Years ago when I started exploring my psyche through expressive art, I was astounded to discover all of the different parts of self that I had inside of me. As various aspects spilled out through my spontaneous collages, writings, drawings and paintings, I saw that not only did I have parts of different ages and temperaments inside, but also I had masculine and feminine aspects of self that were all struggling for expression.
Many parts that I had so expertly tucked away out of sight in the aim of living a highly functioning life were often younger, more hidden and hurting parts. There were many parts that I had exiled away because they felt unacceptable emotional need, sorrow, loss, shame, fear, hurt and anger.
Managing Emotional Pain
Popular psychology does not readily acknowledge that we all have a host of different characters inside of our psyche. Perhaps people fear the notion of having many different parts inside of the mind because of the stigma of "Multiple Personality Disorder," or as it is now called, "Dissociative Identity Disorder."
The reason, in my experience, that we have many personality parts is because we each create ingenious psychological mechanisms to hold and protect against feeling unprocessed emotional pain. Working with personality parts is a gentle and creative way to slowly unravel our emotional pain.
When we understand that we have a rich multiplicity of characters inside we do not have to dissociate away from the variety in our human nature to appear "sane." Understanding and integrating all of the different parts of ourselves can be creative and even fun.
Most of us have various personality selves that have developed different strategies to deal with emotional hurt and trauma. With deeper understanding, we can each find creative and profound ways to manage and release our emotional pain in more skillful ways.
And, profoundly, we each have access to the Authentic Self that we were born with that can witness the multiplicity of our emotional pain and trauma with great care, creativity and curiosity. Our Authentic Self is the dynamic and eternal soul force that not only can witness the emotionality of our personality parts, but can also lead them, re-parent them, and love them enough to heal and re-integrate, as well as encourage the gifts and strengths that they are meant to bring to our life.
Understanding that we have many different selves inside can free us to creatively balance ourselves. Our multiplicity, once harmonized and accepted, makes us into one whole, integrated Self that can function with aliveness, integrity and love. Each part, when its strengths are recognized, can be a star in our daily life when outer circumstances require its unique gifts and skills to come forward.
All of our personality parts are a valuable part of our inner ecosystem and they all want to play constructive inner roles. Problems arise when our inner aspects are forced into extreme roles, influenced by trauma/abuse, shaming, repression, rejection, disapproval or challenges in our outer family system. Outer stress can activate our inner parts in extreme ways.
Most of us silently struggle with what we might call our "inner demons". We might secretly fear that we are crazy when the various repressed emotional parts of ourselves become activated. Sometimes our forbidden needs, pain, feelings and desires leak out, and we can be surprised and shocked by our behavior. It is common to hear people say after they do or say something extreme, "I just wasn't myself."
Many of us live highly-controlled lives with only occasional emotional lapses into the intensity of our emotional pain. As we navigate through our lives, we develop very honed and controlled managerial parts of self that keep us functioning, working, paying the bills and navigating our family dynamics. To stuff away the emotional pain that we are afraid to feel, we might feel compelled to take actions that are "not like ourselves" to release the repression. When we become flooded emotionally, our managerial parts of self can become overwhelmed and lose control.
Because we repress what we cannot accept about ourselves, the hidden and rejected parts of our personality tend to distort themselves into what we call our "inner demons." Any feeling, need, hurt, urge or behavior trait that was disallowed in the past becomes exiled from our awareness. Yet, whatever is forcibly exiled still exists and always threatens to erupt in disruptive and hurtful ways. "Inner Family Systems" author, originator and therapist, Richard Schwartz, best explains how our entire psychology organizes around keeping unacceptable emotional needs hidden.
The theories encapsulated below are inspired by the excellent work of psychologist Richard Schwartz, the creator of Inner Family Systems Therapy:
"We have many personalities that grew out of pain and broken bonding, but there is a difference between these and clinically diagnosed multiple personalities. All of our personalities compete, have different goals, are conflicted, and subtly stop us from receiving. The bigger the trauma, the larger the fractures we have inside, and the more independently these selves will operate." - Chuck Spezzano
Multiplicity is the inherent nature of the creative human mind that knows how to protect itself in ingenious ways. We all have an indeterminate number of sub-personalities, each having their own age, desires, temperaments, desires, goals and talents. These sub-personalities form our inner family system. And, each part of ourselves - when accepted, listened to and tended to with love - has a powerful and particular strength to bring to highest capacities for thriving in the world.
