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Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Middle Unconscious and Subpersonalities

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, August 04, 2013

Assagioli was a man with a fairly complex view of human development. From birth we begin mapping out physical, emotional, and cognitive experiences and then integrating them into elaborate substructures to form a sense of self. The functions configuring the inner structuralization of our psyches are intrinsically motivated–that is, they stream forth from pre-existing patterns in the collective unconscious and develop to the extent that the facilitating social environment will allow. If there is an innate proclivity for a specific quality and an empathic nurture exists to support it, one can be certain that it will be drawn into the coagulating personality as a psychic mechanism to dictate the terms by which the phenomenal world is perceived, understood, and related to. As increasingly complex structures are created to support the development of the psyche-soma, the rudimentary infrastructures underlying them are rendered unconscious to enable the smooth, volitional transition across the multiple states inherent in a single action or process. This primary function of the unconscious is described by Assagioli and deserves to be quoted in it’s entirely: “…there occurs a gradual shifting from a conscious focusing of the full attention on the task to an increasing delegation of responsibility to the unconscious, without the direct intervention of the conscious ‘I’. This process is apparent in the work of acquiring some such technical accomplishment as learning to play a musical instrument. At first, full attention and conscious direction of the execution are demanded. Then, little by little, there comes the formation of what might be called the mechanisms of action, i.e. new neuromuscular patterns. The pianist, for example, now reaches a point at which he no longer needs to pay conscious attention to the mechanics of execution, that is, to directing his fingers to the desired places. He can now give his whole conscious attention to the quality of the execution, to the expression of the emotional and aesthetic content of the music that he is performing.”

This phenomenon is a necessary evil, for if everything erupted into the field of self-awareness simultaneously–from the beating of our pulses and proprioception of our entire bodies to the random firings of neural clusters and the full spectrum of life memories–volitional action into the environment and unhindered expression of intricate patterns would be quite impossible. By demoting lower representations and processes to an unconscious level, the slate of self-awareness can be left to deal with the comprehensive, higher-order operations of consciousness without being overwhelmed by the diverse elements underlying its chemical, biological, and cognitive infrastructure. A thought-provoking fact is that even though these autonomous systems–attitudes, skills, talents, in fact anything to do with the personality– remain unconscious, a great many can be summoned back into the circle of awareness at will. Closely connected to this phenomenon is the synthesis of creative, innovative patterns through the amalgamation of disparately related elements from autonomous systems that remain unconscious, an aptitude more commonly recognized under the label of ‘problem-solving’. Assagioli called this penumbral area from where unconscious patterns of expression interact with consciousness and affect our lives the middle unconscious and its strategic placement around the concentric circles of consciousness and personal identity or ‘I’ in the egg diagram expresses the aforementioned intrapsychic qualities most accurately.      

Emanating from this region of the middle unconscious then are subpersonalities or semi-autonomous patterns of cognition and behaviour that operate on a much more rudimentary, microscopic, and simpleminded level than the individual who might express and give voice to them. Aided by an empathic environment, qualities like creativity and vivid imagination, acquired technical writing skills, a love for language, and a rich vocabulary might amalgamate into a writer subpersonality. In its struggle to gain the ascendency within a much larger psyche-somatic structure, the latter will flit in and out of awareness, usurping the stream of mentation in order to externalize its potential. Here, I recourse to the word usurp because the stream of mental images that comprises any one field of consciousness is shared by a conglomeration of volitional patterns. There is forever vehement competition between these antithetical patterns as to which will permeate the field of presentation with its mental contents. All these parts have a story to tell but all too often the one they tell is one-dimensional, selfish, unbalanced, and insensitive to the psychological density and welfare of the whole.

With respect to their efficacy, subpersonalities only pose problems when they remain latent in the psyche. This is where psychosynthesis comes in handy; it works to disarm these little monsters by giving them tangible form. In psychology this is known as coagulation or concretization, and it allows a personal centre hitherto unfamiliar with boundless qualities and forms to recognize their existence and begin negotiations with them. With the aid of a therapist, underlying motivations fuelling disparate, volitional patterns of self-expression can be inveigled into conversing on symbolic terms. In due course an interactive abridgement of common aims and purposes unfetters sympathy, ensuing in the reamalgamation of thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and modes of operation exemplary of both under an empathic, mutually-benefitting, and pressure-free symbiosis. This innovative, creative reconditioning of expressive, disparate patterns of the personality into newfound syntheses able to surmount a nexus of subordinal wills spurred by unconscious multiplicity reflects the plasticity of the middle unconscious when it comes to externalizing the physical, emotional, and intellectual structuralization of our psyche-somas. The warring subpersonalities have not thawed out into oblivion; they have merely been expounded and developed into a stable psychological synergy before their transmission into the beam of consciousness. Inner conflict has been resolved, at least temporarily.

