Q&A about subselves,
Where Did My
Subselves Come From?
It seems that
we're born with the neural capacity to develop
subselves or parts, like seeds, specially the
parts seem to develop after some major
trauma-tic incidents or periods that we experience, usually as infants and pre-teens. These are times we felt agonizingly hurt, shamed, confused, stressed, or
terrified by caregivers, teachers, strangers, animals, and/or Nature.
Often these traumas are so shocking and painful
[e.g. abandonments (neglect) and sexual
abuse] that protective
subselves cause us to "forget" they
happened. The personality fragments (parts) that appear after these events seem to
never forget, tirelessly guarding us against similar wounding and
long after any real threat is gone. When feeling safe, subselves will usually tell or show what
"started" them, and when, via thoughts, memories, and/or
Inner Kids are the same age as we
were as real children when some great pain, shame, or terror occurred. Gently educating
them and their steadfast Guardians and moving
subselves to the present when all subselves
feel safe enough, can permanently end harmful obsessions, compulsions, and other habits.
For example: how does a child cope with the
searing pains of feeling repeatedly ignored, ridiculed, or beaten by an essential
caregiver? S/He can unconsciously develop a subself
which aims to guard her from ever really trusting and relying on, and being
shamed or hurt by, any adult male or female. Other subselves may oppose
this, and strive for healthy relationships with safe adults.
This creates a draining inner tension s/he
may not be consciously aware of. It can cause the growing child
to "endlessly" feel exhausted, irritable, depressed, and to have
relationships "over and over"...
Meeting all subselves respectfully and
patiently, bringing any "stuck" parts safely into the present, and making peace
between conflicted subselves to let the wise resident Self (capital
them offers potential healing for
such painful, depressing, unconscious struggles.
question index >>
What Do My Subselves
seems devoted to keeping themselves and their host person safe from pain and harm - as they
define "safe." They strive fiercely to keep their roles or
"jobs" intact, and to be free to use their gifts productively.
Typical inner-family members long to be recognized, trusted, respected, and appreciated for what
they're trying to do for us. In early
subselves typically fear that other
parts or an external person will misunderstand and dislike them, and
want to "fire," kill, or banish them.
Such anxious parts can resist your meeting or disclosing
your inner teams (inner voices: "What stupidity! A real waste of time!
Don't be a jerk! You're weird! This'll never work! Stop! You'll uncover a horror you
can't handle! You'll flip out!") Or they can try to hide themselves by
any thoughts, sensations, images, or inwardly saying "I won’t talk
to you or let you 'see' me!"
These are normal defenses, which subside as
subselves come to trust that they and you are really safe.
Protective subselves can also be terrified that if you explore
your inner world you'll find and "free" a paralyzed part they see as
very dangerous to you or them. Patience, empathy, and safe risk-takings
change this. Other inner-team members, specially young ones, will welcome you
("I've waited SO long to be noticed and cared for! Please don't leave me!")
question index >>
If I Have All These
Who am "I, Myself" -
first, inner-family terms can be
confusing. Me, my self (little
"s"), and I each can mean all your physical, emotional, and
spiritual parts together: the whole person called by your name. Those titles may also
mean (a) your Self (capital "S" - your resident inner-family leader);
or (b) the subselves who have locally blended with (taken over) your Self.
Recall: when anxious, distrustful subselves
merge with your Self, you may experience their
feelings, thoughts, and goals as "me."
They are not you as a whole. If
another subself controls your Self, "I" and
"Me" refer to the controlling subself, not your Self or you as a
whole person. Confusions subside when your Self is
trusted by all other parts,
and consistently in charge
can take over your Self just like
and their Guardians. Know anyone who's "always in their head"? Their
is probably controlled by their distrustful
and a protective
(Guardian) who may fear that allowing emotions would be disastrous to
the whole person. Can you think of someone constantly obsessed with others'
opinions and being "right"? Their Self may be "always" controlled by an alliance of
question index >>
What's My True Self
your Self (capital "S") has special abilities. S/He is not more powerful or
worthy than any other subself.
