Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

An Introduction to
Personality Subselves

Who Really Runs Your Life?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this 2-page article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/IF/innerfam.htm

  Updated  December 16, 2014

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      This is one of a  series of articles in Lesson 1 of 7 in this Web site - (a) free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and (b) reduce significant psychological wounds. All six other course Lessons are founded on this one.

       My experience as a family systems therapist since 1981 is that ~80% or more of typical men and women and many kids bear significant psychological wounds caused by fragmented personalities - i.e. groups of reactive, well-meaning subselves or parts. Most people - including many mental-health professionals - have no awareness of their subselves and the six common wounds they can cause.

      This article provides an historical perspective on normal personality subselves, three functional groups of subselves, and suggests where to learn more about this keystone to wholistic health. The article assumes you're familiar with... 

  • the intro to this site, and the premises underlying it

  • this perspective on your personality,

  • this letter to skeptics, and...

  • these FAQs about personality subselves or "parts"


       I gratefully recognize a source of many of the ideas below: psychologist Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., and the clinical colleagues with whom I studied the "Inner Family System (IFS) model" during 1990-92. Richard had developed the model for over a decade then, as a therapist, researcher, and teacher. He said "My clients taught me about their inner-family of 'parts' and how to work with them."

      His concepts closely match my own experience as a trauma-recovering person, a therapist since 1981, and a lifelong student of human relations. I've blended my perceptions with his and several other theorists, and am responsible for what's presented here.  

Ever Argue With Your Self?

       Remember the last time you momentarily "hated" a beloved person? Or the last time you wanted to go to an interesting event, and an inner voice said "Oh, come on, stay home and rest!" Have you ever struggled between longing for a delicious treat and "knowing" that it was "bad for me"?

      When was the last time you said (or heard) "I don't know what got into me!" or "She really seems like two people"? Do you ever have whole dialogs with your Self, or talk to your Self out loud? Ever wrestle with "breaking a bad habit," or wonder where your dreams come from and what they mean?

       Most of us have inner discussions and battles many times a day. They're so routine as to be almost unnoticed. Yet most of us don't know who these inner "voices" are, or how to harmonize them and effectively use the very real gifts our many "speakers" (subselves) bring us.

       Like many other researchers, I propose that these "voices" in us belong to a real inner family or team of semi-independent personality "parts" or subselves. They can learn to be peaceful, cooperative, and highly productive in astonishing ways. Meeting your inner family and organizing it to function as a clearly-motivated, well-led team vs. a squabbling set of individuals is called "parts work" and "inner-family therapy" here.

      This article introduces you to the devoted team of inner specialists that shape your daily life, and it hilights some implications of learning to harmonize them. To set the stage, let's briefly review five evolving ideas about how we all "tick":

    • Sigmund Freud's theories,

    • family therapy,

    • transactional analysis (TA),

    • "multiple personalities" (dissociation, or "splitting"), and...

    • "inner children."

          First, know that ...

Subselves Aren't New

      Around 400 AD, the Roman Christian poet Prudentious wrote "Psychomachia", which personified seven human vices and virtues (i.e. subselves), and described a battle (internal conflicts) between them. Socrates writes us across the ages that his inner life was controlled by "daimons."

      Like him, people have tried for millennia to explain their thoughts, dreams, actions, and "natures." All cultures have evolved beliefs that spirits, gods, imps, stars, leprechauns, fairies, goblins, cosmic and planetary rays, witches, angels, "ethers," ghosts, and space-beings cause humans to feel, experience, think, and do weird and wonderful things. In most developed countries, this crazy-quilt of explanations began to change a century ago...

  Freud's Three "Parts" and Three Minds

       In the early 1900's, Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud proposed a startling new idea: that we each have three personality parts that determine who we "are:" our Id, Ego, and Superego. These, he felt, cause us to act from "instincts" and "drives," with pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding as their goals. He also proposed that we all have three minds: the unconscious (contents never "knowable"), the preconscious (eventually knowable), and the (fully) conscious (knowable now).

      Freud felt that these three interact in ways we can't comprehend, causing inevitable mystery in what we think and do, or don't. His ideas  and the emerging art of hypnosis revolutionized at least the Western world's views on how to understand and heal "madness" and many human "mental problems."

       Around 1950, scientists began an increasing exploration and use of "psychotropic" (mood-affecting) drugs. These reliably relieved depression, controlled violent mood swings, and improved other troublesome human emotional behaviors. The combination of Freud's ideas and the new chemicals turned (many) shamans with rattles into psychiatrists with couches in just four generations: an evolutionary finger-snap.