Contrary to traditional psychoanalysis Assagioli argued that multiplicity was a normative function of the human psyche and that the disintegration and reintegration of subpersonalities to form coherent expressions of self within an explicit empathic field was the powerhouse behind our evolutionary development and life journey. Support for such a personality theory comes from clinical psychopathology and the dissociation-association continuum. In individuals suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, the farthest condition on the continuum of dissociation, we see that severe primal wounding in one’s formative years forces an atypical fragmentation of consciousness where memories and polarized aspects of existence like pain and pleasure, despondency and joyfulness, and aversion and love are all compartmentalized into subpersonalities or alters and then split off from one another. The relationship and orientation of one alter to another is ultimately determined by the function: some serve as containers for traumatization and memories associated with them (lower unconscious); some as the responsible executors of mundane tasks (middle unconscious); and some archetypal expressions of divinity and parenthood (higher unconscious). Barriers are erected to ensure that the untainted alters and the damaged or wounded ones remain as distant from one another as possible. Assagioli insisted that in cases of dissociative multiplicity resistance to the formation of an integrated personal centre or anything that might come close to the definition of I-amness was simply a creative strategy against the first-person experience of excruciating trauma and the dissolution of consciousness; lack of cooperation and continuity amongst alters, he asserted, is initiated in order to create an illusory third-person experience of ‘others’ nonetheless the fragmentation process stops short of conferring to each alter exclusive seclusion and autonomy. In this way the ego-conscious can maintain some rudimentary level of self-sufficiency and functionality without being devastated by profound mental stigmata and traumata leaking in from the lower unconscious.       

Generally speaking, methods of inviting subpersonalities into dialogue are typically broad and vary from therapist to therapist depending on the psychological school to which they adhere, though it appears the similarities far outnumber the differences because nearly all use a form of guided fantasy to inaugurate the experience. Natural settings are also vital components of the process. With respect to the latter, two of these–the ever-popular active imagination, a technique pioneered by Carl Gustav Jung and two-chair work in existential Gestalt therapy–even adopt special rituals intended to prime the individual for inner work involving the conscious appropriation of subliminal messages. Even if it’s just imagined or suggested, the physical ritual of dressing in ritualistic garb and paraphernalia or carrying a specific talisman of choice every time one enters into their own inner world for mythical experience binds the whole endeavour to the earthbound realm of everyday life. In this way, the subject involved understands that the experience is real and that it actually transpired on the physical plane.

Inducing a meeting with a subpersonality is not as difficult as it might sound. Firstly, two comfortable armchairs equipped with airy and bulbous pillows should be set so that they’re facing one another. One is for yourself; the other for one of your subpersonalities. If you wish to conjure an earthier, homely, and more personal atmosphere, you might wish to strategically position a small coffee table between the two chairs. Once you have finished setting up, recline yourself onto one of the chairs and start taking deep breaths. Ensure that you are completely relaxed and that all the weighty and hefty commitments that keep your mind chained to ironclad problems and worries during the day have spontaneously evaporated like water vapours. Contents gravitating about the middle unconscious are much more likely to rise to the surface of one’s mind when sentiments inhibiting sensory transaction between the tiers of consciousness like acute attentiveness and anxiety are completely absent. Allow your chosen subpersonality to come to mind; try visualizing it by giving it some concrete form. A nymphomaniac, for instance, might be visualized as a little red demon with a long, forked tail, reptilian skin, ambient red eyes, crooked teeth and stumpy horns. Vanity might be a handsome blue-eyed youth with blond curls hanging to his shoulders or an animate and lifelike version of Michelangelo’s David. On the other hand wisdom might be personified as a solemn middle-aged woman with aquamarine blue eyes and an orange halo suspended just above her golden locks of hair, a presence suggestive of numinosity. My own preference is to materialize a physical replica of myself and imbue it with the requisite characteristics of the subpersonality I wish to converse. It tends to work well if you’ve been doing it for a while but for beginners who have little to no experience with this psychotherapeutic technique visualization of one’s entire physiognomy rouses inhibition because image and sentiment are incongruent.

Perhaps the most effective way of initiating a session is to put forth questions like, “I sense that you’re my anger”, “I feel completely disenchanted with you”, or “Why are you the one that’s sitting on the chair and not anyone else?” Logically the style and manner of the prompts depend entirely on what the circumstances call for. The dialogue should not be forced but allowed to come out naturally as it would if you were speaking to an old friend or colleague. After the dynamic of the situation becomes crystal-clear, invert the process by clambering over to the other chair and usurping it from your subpersonality. Now imagine that you are that inferior personality. Without any inhibitions or reservations, respond to the question or questions posed by your disidentified self. Do it actively, spontaneously, and with little thought. Allow a lengthy dialogue to unfold between your disidentified self and its subordinate personality by moving back and forth between them. Pay close attention to specific gesticulations; facial expressions; the pitch, amplitude, and quality of the voice; and any other physiognomic cues that help form a comprehensive picture of what that subpersonality is about. If you enact the exercise correctly, you should be able to discern an acute contrast between the higher entity which is the integrated ‘you’ and the subpersonality under scrutiny.

There are many things to like about this form of psychotherapy. The technique provides voluntary entrance into an active-passive mode of being recognized as a higher state of consciousness by many religious and philosophical traditions around the world. If the theoretical fruits put forth by practicing transpersonal psychotherapists are to be believed, the insights that become apparent in this state can be used in a practical manner to enrich one’s life. Moreover the gamut of consciousness that experience of this sort is likely to garner tutors mediating therapists in the scientific art of phenomenological objectivity. How exactly might that be? Practicing psychotherapists usually have a wide scope of past experiences and practices they reflect upon in discerning the etiology of problems and neuroses. As helpful as these may be, they become a trap when religiously and rigidly heeded to. In practice, the psychotherapist must always remember that the psychic anatomy of each individual is unique; a therapeutic technique that works on one individual might not necessarily work on another with identical circumstances. By taking note of to the impermanence of everything and the wisdom of insecurity, the psychotherapist’s chance of making diagnostic blunders and mistakes is reduced drastically. Engaging inner work with subpersonalities cultivates a deeper, wiser, and comprehensive form of scientific objectivity.   

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