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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Let's Pretend and See What Comes Out: Subpersonalities

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, October 05, 2012

Do you know what a subpersonality is? It’s essentially a part of you or any part which can be personified. It can be the envy you feel when a peer gets the business promotion you were expecting, or the lust you feel when a beautiful stranger happens to brush past you on the sidewalk. It can be the doubt that has plagued you about your ability to perform at competition level or the athlete himself. Alternatively it could be a dogged and persistent phobia such as the fear of heights, a physical condition such as a migraine headache, an idiosyncrasy like sleeping in the nude, a desire, a temperamental quality such as shyness, or the lamentable loss of a beloved partner. A subpersonality can also be a particular doubt or worry that has been plaguing you of late, or the narcissistic fancy you feel when you catch glimpses of your terrific self in a full-length mirror. It can be a specific emotion like anger or love for a particular person, or a detrimental habit like smoking, drinking, binge eating, and gambling that has been with you since God knows when. Fascinatingly, it can even be the intangible inner sphere recognized as the real self by humanistic psychology, the soul by Jungian philosophy, and the spirit by mysticism.

Subpersonalities are usually defined by their propensity to operate on a much more rudimentary, microscopic, and simpleminded level than the individual who might express and give voice to them. The sum of innumerable subpersonalities obviously forms the psychological impulses that we perceive as our personal identity though in and of themselves they are little more than a drop of water falling into the vast and desolate breadth of the Pacific Ocean. These are in fact the same little entities that acquire a level of sentience in acute psychosis and act out independently of the total personality. (We have looked at such phenomena in detail in an earlier post on madness and hallucinations.) All these parts have a story to tell and all too often the story that they tell is one of imperfection, deficiency, imbalance, misery, and lack of insight. This is where they practice of psychotherapy comes in handy. With respect to their efficacy, subpersonalities only pose problems when they remain latent in the psyche. When one draws them out of the darkness and into the light through a conscious dialogue of some sort the subpersonality either thaws out into oblivion or it transforms into a positive and colourful sentiment able to work with the mental ego in creative and constructive ways. Psychotherapy works to disarming these little monsters by giving them a concrete and tangible form. In psychology this is known as concretization, and it allows a personal intellect unfamiliar with boundless qualities and forms to recognize their existence and begin conscious negotiations with them. Over the last century there have been many techniques pioneered to bring one into conscious communion with their subpersonalities: psychosynthesis, Voice Dialogue, fantasy play involving figurines and dolls, sand therapy, active imagination, and two-chair work.

Generally speaking, methods of inviting the unconscious into dialogue are typically broad and vary from therapist to therapist depending on the psychological school to which they adhere, though it appears their similarities far outnumber their differences because nearly all use a form of guided fantasy to inaugurate the fantastical 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 (1875-1961), and two-chair work–even adopt special rituals intended to prepare and prime the individual for inner work involving the conscious appropriation of imaginal contents. 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 individual or client involved knows that the experience is real and that it actually transpired on the physical plane.

Inducing a meeting with a chosen subpersonality of choice is not as difficult as it might sound. Firstly, set up two comfortable armchairs equipped with airy and bulbous pillows so that they’re facing one another. One is for you; 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, oxygen-rich 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 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 worry, nervousness, angst, and anxiety are completely absent. Allow your chosen subpersonality to come to mind; try visualizing it by giving it some concrete form. Enmity, 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. Narcissism 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 grief and loss might be personified as a haggard and ravaged old crone with red puffy eyes and fairly rigid facial expressions that denote withdrawal from conscious participation in the game of life. 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?” Naturally the style and manner of the prompts depend entirely on what the circumstances call for. Don’t try to force the dialogue; let it 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 total personality or self. Do it actively, spontaneously, and with little thought. Allow a lengthy dialogue to unfold between your total 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.   

Dialogue with subpersonalities can reveal individual stages in psychospiritual development. American author Ken Wilber (1949- ) has been very influential in this area of transpersonal inquiry, reconciling different traditions and systems pertaining to different levels of consciousness beneath the philosophical aegis of Integral Theory. According to Wilber authentic evolution of consciousness is fourfold and involves a cycle where the individual transitions across four specific phases in the following sequence; from the Mental Ego or an Instrumental Self, to the Centaur or an Authentic Self, to the Subtle or a lower Transpersonal Self (Soul), and finally to the Causal or a higher Transpersonal Self (Spirit). In the initiatory stage, the Mental Ego, the individual is totally absorbed by a consensus reality where members of society get to define what he is and how he should act. Most psychotherapeutic procedures with their ambition to repair deficits, imbalances, and dysfunctions are rooted to this level of being. The second, the Centaur, is pretty much an inversion of the first; it involves the acquisition of inner freedom from the pressures of conformist attitudes and behaviours and consigns the individual’s destiny to motivations and desires wrought by inner vision, investigation, and growth. At this stage, the agglomeration of influences coming from external sources ceases to influence the personal ego directly; the only form of empowerment now is self-empowerment and the only entity that gets to do the defining of who you are and what you wish to become is you.

Succeeding the Centaur phase is the Subtle which displaces consensus rules completely and runs the psyche aground on unsound and protean territory. Here objectified reality as perceived by the personal ego is fiercely scrutinized and deprecated by an intuitive mode of knowing that precludes spoken language and the sensory modalities. It is also a stage in which individuals jettison prejudices, conventional boundaries, and frontiers that separate them from the interconnectedness of the cosmos, a phenomenon that usually rouses the belief that he or she is merely a corporeal vehicle through which the transcendental Other might express itself. The fourth and final level, the Causal, involves the full immersion of the self in the oceanic waters of spirituality. Transposition to the highest echelon of consciousness is characterized by the rescission of archetypal definitions of reality and the individual who succeeds in reaching this stage has basically surrendered him or herself to mystical union with the divine and temporarily subsists in a wholly absorbed state of non-identity. Shifting from one phase to the next usually involves giving up the mythological and cosmological attire of one self and assuming those of another in the same way that the Babylonian goddess Ishtar discarded and reacquired garments during her fiery pilgrimage to the underworld to save her lover Tammuz. Giving subpersonalities a voice through two-chair work or any other of the aforementioned techniques goes far in indicating which particular stages of psychospiritual development have been acquired. One can even conspire by setting the “voices” of two subpersonalities belonging to the same or different phases of development against each other and see what kind of rapport develops. The possibilities are endless!

To concretize the discussion, I will present three specific examples of two-chair work with three of my incalculable subpersonalities. The first is a particularly assertive, conditioned, and powerful by-product of the Centaur or Authentic phase of development; he is Apostle, my inner artist. The second is a feminine emanation of the lower Transpersonal Self or Subtle phase; her name is Solim. Finally, we have a narcissistic, blithe, and free-spirited youth by the name of Phantasus who pops up from time to time; he is an out-dated and archaic exponent of the rudimentary Mental phase or my Instrumental Self.        

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