When you feel strong enough to explore the multiplicity of your self-expression, and can create a safe space for emotional releasing, you can begin to creatively understand and map out how you operate on the inside. You can learn how to be inclusive of all of your parts, and discover the gifts and strengths inherent in the currently extreme and protective behaviors that create imbalance in your life.
The True Self is Larger than its Parts
In addition to the collection of personality parts that make up our human personality, each and every one of us has a solid and unchanging Authentic Self. This is the wholeness that we are born with and the wholeness that we will return to when we die. The Authentic Self has all of the potential to be a good leader/parent to your internal system of psychological parts.
A beautiful and most relieving truth is that the inner parts of our personality are not inherently bad or dangerous - they are just distorted and have been protecting our authenticity in ingenious ways. Our inner personality parts organize themselves to protect our Authentic Self at all costs. If the parts of your personality can come to trust your Authentic Self - you can experience an integrated life of harmony, creativity, and profound self-compassion.
Our personality parts sacrifice themselves and their own safety to remove our Authentic Core Self from harm. They also hold difficult emotions for us so that we can function in daily life. Sub-personalities also help us to dissociate from trauma. The tricky thing is our sub-personalities often blend their extreme feelings and thoughts with our Authentic Self. When they take over our psychology, we think our personality parts are all of who we are.
It is quite profound how the parts of our psyche mobilize forces to protect the precious Authentic Self. As Richard Schwartz explains it - any human system will mobilize to protect its leadership - which is the Core Authentic Self. "Imagine a tribe of inner people of various ages and degrees of vulnerability, led by a Core Self. In the face of danger, the tribe moves the Self to a place of safety and certain parts come forward to deal with the danger."
This level of protection is especially true of our "manager" parts of self. We all have very concise and controlled parts of ourselves that manage major portions of our functional lives. Our job is to differentiate our authentic Self from our managerial, protective parts as well as our repressed and exiled "younger" emotional parts. Once the Authentic Self has separated away from the feelings and thoughts of our personality parts, the parts regain their trust of the leadership of the Authentic Self, and inner harmony can be restored.
You can think of your Authentic Self as a mediator that seeks to depolarize the conflicts of your inner parts and helps to sort out all of the varying emotional needs that you have inside. Our parts of self do not disappear when our Authentic Self takes up leadership. They simply become less extreme and they begin to reveal their unique gifts and purposes within their less extreme roles. Sometimes particular parts of ourselves can develop their gifts so profoundly they can even step into the leadership at times when given permission from our Authentic Self. They will also withdraw from leadership when the Self requests it.
When outer influences intrude in our current life or from our family of origin - through derogatory attitudes, prejudices, unrealistic expectations or shocking, traumatic interactions - our inner parts can take over leadership from our Authentic Self. These inner parts can also take on historical family losses and burdens, and take in (introject) outer family system depressions, illnesses and emotional heaviness. As one part of self takes on an extremely protective role it unbalances the entire inner system and takes over the leadership responsibilities from the witnessing leadership of the Authentic Self. When the parts of self become polarized, inner conflict and inner competition ensue within the psyche.
When the people that we love primarily live, identify and express from one or more extreme parts of themselves, we will find ourselves adjusting our personalities in extreme ways to balance with and interact with them. When our outer interactions are unbalanced, we shift from the center of our Authentic Self to belong and harmonize with our group or family system. The same thing happens in our inner family system. When trauma occurs - when we are abandoned, rejected, shocked, scared, or abused physically, sexually or emotionally - our inner family system polarizes into extremes.
The Three Group Ecology
Highly polarized inner systems are very rigid and defended. We activate intense resistance whenever we try to change any part of ourselves without considering the inner family system that it operates within. It is helpful to be respectful towards the parts of ourselves that feel scared and defended; they are just trying to do their job to keep us safe. Most people are polarized in their internal family systems. Here is how Schwartz describes the three groups:
Any part that was hurt, rejected, scared or shamed as a child will often go into hiding, and be repressed from our conscious awareness. These highly charged emotional sub-personalities become the exiles of our inner family system. These exiles are often overwhelmed with feelings of rejection and unlovability. Like any exiles, these parts become desperate to express themselves. They long for opportunities to break free and share their stories and their pain. They desperately want to be loved, listened to, accepted and cared for. Often exiles also carry most of the feelings for the inner family system because the other more managerial parts of self often dump their unwanted feelings onto the exiles to get on with the process of functional living.
