with me, so I was ashamed of it, but now I know everyone has something similar, so I don’t feel so different.

The Jungian Self also includes resources that I have not developed. They are also there in the unconscious. Before I began to play tennis, I didn’t know I could be a tennis player. Before I acted the Fool, I did not know how much fun it would be. Much of my Anima, or my female side, is sitting there, unused. The next time I need it, I hope to be able to call upon it.

I can be Jungian even if I rarely talk like one and I can use subpersonalities even if I never call on those of my clients. I pay attention to my own subpersonalities as they show up in the room. If an image comes to me when the client is talking, I don’t brush it aside. I probe it for what it might be trying to tell me about her. Sometimes I bring it up. It never fails to shed new light on the conversation. The Wise Old Man, the Trickster, the Hero, and the Fool all can have something to add to therapy sometimes. My Anima can help out if I’m trying to empathize with a female client.

However, I don’t just let these subpersonalities take over. There is always a danger of losing myself if I do not use my subpersonalities mindfully. There’s always a risk of possession for everyone, therapists and ordinary people, alike. We see this in therapists when they become so captivated by being the Hero that they forget about their boundaries. We see this in toxic masculinity, where the Animus has taken over the show and driven out the Anima.

The goal in Jungian Psychoanalysis is to remove the false wrappings of the persona; and meet and integrate the subpersonalities; all the archetypes, including the Shadow. This is how you become whole, not by cutting out the parts you don’t like, but by inviting them in and letting them be included. All this involves engaging directly with imaginary people. In the next part, I will go through a few major psychotherapies and the techniques they use to help you.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: