[Mandala by Clare Goodwin]

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
and subpersonality work

by Kenneth Sørensen



Working with subpersonalities is a central theme in psychosynthesis therapy and very often it gives the client some very good skills to handle the many different and oppositional forces inside the personality and coordinate them into a well integrated personality. But working with subpersonalities presupposes that the therapist simultaneously makes an effort to strengthen the client's centre his awareness of a centre of pure self-consciousness and will. It is from this centre that all the subpersonalities can be identified, included, transformed and synthesised. To have a clear experience of this inner observer and witness - this entity and the subject in man - is very often connected with a profound feeling of freedom. Because there can be no free choices between the many competing forces and needs without an inner director that manage the inner battleground.

One of the central assumptions in psychosynthesis is the notion that we are not the body, the emotions the mind or any of the manifold roles we are playing in life. Our true identity is the self the point of pure self-consciousness and will. We call this self the conscious "I" when dealing with the ordinary consciousness and the Transpersonal Self when we address higher and universal consciousness. This point of self-consciousness and will acts more or less consciously through the psychological functions and the subpersonalities and in doing so, it is participating in the evolutionary quest for self-realisation in cooperation with all the other beings on the planet.

When life is seen from that perspective it is clear that a major focus in psychosynthesis therapy, when dealing with personal psychosynthesis, should be aimed at strengthening the conscious "I" through the self-identification exercise and by other means. When the conscious "I" is established more or less in the centre and not identified with the emotions or roles (gender, occupation, status), an ability to act freely from the centre through the functions and roles arises. We begin to realize that we do not need to be slaves of desire or complexes, but can chose our own destiny.

Let me now from this very short introduction to psychosynthesis therapy present the main issue in this article.

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Can subpersonalities fit into the hierarchy of needs?

In autumn 2004 I worked with a client and discovered a primary subpersonality she called "The Refugee". The basic need connected with this figure was to survive in an economic sense and create security for her self and her family. In this connection I started reflecting on a link between this subpersonality and the security level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I had seen several references to Maslow in Assagioli's books but I had never read anything about placing the subpersonalities in the hierarchy of needs. This issue puts the subpersonalities into an evolutionary scheme and placing its basic need into a frame of developmental psychology. Maslow is talking about lower and higher needs, and this corresponds perfectly with Assagioli's higher and lower unconscious. Assagioli addresses this in The Act of Will[1] where he refers to Maslow's five stages of evolutionary development. In this respect there seems to be a close correspondence between Maslow's hierarchy of needs and psychosynthesis. The main question I would like to investigate in this article is whether the core motivation the need in a sub-personality can be verified as a physiological need, a safety and security need, a love and belonging need, an esteem need, or a need for self-actualization.

If this question can be confirmed it could be a very good analytic tool to identify and clarify the subpersonalities and their primary area of activity within the personality and perhaps make the phase of integration quite easier. The clinical work with subpersonalities can very often have a chaotic character when all the different subpersonalities rise from the unconscious and become more clear in the area of consciousness. They can have very different needs and sometimes they can be antagonistic and in a fierce mutual battle. A clear frame of reference that organises these psychological forces into a hierarchy of value could probably be very useful. When the central organizing power in man the inner self with its directing will has to make a decision about which urge to follow it is very important to know what need should be served. Is it the love needs or the esteem needs that have to be fulfilled right now? The answer to that question has not just a theoretical value, it is a major issue when learning to direct the will at purpose, because every important goal has to be deliberated. But is it possible to place the subpersonalities inside Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

In this article I will not try to give a thorough description of subpersonalities or Maslow's theory of motivation. I will only try to give a very short introduction to them and relate them to each other. I will also give an example from my clinical practice on how to relate subpersonalities to Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the therapeutic consequences of doing so.

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What is a subpersonality?

One of the great contributions to psychology from psychosynthesis has been to highlight the concept of subpersonalities. Roberto Assagioli was indeed not the first to discover that the human personality is a mixture of very different and autonomous subpersonalities,[2] but his work has underlined this important issue.

In Roberto Assagioli's book Psychosynthesis he defines the subpersonalities:

"The organization of sub-personalities is very revealing and sometimes surprising, baffling or even frightening. One discovers how very different and often quite antagonistic traits are displayed in the different roles. These differences of traits which are organized around a role justify, in our opinion, the use of the word "sub-personality." Ordinary people shift from one to the other without clear awareness, and only a thin thread of memory connects them; but for all practical purposes they are different beings they act differently, they show very different traits." [3]

Because the subpersonalities only can be properly understood in relation to the self the central core the subject in a person, around which the subpersonalities can and should be integrated, it is important to define the self. Assagioli defines it as the point of pure self-awareness and will. We are not the different roles we are playing in life and very often identifies with, but the witness, the observer and the will-er, the directing agent. The self is the directing agent in man that can be trained to regulate and guide all the manifold roles and character traits from a directing and detached centre of awareness. But very often we are not in a position to do so in the world of realities because we are immersed in our emotions, thoughts, desires and roles as parents, lovers or a particular job function. The problem according to Assagioli is:

"... Many women find their self-identification in wifehood, and even more so in motherhood they consider themselves, function, and live only as the mother. This kind of self-identification does not give the experience of the pure self. ...this has very severe consequences:

"First, the individual does not really know or realize him-self.

Second, the identification with one part of his personality excludes or diminishes greatly the ability of self-identification with all the other parts of his personality, and therefore constitutes a stumbling block in psychosynthesis...." [4]

If this holds true, and many experience it to be, we must dis-identify from all the false selves and seize the opportunity to learn our true identity as a self, a being, with a lot of different character traits and subpersonalities that function as multiple means of becoming what we may be and express it in the world as service. This is unity in diversity. This is discrimination between the self and the not-self.

This process of self-identification and mastery through integration and synthesis is facilitated through Assagioli's well-known exercise in dis-identification. Because: "We are dominated by everything with which our self is identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves." [5]

This work is central in psychosynthesis and in this process it is very useful to know the basic motivation of every subpersonality and here it is useful to relate them to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

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Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of need


In his groundbreaking book Motivation and Personality (1954) Maslow explains his theory of motivation. One of Maslow's main theses is that people all over the world are motivated by the same universal needs even though they find very different strategies to gratify them. According to Maslow: "Apparently ends in themselves are far more universal than the roads taken to achieve those ends, for these roads are determined locally in the specific culture. Human beings are more alike than one would think at first." [6]

Furthermore he assumes that these universal needs can be ranked in a hierarchy of needs, and suggest that the basic needs of survival and security first must be gratified before the higher needs, love and esteem, etc. come into play. He states:

"We should never have the desire to compose music or create mathematical systems, or to adorn our homes, or to be well dressed if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe, or if every one hated us." [7]

Maslow supposes that man's needs never will be fully satisfied. As soon as one need is satisfied a new and higher need will arise. This is the primary urge in man (the self's will to manifest) that secure the progress of the soul's evolutionary journey, and the essential principle that develops all the higher potentials in the human consciousness.

Maslow has an important hypothesis in connection with developmental psychology. He assumes that it is much easier for a person who has experienced need gratification in early childhood to manage deprivation later in life and very difficult for those who have not had that experience. In other words, deprivation is a major contributor to later neurotic behaviour.

Maslow defines these basic needs in his famous hierarchy of needs, which includes physiological needs, the need for safety and security, the need for love and belonging, the need for esteem, and the need to actualize the self. (See diagram 1.)

Diagram 1.
Maslow's hierarchy of need

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Maslow's hierarchy of need

The physiological needs: Man has before anything else the need for water and food in order to survive. That's why the physiological needs are the strongest of all the needs. When a person is hungry the area of consciousness is filled with the desire to eat and all the other needs steps in the background and is in a way non-existent.

The future perspective seems to change according to the present need. The hungry person only thinks about eating and acquire enough food for his hunger. He thinks that his happiness would be complete if he just had plenty of food. Life is about eating - freedom, love and idealism are non-existent. A man living under these conditions lives in a way by bread alone.