These hurt and rejected inner parts are very vulnerable, and if they are not brought forward into the light of consciousness with strong care, presence and maturity, they can flood us with overwhelming feelings and memories. They are also in danger of looking for love in unhealthy ways. They tend to want to look to redeem their inner pain in the same kinds of unhealthy situations that hurt them in the first place. These hurt and exiled parts of self will seek love, acceptance and protection from the very types of people that cannot give it to them. This sets up a hopeless and repeating pattern of both inner and outer rejection.
Many people mistakenly think that their manager-sub-personalities are their Authentic Selves. Inner Managers can often be quite highly functioning, and even inspiring at times. Managers, however, live in constant fear and dread of the escape of the exiles.
It is important to note that manager parts of self do not accept all parts of the self like the Authentic self does. Managers try to control life in such a way as to avoid any person or situation that might trigger the emotional pain of the past. This control and repression can sometimes look very noble, spiritual, creative and highly achieving. Highly functioning manager selves can fill our lives with edifying and creative activities that in the long run feel empty because they are done from avoidance of, and in compensation for, past emotional pain instead of self-acceptance.
Managers can be highly functioning and efficient in the world. They can accomplish great things in an unbalanced way that is out of touch with the Authentic Self. Managers in contrast to the True Self are a forced and extreme role that polarizes away from inner pain. Managers must expend enormous amounts of energy to keep repressed need, hurt, fear and painful memories and sensations buried. From this managerial place, we strive to control; we try to be a perfectionist; we try to gain approval; or we live in rigid denial of what is emotionally arising within.
Managers sacrifice themselves for the internal system, and they can rarely relax. The more competent these managerial parts become, the more the internal system relies on them, and the more the Authentic Self is denied. Often, from a managerial part we can feel lonely, overwhelmed and exhausted. Our inner managers need love, balance, nurture, fun, acceptance, care and rest. These inner managers - only being a part of self - come to believe that everything depends on them. The more they accomplish the less they believe in - or are willing listen to - the wisdom of the Core/Authentic Self.
When our managers become overwhelmed and exhausted with all their responsibilities the exiles can become activated, threatening to take over our internal psychological system. When the exiles take over we can become uncontrollably flooded with difficult feelings. The emergency firefighters will then swoop in to help us dissociate, or douse, the dreaded exiled feelings with little regard for the consequences.
The techniques that the firefighter uses include extreme and numbing activities such as self-mutilation, binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse, inappropriate or abusive sexual activity, physical illness, or other extreme forms of dissociation. The aim of our firefighter parts of self is to engage in any dissociative, distracting or self-serving activity that will numb or distract from the intensely arising emotional pain.
This extreme mode of coping with intense emotional pain is the place from which all unbalanced, addictive, abusive and obsessive behaviors arise. And while mangers are controlled and organized and highly rational, firefighters will use any means to numb emotional pain. These extremely self-focused behaviors often leave a wake of destruction in the psyche, in relationships and in the body.
Most of us struggle against some form of self-rejection and repression and work within these three groups. When we understand the inner workings of our psyche, we can see that becoming unconditionally present for our most challenging emotions is a necessary practice to incorporate into our life.
Restoring Balance, Harmony, and Leadership
Our psychological system already has everything encoded within itself to heal. Even the most conflicted internal psychological system can heal itself - if the process of listening to all perspectives of our inner world is honored. When our Authentic Self takes its true seat of leadership we will enjoy the process of strongly witnessing and expressing the creative multiplicity of ourselves.
It is a relief and a joy to creatively explore and sort out the map of our psyche to understand how we uniquely operate. Through inner self-acceptance, the gifts and strengths that we buried along with our pain are finally able to come to the forefront for expression in our daily life.
It is most helpful however, to do this inner work when we are not living in a dangerous or triggering outer environment. Parts of ourselves will have a hard time leaving their roles when they are continually being activated by other people. Often it is important to find a quiet time away from the stresses of life, work and family to explore the untended parts of our psyche.
It is profoundly relieving to discover firsthand that all parts of ourselves want to harmonize and contribute to our best life. Every part of us has a valuable role to play, and each part will eagerly leave their extreme roles given the love, self-acceptance and inner nurturing that we can provide through the witnessing presence of our Core/Authentic Self.
Creative multiplicity can be a profoundly moving and fun process where we come to respect and appreciate all of the parts of ourselves that have kept us safe, helped us function and brought us intact to this present moment.
This in-depth creative collage journaling course is accessible to everyone. No previous art experience or special talent is required.
Collage therapy provides a visual window to the daily mystery and multiplicity of your vast inner world.
Your daily collage journal becomes a daily showing up on the page with a most wondrous question, "Who am I today?"