Can You Unify the People in Your Head?

Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us, Part 7

Image from Routledge

If you have dozens of people talking in your head at once, you’d want them to work together. Therefore, every form of psychotherapy seeks to integrate them. However, integration means something different when you’re at different stages. First, it means you want the subpersonalities to stay away because you don’t think you have any. Then, when you find out you have some, you want them to go away. In stage three, intergration means they do what you want. Finally, it means all the parts of you learn to get along.

In Stage One, people don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, they have subpersonalities. They say, everything I do is done by me, every thought I have is my thought, and every feeling is my feeling; except that which I cannot admit, which is someone else’s fault. I may argue with myself, but I’m on both sides. Subpersonalities are present in stage one, but people at this stage don’t acknowledge their existence. They feel unified, thanks to denial.

I don’t mean to sound negative about Stage One. It has its place. It’s the appropriate stance for everyday life if you’re not a therapist or a person who constantly examines himself. After all, subpersonalities are not real. We’re not talking about actual little people inside us. Subpersonalities are fluid, erratic processes that are so difficult to grapple as processes that’s it’s useful to pretend they’re people, except when you don’t have time. So, if you’re just trying to get through the day, have a demanding job and young kids at home, it’s helpful to think of yourself as unified, even if you’re not. You can sort it out later, when you see your therapist and get a chance to find out who y’all really are.

When we’re in stage one, we may hear about people with subpersonalities, but those people all seem crazy. Having subpersonalities seems the same as being splintered, divided, and schizophrenic. People in stage one are so convinced that a single soul is matched with a single body, that those who are not, must be inhabited by some kind of demon. For such people, having subpersonalities is, quite literally, a lack of integrity.

These days, you don’t hear much about demonic possession; but we have something like it. It’s captured when we say, he made me angry. There are countless variations, from, she made me sad, to you make me happy, and everything in between. In this view, a negative feeling is seen as something put into you by another person’s actions; rather than a part of you that’s always there, stepping up when needed. You want to deny agency, but because you don’t believe in subpersonalities, you must make another person responsible for how you feel.

Imagine how disturbing it would be for someone in Stage One to become aware of their subpersonalities. You’ll think you’re going crazy. All these people who aren’t there, you’d wish they’d go away. It would be a shameful secret you’d rather not know. If you’re brave, you’ll see a therapist, but even then, you might avoid talking about subpersonalities. You’ll tell her, for instance, I’m anxious, rather than, there’s part of me that’s anxious. You’ll say, I’m depressed, rather than, I have an Inner Critic that’s never satisfied with anything I do. At any rate, you still want it gone. You’ll want the anxiety gone, the depression gone, or the nervous part and Inner Critic gone, and you’ll want your therapist to help. This is Stage Two. All too many therapists are willing to collude. Some of those therapists are in Stage One or Two, as well; so, they’d never think to help you advance to Stage Three.

I don’t want to sound too down about those in Stage Two, either. Subpersonalities often are incapable of seeing the big picture, act in childish, stereotypical ways, heedless of long term consequences. They should not be put permanently in charge. They need some constraint. Parts that want you to conform to others need a countervailing inner rebel, and vice versa. Angry parts need peacemaking parts. Anxious parts need parts that are bold, and depressed parts need someone who’ll get you out of bed. We often become aware of our subpersonalities when a single one overpowers us, so the healthy impulse is to want to get rid of it. It doesn’t need to take you over, but you’re not going to get rid of it.

Nonetheless, there are many forms of help that promise to eliminate subpersonalities. Many patients and clinicians believe that anti-psychotic medication, for instance, will get rid of voices. It does nothing of the kind, but it does suppress some subpersonalities and empower others. The medication will slow your thoughts down, so you have a chance to keep up. If you have schizophrenia and hear voices that are way out of control, and take an anti-psychotic, it won’t eliminate the subpersonality of that voice; that ain’t gunna happen. It’ll weaken it enough to give you a chance to sort out what it says, to see if you want to go along with it.

I don’t have a problem with anti-psychotic medication as long as you and your doctor take seriously the risk of side effects. If you have psychosis, it may enable you to profit from talk therapy, where the real cure is found. Unfortunately, when people with a psychosis go to therapy, most therapists avoid their subpersonalities. New counselors are often advised to not let their clients talk about their voices, out of fear of giving the voices credence and power. This is misguided and comes out of a Stage Two view of integration. When I work with clients who hear voices, I’m interested in the voices and find that matter-of-factly talking about them, if not with them, cuts through the stigma, and helps the client sort things out.