But what happens when there is plenty of bread? Instantly a new and higher need arises and that need will now dominate man. When this need is gratified a new will emerge and so on. In this way the basic needs are organized in a hierarchy of relative strength.

The safety and security needs: After the physiological needs the need for security, stability, protection, freedom from fear, anxiety and chaos emerge and according to them, the need for structure, order, law, borders etc. A major part in child development is to give them insight in how the world is functioning, and thereby reduce the fear of the unknown. Children have a need for order, structure, rituals and borders because it gives them an ability to find security in a big world. Injustice and unpredictable behaviour from parents creates insecure children because the world gets unpredictable. That's why chaos, aggression and disturbance in the home environment are a major block for establishing security in the child.

In the civilised world nowadays the security needs express themselves as the need for a regular income, savings and insurance. Religion, science and philosophy can also serve as an important security measure, which explains the world and gives a feeling of safety in the face of death. But there are of course many other needs attached to them.

Love and belonging needs: When security is properly gratified the need for love, tenderness and belonging emerge. In this state we become painfully aware about the lack of friends, lovers, spouse and children. We will be longing for a loving and nurturing family life. It can be harmful for children and adults to live without a family or in exile according to Maslow, and he also states that the need for community is underestimated in modern times because of urbanization and individualisation. The love needs imply giving and receiving love, and when these needs are gratified sufficiently the need for individuality arises.

Esteem needs: Most people have a need for a stable self-respect and self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-esteem, strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The last one is higher because it rest more on inner competence won through experience. Deprivation of these needs can leads to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.

Maslow stresses the dangers associated with self-esteem based on fame and outer recognition instead of inner competence. Healthy self-respect is based on earned respect.

The need for self-actualization: In this article there is not sufficient room for a thorough presentation of this need, because it includes so many "higher urges". Assagioli compares it to the level of personal psychosynthesis,[8] the development of a well-rounded personality where all the psychological functions are developed. Maslow stated that:

"Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he, individually, is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. He must be true to his own nature. This need we may call self-actualisation."

The need for self actualisation relates to our need for self-perfection, to be what we have the potential to be. In this respect Maslow discriminates between deficit motivation and growth motivation, the latter corresponding to self-actualisation. Deficit needs can be fulfilled, Being needs will always be there and lead us to unceasingly new possibilities. Maslow acknowledged an even higher need he called transcendence and it corresponds to spiritual psychosynthesis. [9]

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Can subpersonalities be integrated in the hierarchy of needs?

I will now briefly touch on this question from a theoretical perspective. According to psychosynthesis it's not a foreign thought because Assagioli very often mentioned Maslow's discoveries. Maslow as well as Assagioli uses a stage model to describe the individual development and if we look to Ken Wilber's work we find an overwhelming testimony to that concept. The scientific research has indeed contributed with a large body of evidence in that respect. Assagioli describes the process of self-realisation as a phase going through the personal and spiritual psychosynthesis. It is of course much more complicated and in The Act of Will he agrees with Maslows findings:

"Maslow has presented an illuminating progression of five stages of evolutionary development. The types belonging to the first two stages are under Theory X. They are primarily determined by deficiency needs. The third and fourth types come under Theory Y. They are primarily determined by drives to self-actualization. The fifth type is under what he calls Theory Z. This is the person who aligns his life with transcending values." [10]

Maslow explains the emergence of needs emanating from an "essential inner nature which is instinctoid, intrinsic, given ... this inner core shows itself as natural inclinations, propensities or inner bent."[11] He continues: "It has a dynamic force of its own, pressing always for open, uninhibited expression. ... This force is one main aspect of the 'will to health', the urge to grow, the pressure to self-actualisation, the quest for ones identity. It is this that makes psychotherapy, education and self-improvement possible in principle." [12]

Here Maslow stresses the will and he comes very close to Assagioli's notion of the self even though they have different notions on several points. In psychosynthesis we will also see the emergence of needs as a result of the realisation of the self or the soul's evolutionary development and its "will to be". Seen from this perspective there are no children only souls on different levels of development. In childhood the soul or self will express its "will to be" through the lower needs and later through the higher being needs.

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The emergence of subpersonalities

Earlier we have defined subpersonalities as "traits which are organized around a role ... they are different beings they act differently, they show very different traits." But how are they developed, organised and integrated in the personality? Gretchen Sliker deals with this question in Multiple Mind:

"Subpersonalities are a natural and normal product of development. As a child grows, the schemas become increasingly complex. ... Biological functions are mastered, and life is maintained more and more automatically, leaving the child ever freer to join the group in which she is nurtured. As the survival thrust becomes increasingly social, the child is faced with different challenges in each cultural group in order to secure her position in the group. The template for the subpersonalities lies first in biology, and second in the cultural pattern....

"The subpersonality is a particular kind of elaborate schema as distinguished from other schemas by its social orientation and function. It develops its particular configuration in correlation with the unique personal history and experience of the child. ... The core of each subpersonality is a necessary life function. ... Contained in the layers of the subpersonality is a developing self-image of the world and the feelings associated with these particular images." [13]

According to Sliker the template for the subpersonalities lies first in biology, but we must always remember the subject the inner core and self as the first cause for these subpersonalities or else we leave one of the major insights of psychosynthesis. But then it's correct to assume that the self expresses its will through the biological drives in early childhood. Sliker's thoughts correspond very well to Maslow's theory of early need gratification through the basic needs.

So I will conclude that subpersonalities emerge according to the strategy the self uses to fulfill its need gratification and the environmental response to that strategy. It is my assumption that all the needs, drives and urges organised in subpersonalities arise and develop according to the self's need to express its will on different developmental levels and stages and their modification by culture. Sliker calls the core of each subpersonality a necessary life function, but couldn't we just as well call it a necessary need expressed by the self.

In The Act of Will Roberto Assagioli gives another example of how subpersonalities develop according to the conflict between lower and higher needs:

"A realistic observation of the flow of the psychological life in ourselves and in others shows clearly the existence of a number of differing and conflicting tendencies, which at times constitute the nuclei of semi-independent sub-personalities. ... Another basic conflict is that between inertia, laziness, tendency to preservation, craving for security (which expresses itself in conformity) on the one hand and the tendency towards growth, self-assertion and adventure on the other. Still another source of conflict is that of the awakening of new drives or needs which oppose pre-existing ones; this occurs on two chief occasions: first, the tumultuous awakening of new tendencies at the time of adolescence, and second, the awakening of religious aspirations and new spiritual interest, particularly in middle age."

Here Assagioli states that: "the awakening of new drives or needs" is a cause to "a number of differing and conflicting tendencies, which at times constitute the nuclei of semi-independent sub-personalities." According to this it would be fair to conclude that the subpersonalities that are developed in order to secure the need for safety and security will sometimes be opposed to the need for change in one's career for the sake of expanded self-esteem, because of the inherent risk of losing a secure income. It would also be reasonable to conclude that a new subpersonality will be developed and organised around the new need and sometimes it will meet fierce opposition (fear) from lower subpersonalities. If the individual succeeds in making a synthesis between the old and new needs, then the old subpersonality in some instances will be transformed to handle both needs.

It is not a rule, according to Assagioli, that all the new needs automatically will be developed from the materialistic (subpersonalities) already present in the psyche. Sometimes we experience new material from the higher unconscious that come in from sources not normally available to the waking consciousness.

"What is necessary is to differentiate this superconscious but previously unconscious material from the type of material that may come from the lower levels of the unconscious which have been extensively studied by Freud and his followers. It seems that in some of the extreme cases of irruption from superconscious levels the material that comes arrives so to speak almost ready made, and has very little connection with previous experiences. It is not something which arises in the usual way from the lower unconscious as the result of now released but previously repressed experiential contents; it is something new and, as said above, sometimes has little relationship to preceding personal experiences of the individual." [14]

This new material can, according to Assagioli, create new motivations and therefore needs.