Your Self's main natural talent and
is to be an effective leader for all your subselves, in most
situations. As such, her or
his gifts and goals are to...
current situations realistically in light of your knowledge, major
abilities, limitations, and short and long-term goals,
Seek and evaluate the counsel of inner and outer advisors as time and circumstances
delegate and coordinate other subselves in making clear, wise decisions from a
wide-angle, long-term perspective; and then...
acting on the
to the environment's reactions.
is like a naturally talented musical conductor, drama director,
jet pilot, congregational leader, or athletic-team coach. S/He decodes
sensory information - perhaps with help from other subselves, skillfully
clarifies and communicates goals, resolves
impasses, delegates responsibilities, and
builds morale and teamwork.
Your Self can give recognition and praise, coach, and make
artistic, complex, and tough judgments well, in most situations. When trusted by all
other parts and free to lead, s/he can reliably counsel, encourage, and empower
other confused or overexcited parts in all kinds of life situations. As s/he
does these, s/he feels the full range of human emotions like all other subselves.
Can you imagine having such a
leader in charge of your Life? Can you
when s/he is in charge? At any moment, your
Self may be...
to lead and coordinate, or...
strongly influenced by
overwhelmed or paralyzed by other
distrustful or over-excited subselves.
talented coach, CEO, or musical conductor, your true Self s/he can't fire or
sanction rebellious team
can't stop other parts from interfering or taking control. There is no board of
directors or police s/he can appeal to. S/He needs
trust and willing co-operation from your other parts to be really effective for them and
Other subselves can come to believe in the judgment and leadership of your Self only
from experience. They then want to follow her or him from respect and trust rather than fear,
resignation, or duty.
As an eye can't behold itself
without a mirror,
can't "see" itself in an inner image. S/He is the
see-er. So if you work with your inner family and image "your Self," know
that it's another subself. If
your (unblended) Self says "I," it may refer to your whole person or
your Self alone. This gets clearer as you do more inner-family
that we have an inner
family or "cast of characters" without a leading Self. Our
momentary thoughts, feelings, and actions are a blend of all our parts, who get along by
group consensus as some communes and organizations do. Leader Self or inner-family
consensus - which concept fits better for you? From doing
I believe that we each do have a skillful and dedicated executive
Self. Once aware of the concept, most of my clients have agreed intuitively,
and later from inner-family experience.
question index >>
How Do I Know
When My true Self Is In Charge?
| Have you ever
belonged to a harmonious team of people with a common purpose and a leader you all liked,
respected, and really trusted? How did you feel in that group? When this happens in
their inner family or team, people spontaneously say they
mix of calm or serene, centered,
grounded, light, "up," clear, firm, alive,
alert, aware, compassionate, strong, resilient, focused,
open, sure, decisive, positive, and purposeful
- even in a crisis.
These feelings are sure signs your Self is trusted
and free to lead.
Do you have periods of feeling some of these? How often do you get
them? Would you like them more often? Many
people have rarely or never experienced a
clear-minded period of time when their true Self was solidly in charge.
Understandably, such people may not relate to, or defensively scoff at the
idea that such inner harmony is an actual option for them or anyone.
Another way to judge who's leading
your or another person's personality is to look for telltale attitudes and
behaviors like these. For more detail on behavioral symptoms of
psychological conditions that indicate
dominance, see these Lesson-1
question index >>
How Do Parts Behave?
A 30-something single Mom with a very responsible, stressful managerial job began to
develop severe back pains that woke her up in the middle of most nights. As she tried to
fall asleep again, she usually experienced "mind racing," obsessing on the chaos
at work, and the difficult situations she faced both there and personally. Her doctor and
a chiropractor could find nothing physically wrong. Meditation, aspirin, and prayer didn't
She was becoming more and more exhausted,
irritable, and distracted both at work and with her early-teen daughter and friends.
Respectful inner-family inquiries revealed a subself who said clearly it was responsible for
the back pain and mind-racing.
It gave her the image of a hulking teenage boy. He said he
knew he was causing the woman dis-tress and pain, but saw no other way to ensure that she
had enough time to carefully think through the next day's activities.
"Hulk" only vaguely knew of her Self,
and had no trust that it or any other subself could reliably protect her against
"failing" and being humiliated and shamed at work. It developed that the
woman had a very young part that believed she was "no good," and the
"Hulk" was devoted to protecting that
When respectfully acknowledged, "the Hulk" was willing to meet with the
woman's Self and other competent
subselves. Over time, Hulk said he was willing to try to
let them prepare adequately for the day's work. Her back pains stopped immediately, and
For more perspective, review these common
question index >>
Is There Any Danger In Meeting My Inner Family?
