Revisiting Subpersonalities for Internal Conflict
In this case study a counsellor, trained in the transpersonal, psychodynamic method of Psychosynthesis, uses the subpersonalities technique to help a client dealing with strong internal conflict.
Peter is 32, with a wife and three young children. Living in a medium-sized town in Western Australia, Peter has had jobs in the field of social work since gaining his social work degree in Perth. He has a sensitive personality and has always found some aspects of the work difficult to face emotionally, but in the last year or two, the reality of this work has just been too much for him. Peter realises that his health is being jeopardised, and doesn’t feel like he “fits” social work (or that he ever did). He quits his job.
However, he does not know how to get into the new field that he believes will be a life-long passion: that of sustainability. He comes to counselling wondering how to go forward. His degree and experience – and thus capacity to make a living – are in social work; his heart is in sustainability. What should he do? How can the counsellor help him?
Trained in the transpersonal, psychodynamic method of Psychosynthesis, the counsellor recognises that one of its techniques – subpersonalities – is tailor-made for working with cases of strong internal conflict. This article is about revisiting how the technique can be helpful for clients with similar angst.
One body, many selves
In case you haven’t read Mental Health Academy’s courses on Psychosynthesis lately (or ever), let us review briefly the premises of the technique and the framework within which the notion of subpersonalities operates. First, as a transpersonal therapy, Psychosynthesis espouses a model of consciousness which recognises that our conscious, individual self is only a tiny portion of our total Self. There is also the individual subconscious (repository of memories and dreams) and the superconscious, which is beyond each individual’s mind, emotions, and body, and has the capacity to connect to the collective unconscious.
The most satisfying – indeed, self-realised – life is one in which we are living most fully in the wholeness of the Self. Each person’s challenge is to use his/her will to synthesise (that is, to integrate and harmonise) the aspects of the personality that are in conflict and thus keeping the person from expressing full personhood. Psychosynthesis recognises that within each person are a multitude of “psychological satellites” or constellations of needs, habits, attitudes, and drives, which co-exist semi-autonomously with the others. When such constellations succeed in expressing in the world, we become that “self”; we are in those moments identified with that part of ourselves, or subpersonality, which may be, for example, “The Seductress”, “The Businessman”, “The Manipulator”, or even, “The Clown”.
The problem comes when one subpersonality (and each of us has many) dominates to the extent that it refuses to share the “floor”. Cut off from expression, and sometimes from our own awareness, the unexpressed parts nevertheless have needs they wish to meet (that is why they formed in the first place: to meet various needs of ours). Without an appropriate means of expression, they begin to act out, causing us to behave in ways that dismay or embarrass us, or at least, prevent us from moving forward in desired directions. Once this conflict has begun, we cannot live in harmony or peace; we cannot live as our whole Selves. The reason to do this work of synthesising our sub-parts into our whole is so that, in any given moment, we can choose the part of ourselves that is most appropriate to express in a given situation, rather than being forced by habit or through the dominance of one of the parts to play a role that might be inappropriate or ineffective at that time. Enter the technique for working with subpersonalities.
A procedure with five steps
Psychosynthesis recognises five basic phases in discovering and synthesising a subpersonality into the greater whole of our “I-ness”: recognition, acceptance, coordination, integration, and synthesis.
As we noted, subpersonalities often make their presence known to us through the conflict we sense going on inside us. Peter, for example, had been growing uneasy about his profession of social work for some years. Every time he had to deal with a situation of domestic violence or homelessness, he was aware of feeling consummately tired on a physical level and depleted on an emotional one; beyond that, he had had a series of jobs in highly toxic, unsupportive environments. Over the years, he changed jobs several times, hoping each time that the new situation would be less confronting or somehow more rewarding than what he had left. He would soon discover that it wasn’t. He just as fervently, however, desired to make a difference to the world.
As the conflict within Peter intensified, he began to be aware of desires to join a completely different field: that of sustainability. Yet that desire, too, triggered conflict, in that Peter was aware of being the chief wage earner for his family of five, and that – while he loved sustainability and how it could improve the world – he had neither qualifications nor experience in the field. When he presented for therapy, these various parts were bubbling up to the surface, trying to express; they could no longer be ignored. Regarding his work conflict, he was aware of two parts in particular: a fairly stable, “responsible” part that just wanted him to get a job – any job, but SOON – and another part that strongly wished to explore, try something new.
Over a period of some sessions, Peter came to accept the presence – unenthusiastically – of these conflicting parts of himself. He occasionally mused on the possibility of taking on a temporary job for a few months while he looked for a serious job in sustainability. Working for a while at something like retail sales or teaching English as a second language, for example, would not have been a “professional” job, but might have satisfied the part that wanted him to be immediately employed. He stalled on implementing that plan, though, because of the part that kept urging him to have a go at something more adventurous and close to his heart.
Having recognised and accepted (to some degree) the existence of these parts in his psyche, Peter was able to work with the process of coordination in session.
In Psychosynthesis, there is a specific technique within the general five-phase work with subpersonalities, and it occurs at the phase of coordination. Once the person has recognised that there are conflictual elements within him/herself and also begun the work of accepting them, the phase of coordination can move toward resolution in a smooth progression toward the fourth phase of the work. One of the most interesting aspects of subpersonality work is how subpersonalities transform themselves once they’re able to make their needs known.
That process happens mostly during the six stages of coordination: Description, Worldview, Behaviour, Wants, Needs, Spiritual quality (you can remember these with the mnemonic: Doing Wonderful Behaviour Will Never Stop). Let’s look at how Peter identified two subpersonalities which began to transform themselves during the phase of coordination.
Peter was invited to bring two additional chairs into the therapy room, and then to ask one of the parts of himself to “sit” on one of them. Here are Peter’s comments as he gazed at the part when asked about each of its six aspects.
Description of the subpersonality
“The part has no features. It’s three dimensional, white, and alive but not really living. Like a blob, it has nothing unique about it. I will call it Thelma; it’s been with me about eight years”.
“This part craves safety and security. It wants to know the next step. It’s rigid and not willing to have a go. It understands that it’s a potentially dangerous world unless you have a plan. You need to have thought about how you gonna navigate.”
“It’s not willing to take risks; it keeps on with ‘same-o, same-o’. I pity it, because it misses out on opportunities. It lacks spontaneity.”
“It wants security, now and into the future. There has been a lot of struggle for a long time; it wants things easier.”
The needs (lying beneath the more superficial wants)
“To protect me; to have safety/security. To not have hardship/struggle/pain. I don’t have an emotional response for that. I feel sad for that part.”
Spiritual quality (The question to ask is: “If this part totally got its needs met [as stated above], what quality could come, or come more fully, into your life?”)
“I would be able to take more risk, and not worry about societal expectations and negative judgments from family and friends about what I should be doing for this age and stage of life.” Peter concluded that, if Thelma got her needs met for security, she could have more confidence in Peter (that is, imbue him with greater confidence).
Subpersonalities often occur in pairs (to create the tug-of-war that is internal conflict). This happened for Peter as well, who also identified “Geronimo”, a subpersonality urging him to do the opposite of what Thelma was advising.
Peter saw this part as being about the same size as a person, but not human. It had many bright colours shooting from where its head would have been. It had a lot of “yellow” energy, which Peter interpreted as giving off a vibration of being spontaneous, playful, and innovative. More drawn to this part than the other, Peter remarked that it felt “ageless”, “interesting”, and “creative”; he named it “Geronimo” and came to refer to it as “he”, while acknowledging that it didn’t formally have a gender.
“Time on earth is short; be open, try new things. Take chances; be adventurous”. Peter liked this worldview.
“Geronimo gives things a go, is more extraverted, and is more likely to meet people, do things.” Peter did not at this stage see any of Geronimo’s behaviours as “acting out” (a requirement for it to be deemed a subpersonality acting from unmet needs). However, he later conceded that Geronimo had encouraged him to be foolish or unsafe at times, including his urging Peter to quit his job without having another one lined up. This was, perhaps, Geronimo’s “acting out”.
“Geronimo wants for me not to have a professional job just yet; to try some things: to have the freedom to explore without pressure.”
“To feel more authentic, to be more creative; to rebuild confidence through having mastered challenges. To have done things on my own.”
“I would have a greater sense of peace and stability, and increased confidence. I’d be in a better position in terms of relationships: not so dependent.” Some of Geronimo’s needs, such as authenticity and creativity, also speak to spiritual qualities.
As he explored them, Thelma and Geronimo seemed to change, with Thelma becoming more open to spontaneity and more able to trust Peter’s initiatives, and Geronimo pulling back a bit, not pushing Peter headlong into situations without thinking things through. Peter saw how the two were actually on his side, albeit acting from the narrow vision of their own perspective rather than from the broader view of his whole life.
We have been talking about a subpersonality gaining legitimacy through being recognised and accepted by the “I”: a process which leads to its transformation at the coordination stage via the therapeutic work of seeing the (usually sublime) essence at its core. Rather than being concerned about processes happening with a single subpersonality, the stage of integration deals with the relationship of each subpersonality with the other subpersonalities, and with the activity and placement of each one within the whole personality.
Before the work of integration is begun, the dominant subpersonalities within a person are repressing the weaker ones. There is conflict, competition, and isolation of the various selves. The work of integration is to bring all of the subpersonalities to a state of cooperation in which the effectiveness of the personality is greatly enhanced and each subpersonality has the space and nurturance it needs to fully develop and express itself.
Peter recognised that he needed both Thelma, his cautious side, and Geronimo, his more adventurous side: especially if he was going to undertake a jump to another field. He saw the need for the two to work with him, and with each other, so that Peter didn’t in future stay stuck in a bad situation (e.g., acting from Thelma) or conversely, act in a rash manner without forethought (e.g., acting from Geronimo). He felt relief to have quit an awful job, but now needed to find something to stay afloat financially while contemplating (and exploring) what his long-term best option was.
Peter was not surprised to hear that there was more therapeutic work to be done with both Thelma and Geronimo, to work out how they would harmonise better not only with him, but also with each other. Peter, even in the worst of times, was highly concerned with discovering and acting from his highest life’s purpose, aware that doing that gave meaning to his life. In this he was a “natural” Psychosynthesis client. His counsellor had no doubt that he would move steadily toward completion of the last phase of subpersonality work: that of synthesis.
The apex of individual growth can be considered to be found here at the stage of synthesis, in which the integration of the personality is achieved through the refinement and harmonising of the personality itself. While personality integration is intrapersonal – happening within the individual – synthesis is basically interpersonal and transpersonal: the outcome of the ever-closer intertwining of the personality with the superconscious and the (Transpersonal) Self.
As synthesis begins to take hold in the lives of individuals, their interactions with other human beings become increasingly characterised by caring cooperation, a deep sense of responsibility and altruism, and increasingly transpersonal goals. In Peter’s case, synthesis will be likely to look like the harmonious integration of both his long-standing and newly-acquired qualities, skills, and experience offered toward a cherished purpose (sustainability) in a humane working environment.
Reference: Theoretical material on subpersonalities sourced from Mental Health Academy’s course “Working with Subpersonalities”.