Other drugs manipulate the discussion in the boardroom of your brain. If you have an Inner Critic, an anti-depressant will not kill the Critic, but it will energize a more confident voice to counter it. A stimulant will wake up the chairman of the board, so it can get control of the meeting. Mood stabilizers are the equivalent to introducing Robert’s Rules of Order to a teeming mob. They settle things down so everyone can be heard. All this can help you manage subpersonalities, but do not eliminate them.

People sometimes use chemicals that aren’t prescribed by any doctor in a foolish attempt to eliminate subpersonalities. Alcohol, for instance, will suppress an Inner Critic for a few hours, long enough to make you think you can dance. Of course, the Critic will come roaring back as soon as the alcohol leaves your system, but you can always use more alcohol. The bars, shooting galleries, and drug dens of the world are filled with people trying to eradicate their subpersonalities.

Sooner or later, everyone should realize their subpersonalities are not going away. Then, they enter Stage Three, where they try to manage them. They learn coping skills. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and all its variations, ACT, DBT, RET, EFT, REBT, and MET are popular. These therapies mention nothing of subpersonalities and don’t engage you with them, but they nonetheless train a subpersonality to manage, or at least counter the others. So, if you have an anger problem because your angry subpersonality gets out of hand, you can go to an anger management class to build up another part of you that seeks peace.

Of these psychotherapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may be the most sophisticated. It’s an act with two scenes. The first, Acceptance, is a recognition of a subpersonality, which an ACT therapist will call a thought or feeling. The ACT client learns to say, I’m having an angry thought, rather than, I’m angry, or my husband made me angry. Once the presence of a subpersonality is acknowledged, the client is taught to make a commitment to her core values as a way of managing it.

ACT therapists are fond of using the image of a city bus. Passengers climb on and leave this bus. Many have something to say to the driver. Some are critical of the driver, want the driver to go off route, or start a fight with the other passengers. The driver is encouraged to keep driving his bus, follow his route, and not get out of his seat to deal with the passengers. Stay committed, in other words. Commitment has the effect of elevating a single part of you that represents the commitment and giving it authority over the rest.

There are many times of the day, and some periods of a life, when it’s important to maintain a single focus on an important value. Anyone who’s ever devoted themselves to a cause, worked towards a goal, accepted a mission, adopted a vocation, or kept a marriage alive has driven their bus with one goal in mind and ignored the passengers that try to interfere. People who fail to make commitments go from doing whatever their feelings want them to do, to whatever shame requires. They’re at the mercy of their Inner Critics. They lack the ability to follow through, to be consistent, and to accept temporary hardships for the sake of worthwhile long-term gains. They’ll let others dictate to them, going along because they’re too indecisive to oppose them, or they’ll make a dozen decisions that contradict each other.

However, single minded bus drivers have been known to keep driving when they should have stopped. The passengers often have something important he needs to hear. That’s what a mid-life crisis is all about, as well as other crises that occur during a life span. The driver finally wakes up to the fact that he’s been going the wrong way, just as the passengers have been trying to tell him. In Stage Four, you realize your subpersonalities possess a wisdom you need. You recognize that two or more heads are better than one and irrationality captures everything rationality misses. You gain some respect for your subpersonalities.

Let me give you an example of the four stages. At first, Jose has not explored his own psyche. His interests, desires, and values come from somewhere, but he doesn’t know where. Feelings come and go, but he has no control over them. For instance, sometimes when he drinks, he gets so hammered he loses three days. He doesn’t know why he does it, but he knows he must stop. He contacts a therapist and asks for help.

If Jose were to contact me, I’d say we need to look under the hood to see what’s going on. I can tell, by the way he talks about things, that he’s in Stage One of integration. I ask him to speak for the part of himself that wants to drink, but he doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid that if he gives voice to those desires, he’ll leave my office and head for the liquor store. But I insist, and finally he plays along. To the extent he takes this role-play seriously, he’ll be surprised at what comes out of his mouth. He learns there’s a part of him that loves to cut loose from all his cares and ditch responsibilities for a while.

I just introduced Jose to the Stage Two of integration: meeting the subpersonalities. He went, saw, and listened; that’s all. He knows more about himself than he knew before. He’s heard from the alcoholic part of him and what it wants. This is valuable information, but we can do much more.

The first thing is to figure out what to call this subpersonality. If he continues to say, I got drunk, he’s not making that thought distinct from himself. If he says, my Party Animal came out, then he can see it more clearly when it arrives. By identifying it, he’s disidentifying himself from it. Before, he thought he wanted to party for three days. Now he knows it’s just part of him that wants to do that. This makes it easier to see what Party Animal is doing and gives him the ability to say no to him if he chooses.

