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 spilt 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 of us still fear the stigma of "Multiple Personality Disorder," or as it is now called, "Dissociative Identity Disorder."
I have found that working with personality parts in therapy is a creative way to understand emotional pain. We each create ingenious, intricate and awe-inspiring psychological mechanisms to avoid feeling pain from the past.
We each have a rich multiplicity of characters inside, and 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, enlightening and even fun!
And, the best news is that 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 our hurting aspects of being into wholeness.
All of our personality parts are a valuable part of our inner ecosystem, and they all want to play constructive roles. 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.
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 can distort themselves into what we might call our "inner demons."
Many of us live highly-controlled lives with only occasional lapses into emotionality. We develop managerial (protective) parts of self that keep us highly functioning, working, paying the bills and navigating family dynamics. We can 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 behavior. It is common to hear people say after they do something extreme, "I just wasn't myself."
What is forcibly exiled still exists. Exiled parts of self threaten to erupt in disruptive ways. When we accumulate emotional pain we are afraid to feel, exiled aspects of our personality will feel compelled to take actions that are "not like ourselves" to try to be seen, heard, loved and known.
"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 each have a compassionate 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 our everyday mind. When we are tired or stressed, hurting parts can "take over" our psychology.
Our job is to differentiate our authentic Self from our 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 the 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 - w
hen 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 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. If unaccepted within, exiled parts of self will seek love, acceptance, and protection from the very types of people who 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 as 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 as 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 we live in rigid denial of what is emotionally arising within.
Managers sacrifice themselves for the internal system. They rarely relax. The more competent these protective 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.
Firefighters (Extreme Protectors)
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 behaviors arise. While managers are controlled and organized and highly rational, firefighters will use any means to numb emotional pain. These self-focused, emergency behaviors 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.