At first, your Guardians and Inner Kids may feel alarmed and distrustful, and strongly
resist. As they gradually come to trust that your intent is to learn about,
and help each subself use its gifts fully and effectively, and to
reduce inner and outer conflict and stress, their resistances shift to
enthusiastic co-operation. In ignorance, our (wounded) culture links
"personality fragmenting" (protective subself formation) with
"mental illness," "sickness," and "craziness."
unawareness at work...
People who show extreme
("Multiple Personality Disorder") are usually misunderstood and feared. The idea that we
all have a group of "subselves within" is not yet commonly considered, much
When first hearing the idea, many people are naturally
scornful, or amused by the idea (how about you?). This may be one or more of their scared
parts doing their defensive job well. It also may be that such people truly
"have it (their inner family) together (harmonious)."
Some people (i.e. their
subselves) fear that doing parts work will unleash some awful "force,"
"demons," indefinable, destructive "things," or overwhelming feelings. In
years of doing inner-family therapy with scores of men and women
and some kids, I have
never seen this happen
heard reports of it from clinical colleagues.
subselves clearly believe your Self is strong, wise, and trustworthy enough, repressed experiences and the memories and feelings attached to them can be safely experienced and released. Such recall often signals breaking old,
protective emotional denials, and thawing long-frozen grief.
These are tolerably
uncomfortable healing instances. From
21 years' experience, I believe that over time, such releases can free
many people from unconscious bondage to some (not all) physical conditions like chronic
pain, asthma, headaches, and insomnia; emotional states like panic or rage attacks,
depressions, "hyperactivity," "seasonal affective" and
'"bipolar" disorders, or
"numbness"; or destructive habits like some obsessions, compulsive pessimism
or idealism, addictions, over-isolation, and self-sabotage. Some of these do involve organic factors and genetic predispositions - and there is clear evidence that
subselves interact with our body's organs, cells, and functioning.
is fail-safe: you (your parts) control it. You do only what you wish, when you
wish, and how you wish it. This work is not magic or
a cure-all. It is often an effective way for Self-motivated people
to grow more serenity, confidence, productivity, and enjoyment in their life, over time.
can often help explain and reduce some vexing
relationship problems, including
conflicts, and parent-child struggles,
when both partners use it cooperatively and respectfully. Partners who help each other
harmonize their respective inner teams can have an exceptionally strong,
rich relationship. So can co-parents and kids!
question index >>
Do Your and My
Personality Parts Interact?
All the time! My
subselves and their
are regularly activated by perceived threats of attack or rejection by "you"
(your subselves), and vice versa. People with a history of relationship
struggles may have seldom or never experienced a steady pairing of (my
and (your Self is in charge) with a friend, lover/partner, or ex
In their useful paperback
Embracing Each Other, psychologists and inner "voice-dialog"
pioneers Hal and Sidra Stone explore this topic in depth. After many years
study, they propose that people with
disowned (repressed or denied) parts are compulsively drawn to
successive partners who have a very active similar part.
These repressed inner-family members are
often self-judged as unlikable or repulsive, selfish, profane, brazen,
dishonest, preachy, lazy, or the like. By consciously meeting and
compassionately accepting our disowned parts
and not letting them dominate our Self, our relationship compulsions (e.g.
approach-avoid cycles, codependence, and over-controlling) fade.
| From an inner-family
perspective, all local and chronic
relationship problems have three parts: (a) conflicts among my
subselves (inner-family conflicts), (b) disputes among your subselves, and (c)
clashes between your subselves and mine.
Imagine you and other people cooperating to resolve all three concurrent
Notice your self-talk (thoughts and feelings)
of the stressful "automatic" communication patterns we have with special
kids and adults become clear and can improve when seen via parts
work. For instance: Jack is attracted to Anita emotionally
parts) and sexually
older-teen part). Anita responds unconsciously to each of these with
four complementary parts: her Adult Woman, Good Mom, Lonely
Girl, and Sensual female parts.
