Subpersonality Theory

Theory of Subpersonalities

The Psychosynthesis Theory of Subpersonalities not only also uses the technique of externalizing a problem as described in Narrative Therapy but also provides a more comprehensive account of how this process can then affect the sense of self.

In order to do this it is first necessary to give an outline of the Psychosynthesis model of the psyche.

While Assagioli who founded Psychosynthesis had great hopes for his ideas being applied not only to adult psychotherapy but also to the world of education, in fact very little work has been done in the education field to date. However, as my training was in psychosynthesis, this is the main therapeutic model I have in mind when working with children. I would like in this section, therefore, to show how it is possible to adapt this model, and particularly the Theory of Subpersonalities, to therapeutic storywriting with children.

It is the concept of subpersonalities which can be diagrammatically superimposed on the egg diagram as in figure (2) that provides a framework for developing a sense of self and is, I will attempt to show, applicable to therapeutic work with children through story writing.


Figure (2): Psychosynthesis model of subpersonalities

As can be seen in fig. (2) the personal self and the higher Self have the possibility of connection and it is when this alignment occurs that Assagioli considers there is a sense of being truly oneself. So what is it that stops this happening?

To continue with the diagrammatic representation, around the personal self are dotted a number of subpersonalities. These are the different aspects of our personality and can be found in all areas of the egg, i.e. the lower unconscious, the middle unconscious, including the field of consciousness and the higher unconscious. A subpersonality in the lower unconscious would be one established through past conditioning such as the frustrated infant, in the middle unconscious it would be a subpersonality which has been more recently established in current everyday life, while a subpersonality from the higher unconscious is likely to relate to spiritual or idealised aspects of our identity. The notion of subpersonalities is very similar to the externalized aspects of the personality as described by Epston and White. The question is – how do these relate to the idea of a developing self? It is here that I believe the psychosynthesis model offers some real insight.

According to this model whenever we identify with a particular subpersonality our personal self becomes attached to the set of attributes associated with that personality. Each subpersonality can be seen as having its own particular set of attributes including a belief system, emotional state, set of body postures and even tone of voice. Different situations or people we meet in our daily lives trigger a particular subpersonality and we become identified with that particular subpersonality. This identification is often unconscious and largely beyond our control. What psychosynthesis provides is a technique whereby we can make this identification conscious and allow the self to choose whether to identify with a particular subpersonality at a particular time. When the personal self is able disidentify, i.e. step out of role, from all subpersonalities it connects with the higher self and in this place the self is able to engage free will. It is rather like the freedom of the conductor of an orchestra being able to bring in each instrument at will. This is generally a stage only possible to reach in adulthood, if at all, although in working with children it is possible to consider disidentifying from a particular subpersonality at a particular time. In working within the psychosynthesis model the teacher/therapist is encouraged to hold a bipolar view of the child i.e. that on one level they are identifying with a particular subpersonality yet at the same time there exists a connection between their personal self and the higher self (see fig 2). This implies that the child has within them a wisdom which may be brought into play through this work with subpersonalities.

Like Ricoeur with his concept of the narrative intelligence which seeks ‘concord over discord’, Assagioli believed that within the psyche there is an instinctual drive towards self-understanding which arises from a natural search for meaning and purpose- so often the qualities lacking in children with EBDs as Bettelheim reports. Psychosynthesis links the strengthening the self to a corresponding strengthening of will and motivation.

There are four steps outlined for this work on subpersonalities which can lead to a strengthening of the self. They are recognition, identification, integration and disidentification. Whitmore (ibid p80) gives a clear illustration of these processes in adult therapy. I will attempt to show how it may be possible to adapt this theory to the context of story writing with children.

b)    Working with subpersonalities in the context of children’s storywriting

  1. Recognition
    In order to disidentify from subpersonalities it is necessary first to recognise what they are. We need to be able to see the particular set of attributes of that subpersonality. This is what narrative therapy does by humourously naming particular personality traits. In children’s writing this is done by the creation of the main characters. 
  1. Identification
    Having recognised a particular subpersonality it is necessary to be able to identify with it. This may be achieved by encouraging the child to get ‘inside the skin’ of a particular character. How would that character feel in a particular situation? How would they react to a particular event? What do they need to make them happy?
  2. Integration
    This is the process whereby a subpersonality is integrated with other subpersonalities especially those with whom they may be in conflict.   This may be explored by the quality of interaction between the characters. It is interesting how children, particularly in my experience children with EBDs will want to kill off their main characters to get them out of sticky situations rather than enter into new allegiances with other characters.
  1. Disidentification
    This is the place where the individual is free to let go of the subpersonality. In psychosynthesis it is considered that this is only possible by going through the above processes of recognition, identification and integration. Without doing this to disidentify would be to repress or suppress the energy of that particular aspect of ourselves. With reference to children’s story writing this would really be the ability to complete a story – often the most difficult part of story writing for children. It is easy for children to end by making it all a dream or to suddenly find themselves home but to complete the story in a way where the conflict or dilemma has been resolved is not so easy. I see the exploration of different endings to a particular story and talking about resolution of the main dilemma posed by the plot as a way in which disidentification from the characters may be facilitated.

As well as having a considerable overlap with narrative therapy as mentioned above, subpersonality theory has echoes of the concepts developed by Mead and Goffman (see essay 2).   It is psychosynthesis, however, that seems to me to provide a model which actually explains how by getting to know these various aspects of ourselves, particularly the emotional states associated with them, that this in turn leads to a stronger sense of self.

What perhaps Psychosynthesis does not do is distinguish sufficiently between the subpersonalities of the child and those of the adult. In a recent television interview given by the children’s author, Philip Pullman, on his Northern Lights trilogy I was struck by Philip Pullman’s talk about ‘daemons’, which he considers to be aspects of ourselves.   He thought that whereas adults tend to have a particular daemon which can be considered as an alter ego, children have several daemons which are not yet ‘set’. Fanciful as this may sound, it is one way of reflecting on how children when they get to adolescence do become ‘set’ in their personalities i.e. have a narrower set of subpersonalities to choose from whereas younger children can seem to be open to a wider range of possibilities given the right environment.

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