Next, we learn about Party Animal. Sometimes subpersonalities have a distinctive way of holding themselves and of talking. Identifying these characteristics help him to spot Party Animal when he arrives. I point out that Party Animal is louder than Jose usually is and more spontaneous. He sits up straighter. He’s more fun to be around, so people want to be near him. Then I ask, what does it feel like to be Party Animal? It feels like he can breathe. Finally, I’ll ask the Party Animal what makes him come out? He appears after Jose’s had a couple drinks, but not when he’s out to dinner with his wife. He only comes when she stays home, and Jose’s with his friends. Evidently, Party Animal originates from a role Jose plays. His friends want to party with a party animal, so he obliges. He plays a part, so he can contribute to everyone’s good time.

All this can be helpful, but the true nature of Party Animal is not revealed until we meet the part that’s opposed to Party Animal. Jose plays along and give voice to his wife, mother, and boss, who are all critical of his drinking. Interestingly, he gives them all the same voice, which he calls the Ball Buster. That’s a clue that Jose doesn’t truly know these three people, except by how they fit his idea of a Ball Buster. It also suggests why Party Animal is necessary.

Party Animal is there to prevent a third part of Jose from being taken over by Ball Buster. What is the Party Animal protecting? There’s a part of him that feels very small and helpless when faced by Ball Buster. I ask him to get in touch with this part, but that’s the hardest one to contact, so far. It’s so well protected that all we can get is a name. Jose calls it Castrated.

After Jose has role-played the three personalities, I ask him to return to his usual self and reflect on what he just heard. He now has an idea of how these binges get started. Jose’s out with his friends, having a couple beers. His inner Ball Buster speaks up and tells him it’s time to go home, but Party Animal says, no, not this time. We’re going to defy Ball Buster, so you don’t have to feel Castrated.

This brief period of reflection creates or calls forward a fourth part, which often gets appointed to be a mature central authority in charge of the rest. He becomes some kind of executive who sorts out everyone’s claims and arbitrates a decision. The Executive gets its authority by virtue of knowing the subpersonalities and having a more rational approach than they. Different psychotherapies use different terms for the Executive. Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) will call it the Wise Mind. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) will call it a Rational Mind. Transactional Analysis (TA) will dub it the Adult and the Freudians will say it’s the Ego. Internal Family Systems (IFS) will call it the Self.

According to IFS, there’s one part of you that’s your true Self. You know you’re in Self when you feel compassion, curiosity, calm, clarity, courage, connectedness, confidence, creativity, playfulness, patience, presence, perspective, and persistence. The Self should be like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. The subpersonalities are the players. Without a conductor, they squabble amongst themselves and play out of tune. Only the Self can lead them to play harmoniously.

Having this Executive often changes everything. I’ve seen people stop drinking when they find out why they do it and decide it’s not a good enough reason. Jose says it seems childish and passive-aggressive to stay out late when he could assert himself more directly. He checks to see if his wife is really the ball buster he thinks she is. She isn’t. She’s just someone who’d been up all night, worrying about him. When Jose actually meets his inner versions of others, he finds out how cardboard, cartoonish, and inaccurate they are.

This Executive reshapes the conception Jose has of his wife, mother, and boss to more accurately represent who they really are. They still don’t want Jose to drink, but they’re not as harsh as they seemed before. No one’s busting his balls, so he doesn’t have to feel castrated. It’s not other people who want to limit Jose’s fun. Jose chooses to limit his own fun; so, he takes those limits more seriously. Ball Buster and Party Animal are completely discredited and banished from the boardroom of his brain.

Jose did well under the leadership of his Executive. At first, when he realized he was alcoholic, he might have felt completely Castrated, but he had people around to support him. As he was able to stay sober, save his job, have a better marriage, and learned to appreciate his mother. He discovered a new subpersonality, called Potent. Life was good for a long time, but trouble was brewing. The Ball Buster, Party Animal, and Castrated were destined to return out of nowhere.

How did that happen? The pandemic happened, and the Ball Buster returned; not as his wife, boss, and mother, but embodied by Dr Anthony Fauci, Andrew Cuomo, and the CDC who shut down Jose’s business, ordered him to stay home, wear a mask, and get the vaccine. He would have felt Castrated, but the old Party Animal came by and said, hell no. The Executive didn’t recognize it as Party Animal because there was no party, but it acted and felt the same. Under the Party Animal’s influence, Jose got loud. When he refused to wear a mask, he felt like he could breathe.

Jose has several options at this point. He could easily go on like this and develop conspiracy theories that put him in the role of the lone individual facing down the forces of oppression, whoever they may be; or he could recognize his old madness has returned in disguise. If he spotted the subterfuge, the Executive would identify this new threat, coming from the same quarter and check whether Fauci, Cuomo, and the CDC really are trying to bust his balls, or if they’re just trying to keep him safe from a pandemic. He’d then conclude he’s being just as childish as he was before, and the Executive would banish Party Animal again, abstaining from conspiracy theories, just as he abstained from alcohol before.