Our (Outer) Families Become "The Patient On The Couch"

       In the mid 1950's, a few pioneering mental-health clinicians began exploring the novel idea that clients' emotional problems could be eased by putting their whole family on the couch at once, so to speak. Family therapy flowered, bringing impressive results for many, specially when combined with emerging communications and systems theories. Clinicians increasingly began to work on outer families, while a dedicated core kept focused on taming and balancing Ids, Egos, and Superegos.

Freud Revisited: Our Inner Parent, Child, and Adult

       Because Freud's ideas were obscure to many, they were recast in the 1960's by professionals who used "Transactional Analysis" (TA). In 1967, Dr. Thomas Harris wrote "I'm OK - You're OK", which suggested that we each had an Inner Parent, an Inner Child, and an Inner Adult personality parts that collectively determined our feelings, beliefs, and behavior. 

      A therapeutic TA goal became helping people understand and balance these three inner entities, and keeping their Adult in charge. No one that I know of proposed treating the three together with the emerging concept of inner-family therapy.

       While the TA idea was spreading through our culture, more psycho/biological facts emerged. These included growing evidence that alcoholism, traditionally thought to come from a "weak will," a "defective character," or a "demon" (e.g. rum), really came from a combination of the addicts' genes and childhood (family) trauma. 

      It's now clear that some addicts metabolize ethyl alcohol (which powers vehicle engines) differently than non-addicts because of a genetic inheritance. This concept increased the clinical belief that family dynamics strongly influenced alcohol and (later) other addictions.  

Our Inner Child Becomes (More) Famous

       In the late 1970's, a new set of mindscape pioneers suggested that the grown children of alcoholic families (ACoAs), whether addicted themselves or not, had common emotional traits and troubles like depression, low self esteem, social isolation, and divorces. It became clear that typical kids in alcoholic families were accidentally deprived of key emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical nurturing - just as their parents had been. 

      In the next decade, a flood of books, conferences, 12-step support groups, magazines, and two national advocacy groups erupted across the country for millions of troubled Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs) to help them toward psychological, spiritual, and social recovery.

       From this came an explosion of interest in nurturing and healing our "Inner Child" (singular), who retained the fear, sadness, and shame of real birthfamily trauma and deprivation. Two groups of people excited by this idea were adults coming from any kind of painful early years ("Adult Children"), and healers and entrepreneurs who wanted to help them. 

      Because of unintended childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma), our "Inner Children of the Past" were clearly wounded, orphaned, paralyzed, or lost. Unrecognized, they seemed to cause many of us serious personal problems.

       One such problem, viewed now by many as a relationship compulsion as harmful as any chemical addiction, is codependenceSince the mid-80's, hundreds of Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) 12-step support groups have bloomed in every state, as a rainbow of people admit and struggle to break free from powerful dependency-addictions to a lover, parent, child, or some other person.

      Theorists proposed that codependents' inner children (plural) were terrified of abandonment, because in childhood, the codependent had felt searingly neglected and rejected by key adults. Where true, it often turned out that their caregivers' parents had been similarly abused and/or psychologically neglected. "Toxic parenting" and the crippling shame and guilt that it causes were wryly labeled "the gift that goes on giving..."

       Because of expanding public interest in and acceptance of these ideas, programs and books now abound on healing from dysfunctional families, abusive or "toxic" parents, and "emotionally absent"  (wounded) fathers and mothers. An awful and hopeful current offshoot is the mushrooming U.S. awareness of how common and damaging childhood sexual abuse has been and is.

      Professionals have recently  estimated that one of four American females and one of seven males under 18 are sexually molested. The psycho-spiritual trauma from this is usually devastating and long-lasting. To survive any such youthful or adult agony, people normally appear to "go to (inner) pieces."

"Split" (Modular) Personalities

       From studies across the world, mental health researchers now agree that typical adults and children surviving cataclysmic natural and man-made disasters like war and personal abuse have an automatic protective reaction. Clinicians call it dissociation or splitting

      To survive unendurable stress like significant childhood neglect and abuse, normal young people automatically develop protective semi-independent subselves, forming a "false self." This seems to be a natural way we frail humans evolved to avoid being overwhelmed by intolerably chaotic, terrifying, or painful experiences.

