Years ago, when I started exploring my psyche through expressive art, I was astounded to discover all the different parts of self that I had inside.
As my various personality aspects spilled out in my spontaneous art, I discovered unacceptable emotions such as need, sorrow, loss, shame, fear, hurt and anger, expertly tucked away out of sight.
Managing Emotional Pain
Popular psychology is starting to acknowledge that we all have a host of different characters inside of our psyche. And some still fear the stigma of "Multiple Personality Disorder," or as it is now called, "Dissociative Identity Disorder."
We each create ingenious psychological mechanisms to avoid feeling pain from the past. However, I have found that working with personality parts in therapy is a creative way to understand emotional pain.
When we understand that we have a rich multiplicity of characters inside, we do not have to dissociate away from our human nature to try to appear "sane." Understanding and integrating all of the different parts of ourselves can be creative, and even fun!
We all have access to the healing resource of our Authentic Self. Our Authentic Self can witness the emotionality of our personality parts, and also lead, re-parent, and love them into wholeness.
Understanding that we have many different selves inside can free us to accept ourselves completely. Our multiplicity, once harmonized, becomes cooperatively integrated into one highly functioning Whole Self. All of our personality parts are a valuable part of our inner ecosystem, and they all want to play constructive roles.
Problems arise when our inner aspects are forced into extreme roles, influenced by trauma/abuse, shaming, repression, rejection, disapproval, neglect or challenges in our outer family system. Rejected parts of our personality distort themselves into what we might call our "inner demons."
We fear we are crazy when repressed parts of ourselves become activated. When our forbidden needs, pain, and desires leak out, we can be shocked by our bad behaviour. It is common to hear people say after they do something extreme, "I just wasn't myself."
Many of us live highly-controlled lives with only occasional emotional lapses. We develop managerial (protective) parts of self that keep us highly functioning, working, paying the bills and navigating family dynamics.
Yet, what is forcibly exiled still exists. Exiled parts of self always threaten to erupt in disruptive ways. Accumulating and storing pain we are afraid to feel, exiled aspects of our personality feel compelled to take actions that are "not like ourselves" to release emotional pressure.
"Inner Family Systems" originator Richard Schwartz developed a therapeutic modality to explain how our psychology keeps unacceptable emotions hidden, and how we can become whole through self-acceptance. I explain how I apply his modality below.
"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
The human mind knows how to protect itself in creative ways. We all have an indeterminate number of sub-personalities, each having their own age, desires, temperaments, desires, goals, and talents.
When you learn how to be inclusive of all of your personality parts, you will discover the strengths inherent in the currently extreme parts of self that are presently unbalancing your life.
The True Self is Larger than its Parts
In addition to the collection of personality parts that make up our human psyche, we all have a neutral and accepting Authentic Self. The Authentic Self has the potential to be a good leader/parent to your internal family system of psychological parts.
The inner parts of our personality are not inherently bad or dangerous. They hold difficult emotions for us so that we can function in daily life. The tricky thing is our sub-personalities often blend their extreme feelings and thoughts with the everyday mind. When we are tired or unaware, hurting parts can "take over" our psychology.
Our job is to differentiate our authentic Self from our managerial/protective parts as well as our "younger" exiled parts. Once the Authentic Self has separated out from the extreme emotions of our personality parts, the parts regain trust of the leadership of the Authentic Self. Inner harmony is then restored.
Our inner personality parts organize themselves to protect our Authentic Self at all costs. As Richard Schwartz explains - any human system will mobilize to protect its leadership. "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."
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 become less extreme. They reveal their unique gifts.
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 Authentic Self requests it.
When negative outer influences intrude through derogatory attitudes, prejudice, unrealistic expectations or shocking, traumatic interactions - our inner parts can take over leadership from our Authentic Self.
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.
As one part of self takes on an extremely protective role, it unbalances the entire inner system, taking over the leadership responsibilities from the Authentic Self. When the parts of self become polarized, inner conflict ensues within the psyche.
The Three Group Ecology
Highly polarized inner family systems are 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 defensive; they are just trying to do their job to keep us safe. Most of us are polarized within our internal family system. Here is how Schwartz describes the three groups:
Any part that was hurt, neglected, rejected, scared or shamed as a child goes into hiding, and becomes unknown to our conscious awareness. These emotionally charged sub-personalities become the exiles of our inner family system. These exiles are overwhelmed with feelings of rejection, shame and unlovability.
Like any exiles, these repressed parts of self become desperate to express themselves. They long for opportunities to break free, to share their stories, and to release their pain. Inner exiles desperately want to be loved, listened to, accepted and cared for.
These hurting, rejected inner parts are vulnerable. They flood us with overwhelming emotions. They also look for love in unhealthy ways. They try to resolve their pain in unhealthy situations similar to what hurt them in the first place. Exiled parts of self seek love, acceptance and protection from the very types of people that cannot give it to them.
Many people mistakenly think that their manager-sub-personalities are their Authentic Selves. Inner Managers are highly functioning, and even inspiring at times. Managers, however, live in constant dread of the escape of the exiles.
Manager parts of self do not accept all parts of the self like the Authentic self does. Managers control life so as to avoid triggering unhealed emotional pain. This control can sometimes look noble, creative, spiritual, successful and high achieving.
Managers can be highly efficient in the world. They accomplish great things in an unbalanced way that is out of touch with the inner ecology. Our highly functioning manager selves fill our lives with noble activities that are done from compensation to avoid pain.
Managers expend enormous amounts of energy keeping painful sensations buried. From our manager part of self, we control; we try to be a perfectionist; we try to gain approval, and live in rigid denial of what is emotionally arising within.
Managers sacrifice themselves for the internal system. They 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.
A managerial part often feels lonely, overwhelmed and exhausted. Our inner managers need love, balance, nurture, care and rest. Our inner managers - only being a part of self - come to believe that everything depends on them. The more they accomplish the less they are willing to listen to the wisdom of the Authentic Self.
When our managers become exhausted with all of their responsibilities, the exiles become activated. When the exiles take over we become uncontrollably flooded with difficult feelings. The emergency firefighters (our addictions) then swoop in to help us douse the dreaded emotions with little regard for consequences.
The techniques that the firefighters use include extreme activities such as binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse, self-mutilation, inappropriate or abusive sexual activity, physical illness, or other extreme forms of dissociation. The firefighter engages in any self-serving activity that will numb or distract from intensely arising emotional pain.
This extreme mode of coping is the place from which all unbalanced, addictive, abusive and obsessive behaviours arise. While managers are controlled and organized and highly rational, firefighters will use any means to numb emotional pain. These self-focused, emergency behaviours leave a wake of destruction.
Restoring Balance, Harmony, and Leadership
It is a relief to creatively sort out the map of our psyche to understand how we operate. Through self-acceptance, the gifts and strengths that we buried along with our emotional pain are finally able to come to the forefront for expression in our daily 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 provide through the appreciative witnessing presence of our Authentic Self.
Creative multiplicity can be a profoundly moving and fun process. We can grow to respect and appreciate all of the parts of ourselves. Our personality parts have kept us safe, helped us function, and brought us intact to this present moment.
Explore Your Multiplicity in Therapy
You might feel new to or nervous about counselling, but your anxiety and/or emotional pain is starting to interfere with your work, your relationships, and your success. Negative or hurting aspects of yourself are taking over your ability to function and relate well. And, even though you might present well to others, you are emotionally struggling behind the scenes.