If he exercised his third option, Jose would advance to Stage Four. He’ll realize the Executive made a mistake when he exiled Ball Buster and Party Animal. They deserve a place at the table. Ball Buster looks out for his responsibilities towards others, and Party Animal keeps him true to himself. He feels more Castrated or Potent, depending on where he is between the two. When responsibilities weigh heavily, the needle moves towards feeling Castrated and Party Animal is supposed to speak up to advocate for freedom. Then, when the needle moves towards feeling Potent, Ball Buster reminds Jose of his responsibilities, so he doesn’t become an asshole. When Ball Buster and Party Animal are allowed to speak, they’re able to negotiate more effectively for their interests. When their voices are discredited and excluded, they plan a coup to get some power. The Executive has become a tyrant, having banished Ball Buster and Party Animal to Siberia. It needs to risk Glasnost by bringing them back and giving them a seat in Parliament.

What does the government of the self look like in Stage Four? I have four visions. One from Jung, one from Voice Dialogue, one from Nietzsche, and one from John Rowan, whose book, Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us, is the inspiration for this series. They’re multiple perspectives of Stage Four.

According to Jung, there’s no controlling the archetypes, which is his word for subpersonalities. They’re universal figures that have greater power than any one person and should be regarded as guides, rather than adversaries because they possess wisdom greater than that which can be comprehended by any rational mind. To Jung, integration occurs when you can see how the subpersonalities are working for you, not against you; so, you learn to seek out their advice and take what works for you.

Voice Dialogue helps you develop an Aware Ego. Not an orchestra conductor, but a part of you that observes the rest. Listening and observing changes everything, but the Aware Ego is not seeking to change anything. Its only concern is consciousness. While Internal Family Systems thinks of the subpersonalities as a classical symphony orchestra that needs a conductor. Voice Dialogue sees them as a jazz band that shares the stage on their own. Endlessly creative, the subpersonalities come up with surprising, sometimes jarring chord progressions and complex, infectious rhythms that violate the rules learned in music school. Each player has a unique sound, but plays off the others. The Aware Ego is the audience. If you’re compassionate, curious, calm, clear, courageous, connected, confident, creative, playful, patient, present, perspective, and persistent you make a good audience. The players may tolerate you going on stage and acting like you’re directing them; but you’re not directing them. They’ll always do what they do.

Just because you’re the audience, doesn’t mean you’re powerless over your subpersonalities. You have influence over them, as they have over one another. They’re playing for you. Their music will sometimes be challenging to hear. Good jazz breaks rules; but they want you to like it. You’re free to applaud, boo, call out, or sing along. What you do shapes the concert, but you must trust the players and learn to listen to what they play.

You may be wondering what keeps the jazz band from devolving into chaos and disharmony? What prevents each player from hogging the stage and not supporting the others? It’s the awareness they’re in this together. All the Subpersonalities, Party Animal, Ball Buster, Castrated, Potent, and every other one develops an awareness, by having an audience, that they are all an integral, and accepted part of a whole. They all have crucial roles to play and know that they must play fair if anything will be accomplished.

The third vision of an enlightened government of the psyche comes from Friedrich Nietzsche in his book, the Birth of Tragedy. He divided each person up in two parts, after two Greek Gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represents order; Dionysus, chaos. Apollo is the Executive I mentioned, and Dionysus is the archetypes. Apollo creates a map of the psyche and Dionysus shows what’s not on the map. A flourishing life, says Nietzsche, keeps Apollo and Dionysus in balance. They’re the tent stays that keep the tent up by pulling against each other. They’re the subpersonalities that, by being distinct, form a unity.

It just so happens that we see the Apollonian/Dionysian interaction in Jung’s Archetypal mode of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero sets out into the unknown, exposing himself to the dangers of the road, and serendipitously comes across a prize. He then carries his prize back home and gives it to the people there. Here again we see the shuttling back and forth from chaos to order.

We also see it when a listener listens to jazz and hears a discordant cord. It doesn’t make sense to him, and it puts him on edge until he perceives the key is changed. This new key enriches the original theme. Eventually, the piece resolves in harmony. Every bit of music, except the most bland pop, journeys into chaos, back to order, out to chaos and back to order, again and again and again until we have gained a greater order than we ever thought was possible.

I’ll wind up this series with the paragraph from Rowan that concludes his own book. This is his vision of a good government of the self:

So our conclusion must be that, while at certain stages unity may be very tempting and even apparently necessary, in the end multiplicity is just as real and important, all the way down the line. There never comes a time when we can simply abandon our multiplicity and lie down in perfect and final unity. We may not have subpersonalities in the sense that they fight with one another, but we shall still have many angles, many colours, many quirks. We shall still be human.

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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