      The fact that our brains operate modularly has been conclusively proved in the last generation with new scanning technology like Positron Emission Tomography (PET). This allows photographing the dynamic thermal patterns of living brains. Few of us are aware that many regions of our brains are operating concurrently to create the "simple" experience "I [see + hear + smell + touch + sense + react to + need + love] my child."

       One symptom of false-self dominance is that trauma-survivors emotionally numb themselves and (temporarily) feel no pain from a terrible physical or psychological injury. Other symptoms are distorting reality by believing that the current horror...

  • "isn't that bad" (minimizing),

  • is happening to "someone else" (projection), or...

  • isn't happening at all (denial). 

Many (most?) delusions, hallucinations, neuroses, paranoias, and psychosomatic (mentally-caused) illnesses stem from this automatic reflex to protect ourselves from perceived dangers.

      Protective reality-distortions allow a person in intolerable agony to "float up to the ceiling," "become an eagle soaring free," "visit the beach," or "become an observer." To survive, we detach or dissociate from mental + emotional+ physical agony and overwhelm, and often develop protective local or situational "amnesia." A common trait of unrecovering Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) is being "unable to remember" - or feel - much about our early childhoods and/or early caregivers.

       To combat unbearable terror, shame, hopelessness, and loneliness (i.e. to survive), normal neglected and abused young kids automatically develop a group of personality subselves. They may manifest as "invisible companions," and/or populating dream worlds which seem absolutely real.

       It's become well documented and increasingly accepted since the 1980s that about 5% of typical Western populations have true multiple personalities. These afflicted people repeatedly show patterns of socially-hidden or obvious changes in thinking, abilities, and behavior as though they literally become "another" person at times.

      Studies have documented on video tapes that each subpersonality or alter in the host person can have its own IQ, memories, skills, voice, likes, values, and even unique allergies and eyeglass prescriptions! Some alters may not know about each other. If they do, they can be deeply loyal, indifferent, or suspicious and fiercely competitive for control of the host person.

       Research suggests that a high majority of such exceptionally wounded people have experienced devastating traumas in their early life. From the media, the public learns of only the most sensational of such cases, like Sibyl, When Rabbit Howls, and Mind of My Own. People who suffer from what used to be called multiple personality disorder (MPD) are usually terrified, disoriented, depressed, and embarrassed by its symptoms. 

      They (like Socrates?) live with what feels like an uncontrollable inner life. Understandably, they try hard to deny or mask the evidence of their alters. Someone in your life now may have MPD -  relabeled "Dissociative Identity Disorder" (DID) in 1994 by the American Psychiatric Association - without you suspecting it.

       Professionals working with these trauma-survivors patiently assist them towards awareness, acceptance, and eventual fusion and permanent integration (the opposite of dissociation) of some personality alters. Many reports of permanent integration are now documented.

      2000: The Millennium of the Inner Family?

       So in the last century, at least (part of) Western society has gone from believing in moon rays (making "lunatics") and devils; to Freud's Id, Ego, and Superego parts of the psyche; to (outer) family therapy; to inner children, adults and parents (Transactional Analysis); to modular personalities and dissociation; and finally to adult recovery from childhood trauma and low nurturance.

      The clinically-validated concept of ordinary persons having an inner family or team of subselves affirms, combines, and extends these prior ideas.

      Colin Ross is a highly respected veteran DID researcher and clinician, and past president of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation. In The Plural Self - Multiplicity in Everyday Life (1999), he writes (p. 193) that multiplicity - having a multi-faceted (modular) mind and self - is normal. He concludes that what colleagues and I call a false-self is a "cultural sickness" - a widespread condition fostered by our culture's traditions and practices, and the unchallenged old delusion that "I am one person."

       There's growing evidence that few of us have true multiple personalities, and most (all?) of us do have modular personalities. Some people have more discrete "Parts" (subselves) than others, depending on their genetic inheritance and the emotional/spiritual nurturance they got as a young child. Since I began studying this phenomenon in 1992, I’ve witnessed scores of average women and men identify 15 to 35 subselves or parts without being "crazy" in the least - though at times we feel that way!

      Our subselves seem to be like a group of people living in the same dwelling. They each have different skills, jobs, ages, values, and needs, and may or may not know about, understand, like, and accept each other. They can ally, fight bitterly, or ignore or hide from some others, like members of any human group. Conversely, if individual subselves are acknowledged, respected, and effectively led, inner-personal stress drops and harmony, energy, spirits, and achievements soar!