If Jack seems to
pull away, Anita's Lonely Girl
gets scared and sad (based on early real emotional abandonment
by her father). One or several distrustful
quickly activate in response. They blend with her Self, and "make" Anita be
shaming, seductive, rejecting, abusive, controlling, and/or
Jack can respond to these behaviors in
many ways. If Anita's Protector-part is a
Guilt Tripper, Jack's
will feel awful. His
Guardian will spring to life, and has Jack apologize to Anita
and become attentive again. Her
is reassured, so the Guilt Tripper stands down, freeing
Anita's Self. His Shamed Boy gradually feels better, and his
Pleaser gives way to his Adult Man and true Self.
| This whole
sequence might take five minutes or two weeks. Without
awareness of their parts' complex interactions and their respective
Selves being disabled, Jack and Anita's relationship goes on until
the next version of this (or another) avoid-approach cycle repeats.
Seen this way, there is no
"Jack and Anita."
There are over 10 normal subselves interacting together to create a
complex and dynamic relationship between "two people." If not
controlled by other subselves, true Selves are often adept at
managing all this with respect, humor, patience, and wisdom, to help
each person fill their current primary needs well enough.
cycles occur in all relationships: friend-friend,
clerk-customer, parent-child, boss-employee, student-teacher, and so on.
Larger groups like physical families become stunningly complex, if members'
Selves aren't regularly in charge. Few of us are aware of the amazing
interactions that happen at lightning speed within and between us. Does this
make sense to you?
question index >>
The Lesson-1 Web articles
propose what happens to typical kids raised in a low-nurturance environment: they automatically develop
a set of semi-independent personality subselves to survive.
The articles introduce the idea of an inner family of personality
or subselves, which probably correspond to discrete interactive brain regions.
Other researchers call these alters,
aspects, (personality) sides, ego states, moods,
character flaws, minds, subpersonalities, potentials,
and many more. Our inner-family dynamics strongly affect our
thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and often our bodily health, moment to moment
and over time. These steadily shape and affect our key relationships.
Most of us aren't aware of our
resident family or team, often leaving it chaotic, leaderless, and very
ineffective - even self-harmful.
Each person's subselves are unique, yet they perform common functions
for typical people. The functions fall into three or four groups:
- and probably
All our parts mean us well,
though some can be misinformed, untrusting, and fiercely rigid, until they
get help. Some subselves live in the
past, unaware that their original danger is long gone.
you're interested in safely meeting your inner crew and
discovering who's coaching them,
see the Lesson-1 guidebook
Really Running Your Life?, or this series of Web
inner-family therapy ("parts work").
So far, there are relatively few lay
publications on our inner family. One excellent, clear paperback is "Embracing
Our Selves" by Hal Stone, Ph.D. and Sidra Winkleman, Ph.D. (New
World Library, 1989). It gives clear, thorough, absorbing descriptions of
"voice dialog" work with our inner parts - and those in important other
people in your life. An early classic about personality subselves is "I'm
OK - You're OK," by Dr. Thomas Harris.
Another helpful, more basic paperback is
The Family Within," by Robert Subby (1990). See also the 1992
To Love Yourself When You Don't Know How - Healing All Your
Inner Children," by Jacqui Bishop and Mary Grunte.
powerful true chronicle of extreme false-self dominance - true
multiple personality disorder -
is in Truddi Chase's extraordinary paperback "When
Rabbit Howls" (Jove Books, New York, 1987). Not for the faint
For more serious
readers, I highly recommend Dr. Richard Schwartz's pioneering works "Internal
Family Systems Therapy" (Guilford Press, New York, 1995); and "The
- Empowering The Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors" (with Regina A.
Goulding - W.W. Norton, & Co., New York, 1995). Schwartz's
latest book for lay readers is very clear and reader-friendly: "Introduction
to the Internal Family Systems Model;" Trailhead Publications,
Oak Park, lL; 2001; See his Website
for helpful publications and resources.
John Rowan provides
a compelling historical look at how many researchers and therapists,
including Carl Jung, have concluded modular personalities and parts
are common, in "Subpersonalities
- the People Within Us." (Routledge, London and New York,1990). He
also gives us "Discover
Your Personalities - Our Inner World, and the People in It" (Routledge,
1993). Rowan documents 25
different clinical terms for what Schwartz calls "parts."
authoritative book is
The Search for Our Real Self - Unmasking the Personality Disorders
of Our Age, by James F. Masterson, MD (Free Press, reprinted 1990).
that most of these books have been published since 1990.
These and other
recommended titles are listed
(for lay readers)
and here (for
If your true Self isn't usually
guiding your Life… ?
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September 27, 2012