"Let us now examine another way of making decisions, especially those that are determined by motives originating in or arriving via the higher unconscious (superconscious) in the form of illuminations, inspirations, and urges to action, both inner and outer. Broadly speaking, such motives can be considered transpersonal in character: artistic creativity, altruistic and humanitarian impulses, the search for truth, etc. Their origin often cannot be identified with certainty, they may be activities of the superconscious, they may come from the higher or Transpersonal Self, or they may have other sources." [15]

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Conclusion on subpersonalities

Assagioli as well as Maslow uses an evolutionary model with higher and lower needs to explain the individual development from childhood to maturity. According to this it makes sense to place the subpersonalities within Maslow's framework and the hierarchy of needs, because it seems that these subpersonalities come into existence according to the need gratifications on different levels of the hierarchy.

I assume that the core motivation in each subpersonality is an expression of a need generated by the inner being of a person in order to manifest on different levels of the hierarchy and modified by cultural response. The emergence of a new need can in some instances create a totally new motivation and subpersonality a pattern of traits, social skills, and cognitive abilities all directed against fulfilling the new need.

I have not dealt with the possibility of several different subpersonalities that all handle the same basic need, but it is my experience that it is possible and very likely.

From a theoretical point of view I will conclude that subpersonalities can and indeed do work inside the framework of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Let me now exemplify these thoughts through a clinical casestory.

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A casestory on subpersonality work and the hierarchy of needs

Karen was a 42 year old woman who came to my clinic in order to work with symptoms of stress from a work related crisis. In September 2003 she resigned from a job as a counsellor in the business world in order to change her career. She started a new educational course in educational theory and practice on a full time basis. Her plan was to relax and study for a year and then take up a new job around September 2004. But the period was far from harmonic and not as relaxed as she has anticipated, because inner forces of insecurity and stress urged her to work non-stop in order to prepare for her new career. Very often she tried to slow down but failed because she distrusted her future career opportunities and this made her feel permanently unsafe.

In May 2004 she applied for a job in the same area as she used to work, even though she earlier promised to herself to finally quit it. She actually didn't feel any positive energy towards this area but her fear for the future and feelings of insecurity make her change her mind. The employment was short five months but these months made it perfectly clear that she didn't have anything more to give. In November 2004 she was declared sick from work related stress and the desperation of the situation urged her to consult me.

It was in one of the first sessions that a subpersonality called "The Refugee" entered the scene. In this specific session the theme was her fear for the future job situation and the basic insecurity she felt. During this session she established a close emotional contact with the inner stressful atmosphere and she created an inner image and expressed it in a drawing and called it "The Refugee". Free drawing is one of the most valuable therapeutic techniques I know of, when a subpersonality has to be identified. The drawing became a significant awakening for Karen because it revealed the primary need and strategy of the subpersonality.

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The Refugee

The refugee was without any doubt activated by her job situation when the transition from a stable and secure situation to an uncertain oneprogressed. In this connection it is quite easy to see the correspondence to Maslow's security needs, but later there were some quite profound developments that complicated the clear picture.

The strategy for survival implemented by the Refugee turned out to be a full-time effort to develop new educational programs. She had always lived of her knowledge and driven by fear she read tons of books and thought out a multitude of new learning programs in a totally new area. The old knowledge was not sufficient any more because a new and higher need had emerged during the last years. In 2002 she got a new vision that she felt was a "higher" call because she wanted to go into the helping profession even though it meant a reduction in her income. But from the heights of aspirations to the valleys of daily living there is a profound difference.

The need for security and fear of future

The primary drive in the Refugee was on one level the need for security and fear for the future. When we look at the drawing we can see fear in the face turned backwards toward the past. Asked about the past se recalls a forgotten traumatic experience in connection with a period of unemployment where she lived through a deep meaningless life stage. In that light the situation is not just a question of survival, but it entails also a very important issue about meaning or the lack of it (self-actualisation need). The therapy revealed a deep fear of being forced into jobs without meaning (regression) by the authorities, because she now received unemployment relief. It was a fear of not be in a position to use her higher potentials. The fear also express it self through the great hand of "Destiny", that symbolises the power of the authorities and the "unknown will of God".