       Our language doesn't yet have an accepted word to describe these subselves who dwell within our brains and bodies. In his interesting 1990 book "Subpersonalities - the People Inside Us," (Rutledge, London / NY) researcher/therapist John Rowan has discovered 25 different terms for them in international literature. 

      Yet we often write and speak about our parts - e.g. "He was of two minds…", "Pat is a real Jekyl and Hyde person." "She has a musical side to her"; "I’m getting a double messages from you"; "Myra's really two-faced.," "Make up your mind, will you?", "I see both sides of this issue," "Roy has a yellow streak," and "Sometimes she can be very jealous." In this Web site and the related guidebooks, I'll use the terms (personality) parts, subselves, inner team or inner-family members, and inner voices interchangeably. Pick which term feels best to you, or invent your own...

       Is it possible or probable that "you" are really a number of semi-independent subselves sharing one brain and body? What are you hearing inside ("thinking") right now? Is there more than one voice (thought stream)? If so, who are they? Where did they come from? How do they feel about each other? What do they want? How harmonious are they? Which ones are controlling your life?

      What would your life be like if your unique crew of subselves willingly worked as a co-operative, loyal team effectively led by your talented true Self? What might happen to your favorite "bad habits," anxieties, guilts, phobias, and other stresses? Take a break and review this, and then...

  Meet Your Inner Family

       Your group of personality subselves is as unique as your fingerprints. Yet most of us have subselves who do standard "jobs." They may be called by a wide range of names, but their personality functions seem the same in average people.

Three Groups of Personality Parts

       Our subselves seem to fall into three types, which this Web site calls Managers, Inner Kids, and Guardians. Dr. Richard Schwartz and colleagues call them Managers, Exiles, and Firefighters. While each subself has unique talents and limitations, its function and type seem common across typical adults and kids. Manager and Guardian subselves have two goals: to protect us from significant discomfort and harm (as they see it), and to survive, moment to moment.
      Manager subselves are the "general staff" that guide us through daily life situations when other subselves perceive no danger. A universal Manager can be called our true Self (capital "S"), whose natural talent is effective personality (inner-family) leadership.

      Your Self can help you be consistently effective and serene, or s/he may be blocked from doing so by other upset, distrustful subselves. In this context, the words "self" (small "s") means our all subselves as a group, and "my self" (small "s") refers to all subselves + your soul and/or spirit + your body.

      Our Inner Kids (plural) are developmentally young subselves, ranging from fetuses to infants to teens: most of us have several of them. Like physical children, they know little of the world, and are vulnerable to unwise advice and decisions and distorted perceptions. Until they feel internally known, valued, and consistently safe, Inner Kids can be powerfully needy, intense, reactive, and noisy

      When they react to something, Inner Children can "take over" or ''blend with'' our Self (capital "S"). When this happens, we're flooded with this young part's intense emotions, needs, and naive worldview. We act impulsively and become "childish." Know anyone like this?

      To protect our Inner Kids and us as a person, our Guardian subselves stay constantly alert to imagined or actual inner and outer dangers - even when we sleep. They're like a personal Green Beret or SWAT team of dedicated specialists. One or more Guardians spring into action whenever they believe that a young part is upset or may be in danger. They too can disable our Self then, often causing extreme reactions and behaviors that puzzle or harm us or others ("I just don't know what got into me!").

      Typical signs of Guardians in action are failing, "forgetting;" spacing, blanking or numbing out, procrastinating, prolonged apathy (grief?); rage or panic "attacks;" screaming; seduction; lying or stealing; abuse to self or others; excessive worrying; idealizing and/or fantasizing; some depressions; some sleep, concentration, eating, and digestive disorders; a range of physical discomforts and conditions like migraines, tics, aches, and ulcers; delusions, phobias; suicidal and homicidal thoughts and impulses, ad-dictions, and many more ...

       Such harmful "protective" actions may seem logically crazy or paradoxical. Most Guardian subselves seem to have their own kind of logic. With narrow views and often badly distorted or outdated information, they're fiercely dedicated to protecting us and our naive, needy Inner Kids.  

      Guardian subselves only relax or change their roles when they trust that our Self and other Managers can reliably keep our young subselves consistently safe. Building this trust over time, and freeing your Self from blending to harmonize and lead your inner family of subselves, is the goal of "parts work" (inner-family therapy).


Updated  December 16, 2014