Engaging With Your Subpersonalities

Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us, Part 6

Image from Rutledge

When I began doing psychotherapy, oh, so many eons ago, the first techniques I tried that helped me engage with subpersonalities was Gestalt Therapy, the creation of Fritz Perls. You don’t hear much about Gestalt these days, since Pearls died, because the star power of its main proponent is what sets the fashions in psychotherapy. At the time, in the sixties, Perls was a star and contributed in no small way to the zeitgeist of the era. Gestalt therapy looks to enhance awareness of the present moment. Since subpersonalities are a part of this moment, the Gestalt Therapist will be working to illuminate them.

Perls liked to talk about Topdog versus Underdog conflicts. One part of you says you really should get on the treadmill. That’s the Topdog. The Underdog says, I will, but not now. The Underdog undermines the Topdog, so that you never do get on the treadmill.

Perls’ answer was to create an empty chair exercise. You get an empty chair and have the client talk directly to the Topdog and the Underdog to try to work things out. Sometimes you get another chair and have the client switch roles and speak directly as, or to, the two dogs.

Empty chair work is similar to a technique called voice dialogue, which involves asking the client to speak for the subpersonality. Voice Dialogue is the name for an entirely separate approach to therapy, devised by Hal and Sidra Stone, Jungian therapists who broke off to start their own school.  Voice Dialogue gave us the most ambitious account of subpersonalities before Internal Family Systems (IFS) came along and stole its thunder. Like IFS, Jung, and Transactional Analysis, they identified a catalogue of common subpersonalities, called energy patterns because of the way they animate the individual. There’s a Protector, and Pusher, a Critic, a Perfectionist, a Power Broker, a Pleaser, an Inner Child, and the Good and Bad Mother and Father, but you don’t have to limit yourself to them. Voice Dialogue gives the client maximum freedom to construct their own.

When the client is done speaking for the subpersonality, voice dialogue would have them switch to their regular voice and make observations on what they just heard come out of their own mouth. This is done from a central subpersonality, called the Aware Ego. The Aware Ego is what you develop as you become aware of the subpersonalities. Developing it is the goal of Voice Dialogue. The Stones say that, when you get an Aware Ego, you gain new perspectives and abilities, access to new energies, and develop more choice in how you behave and feel. The Aware Ego does not take control of the subpersonalities, unlike the IFS Self which leads the subpersonalities as one conducts an orchestra. The Aware Ego just watches, listens, and is aware; but that changes everything.

There are many more common psychotherapeutic techniques that deal with subpersonalities but never mention subpersonalities. When I have a client who’s anxious about making a phone call, for instance, we might role play that phone call. The client and I might switch the roles we play, I could play him making the phone call, so he can see what it’s like to receive one, or I could be the recipient, so he can experiment with different approaches. You can see how, in those exercises, we are creating and utilizing subpersonalities to prepare him to make that phone call.

Another therapy that was created the same time as Gestalt is Psychodrama, as established by Jacob and Zerka Moreno. Psychodrama is done with a group. One member describes some aspect of their inner life, and the other members take up the parts of the subpersonalities and act them out. This is followed by a chance to process the scene in something like an Aware Ego. In Psychodrama, the client does not have to play the part of the subpersonalities. He stays in Aware Ego, so he doesn’t have to fear being taken over by a subpersonality. Other participants can lend their insights into what it was like for them when they played their roles.

I’ve led a fair number of psychodrama sessions back when I used to facilitate groups. One favorite was to construct a family sculpture. A client volunteer picks members from the group to play various members of his family and poses them around the room. What you get is usually a static visual image of the family, although I have experimented with some movement and having the actor utter brief verbal messages. Time is set aside afterwards for participants to talk about their experiences. I have never failed to be astounded with how penetrating the insights can be, even when working with the most psychologically out of touch people.

If you’re wondering what constructing a family sculpture has to do with subpersonalities, you carry simulations of the actual members of your family around in your head. There’s your actual, flesh and blood family; but there’s also your simulation of them. The sculpture, in turn, is a physical simulation of your mental simulation. Simulations, whether mental or physical, can be useful because they give you a chance to work out problems before trying it out on real people. It’s a rehearsal.

If you can’t join a psychodrama group, you can perform psychodrama on your own. People find and create psychodramas spontaneously, all the time. If there’s a film that strongly moves you, for instance, it may do so because it enacts, sometimes in a symbolic way, the drama that’s already going on in your head. By the same token, your dreams are psychodrama sessions and afford you an opportunity to put your issues on a workbench, where someone who knows how to look can see.

The Freudian defense mechanism of acting out is being utilized in psychodrama. Acting out is a way of neutralizing an inner conflict, by putting it into action. The teenage girl who shoplifts, for example, may be feeling deprived, but afraid to ask for what she needs; so, she acts out. She resolves that conflict by secretly taking that cute blouse with the sparkles. The blouse has value, but the greater value for the girl is a resolution of that conflict.

Most acting out, and most self-directed psychodramas, only makes things worse. For instance, when a woman finds herself repeatedly ensnared in relationships with abusive men, she may be conducting a series of self-directed psychodrama sessions. She gets out of the first abusive relationship in one piece but comes away with a simulated version of the abusive man in her head. She finds a second man who can play the part of the first and they start a re-enactment. It’s not like she hands the second man a script and says, do this. That wouldn’t be meaningful; the subpersonality played by the second man, must have autonomy. She gets the scene going by re-enacting her part of the script, and he, sometimes despite himself, ends up following along, drawn by unconscious suggestion.

Reenacting a trauma is seldom therapeutic. It usually only retraumatizes the person. The woman who has created a psychodrama out of her second relationship may come out of it with nothing more than a second round of abuse. Furthermore, if psychodramas abound and can easily be found in movies, dreams, personal decisions, and our relationships, why aren’t we all the picture of perfect mental health? Shouldn’t all these psychodramas have cured us by now?

They haven’t and they won’t because just engaging subpersonalities is not enough. There needs to be a next stage, which we call integration. It involves making sense of the psychodrama that just occurred. It’s what happens after the psychodrama session, the role play, the voice dialogue session, or the empty chair exercise, when the participants process what has just occurred from the perspective of an Aware Ego.

In the next part, I’ll take a look at integration, in which we figure out what to do with these subpersonalities once we have made them our friends.

This has been a continued review and summation of John Rowan’s book Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us (1990).

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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