The feverishly activity was a way to dope the pain. As long as she worked she could control the fear. It was not a fear that was prominent all the time but it created an underlying basic atmosphere that disrupted her state of being and enjoyment of her time off.

Whenever the Refugee emerged in the sessions it helped her to identify and accept a primary subpersonality that used to control a lot of her life. The drawing was often in the center of our discussions and it was very revealing for her to see the fumbling approach toward the star, which symbolises her future dreams. The redemption of the Refugee's pain and despair connected with her earlier feelings of meaninglessness did calm it quite a bit.

Transpersonal potentials

It was a very deep realization to see the Refugee's need for a meaningful job that allowed her higher feelings to express themselves. The pure survival moyivation was not enough for this subpersonality, and we did indeed discuss whether this living being really did serve her survival needs or her need for self-actualisation, because meaning plays such an important role. But Karen's intuitive feeling was that it was a survival need even though it was guided by higher values, and from this dilemma we got an important insight.

Whenever a person's overall development is focused on the higher needs, when the center or gravity of the personal self is on the edge between the personal and transpersonal area of the consciousness all the other parts of the personality tend to be governed by the personal self's higher values. It is of course not true in all instances because there are many examples of how highly developed people can be quite neurotic in many personal issues.

Another important aspect about subpersonalities is the notion that they all conceal a transpersonal potential in the core despite how thwarted and distorted they express themselves. In this respect a subpersonality originally designed for survival would later on a higher level tend to do it in an altruistic way.

The Refugee's development At this moment (May 2005) Karen still experiences that her Refugee becomes nervous once in a while because her income is still not secured. But her situation has become quite improved after the therapeutic sessions and her new part time job. Her work with this subpersonality among many others has been an effort focussed on building a basic trust to the future based on a positive view on the skills and qualities she possesses. Faith in her own resources, the good will of her collaborators and the great life she wishes to serve has been the transpersonal potential she works to secure through this process. Karen is on her way.

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I hope that with this article and the casestory I have showed that Maslow's hierarchy of needs and subpersonality work is a good match. I have not been able to show all my findings within the framework of a short article but my main point has been stated. I was indeed very happy to see that a security based subpersonality in real life can be governed by higher values. This is of course due to the fact that Karen doesn't live in a poor country without a public health care and financial support by the collective. In that case I am sure that her subpersonality just wanted to surviveany way possible. It is also very important that Karen's life was guided by higher values and the need for self-actualisation and self-transcendence. This will colour many of her "lower" functions and give them a much more transpersonal touch contrary to the person who values money above spiritual values.

To work with subpersonalities within Maslow's framework is in my experience very helpful in order to identify the central need that governs them. It also provides a theoretical framework, which helps to create some order. This gives perspective and eases the ability to make wise decisions based on a free will that knows the hidden motives behind the different urges at play. I know that this article is just is a beginning and perhaps its not even new knowledge, but for my part it has been a very promising development in my clinical practise.

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1. 2002, p. 120
2. John Rowan investigates the concept in his book Subpersonalities and concludes that this idea was known in the Antique.
3. (1975, p. 75)
4. 1975, p. 112
5. 1975, p. 22
6. 1970, p. 23
7. 1970, p. 24
8. 2002, p.121
9. 2002, p.120
10. 2002, p.120
11. 1999, p. 212
12. 1999, p. 212
13. 1992, p. 63-64
14. 1975, p. 198
15. 2002, p. 156


  • Assagioli, Roberto, (1975) Psychosynthesis, Turnstone Press Limited.
  • Assagioli, Roberto, (2002) The Act of Will, Psychosynthesis & Education Trust
  • Maslow, Abraham (1970), Motivation and Personality, Harper and Row Publishers
  • Maslow, Abraham (1999), Toward a Psychology of Being, Wiley and Sons
  • Rowan, John (2001), Subpersonalities, Brunner-Routledge
  • Rueffler, Margret (1996), Our Inner Actors, PsychoPolitical Institute Press.
  • Sliker, Gretchen (1992), Multiple Mind, Shamballa
  • Vargiu, James (1974), "Subpersonalities", Synthesis, vol. 1.

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Last revised: May 31, 2006.