Subpersonalities and Psychosynthesis:
Continuing the Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse
with Techniques of Mental Imagery
Virginia Counselors Journal, volume 26, June 2000
by Michael H. Brown, Ed.S.
Michael H. Brown, Ed.S.
This is a transcript of a one and one-half hour counseling session with "Sylvia," an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Through the use of a technique called active imagination, a process of Psychosynthesis took place that included personifying into an array of subpersonalities her conflicting thoughts, feelings and concerns associated with a move of residence; a creative and productive dialogue between these internal complexes; the reduction of post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in her life; and the acquisition of a more satisfying job.
Theoretical Framework and Approach
The theoretical framework of this session is a transpersonal method of counseling called Psychosynthesis, an approach which takes rich advantage of hypnotic techniques to facilitate psychological exploration, healing, development and transformation. Clients enter a state of deep relaxation in order to let go of or disidentify from the stress, roles and responsibilities they bring to the session, and to focus their awareness on the dynamic energies that exist within them. Through a technique of mental imagery called active imagination, they pull together into personifications called subpersonalities their scattered, relatively autonomous, and often unconscious patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving and are thus able to picture these internal dynamics in an objective, vivid, and creative way. With an attitude of curiosity and caring attention, by studying how these subpersonalities express themselves and interact with one another, in imagery, and also by engaging in dialogue with them directly, a process of integration of these energies slowly takes place. The result is an ever increasing sense of personal wellness and psychological wholeness.
Assagioli (1965), the founder of Psychosynthesis, defined subpersonalities as "the functions of an individual in whom various psychological traits are not integrated...One should become clearly aware of these subpersonalities because this evokes a measure of understanding of the meaning of Psychosynthesis, and how it is possible to synthesize these subpersonalities into a larger organic whole without repressing any of the useful traits" (p 75).
Rainwater (1989) thought subpersonalities organized themselves around a need within the psyche. She thought the strength of each was the result of the circumstances out of which the need initially was born and believed that each human being was a manifold mixture of very individual subpersonalities. Rueffler (1995) understood a subpersonality to be a dynamic structure which was once a complex of interconnected energies, thoughts, and behaviors but which, at a certain moment, coalesces into a distinct pattern set. It has its own characteristics, demands its own existence and the fulfillment of its wishes, wants, and needs through the personality (p 19). The kinds of subpersonalities that can exist within any one person can be infinitely variable, including an "inner child," "inner mother," "inner father," "monk," "victim," "mystic," "fearful one," etc. (p.25-26).
The existence of subpersonalities may initially be unconscious in clients. They may not be aware that they have so many different pattern sets within them. Once these patterns are identified through this imaginative process of personification, subpersonality structures are easily recognized and increasingly available to be reflected on, understood, and worked with in the healing process of Psychosynthesis. While it is not within the scope of this article to discuss this issue in detail, a moment might be taken to briefly contrast the dynamics of subpersonalities and realities associated with the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (1994), states that "the essential feature of Dissociative Identity Disorder is the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior. There is an inability to recall important personal information, the extent of which is too great to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness" (p. 484).
Dummer and Greene (1988) suggest that the difference between clients with subpersonalities and clients who suffer from DID and have "alters" is simply a matter of degree. Alters operate much more autonomously and are harder to recognize because of an amnesic barrier. Clients with DID are unconscious of their alters as are clients with unconscious patterns called subpersonalities. The difference is that clients with DID ignore symptoms that point to the existence of alters and have learned to ignore the evidence that indicates they exist such as lost time, finding clothing they do not remember buying, being in locations they do not know how they arrived at, and being told they've said things they do not remember. Once a subpersonality is identified, however, clients can recognize they are captured in or acting out these patterns and can consciously work to understand and get the underlying need(s) met.
With this background, let us meet a sex abuse client and listen in on a Psychosynthesis counseling session in which active imagination and mental imagery were used to help her work with some of the subpersonalities which exist as a consequence of her childhood abuse.
Sylvia, an unmarried 46 year old health care professional, began working with the counselor in 1991. She was given multiple diagnoses: schizotypal personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, depersonalization disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, dysthymic disorder, and sexual aversion disorder. The underlying cause of such fragmentation and distress was her experience of pervasive childhood physical and sexual abuse by her father, who impregnated her twice, as well as by uncles, cousins, neighbors and other men in her neighborhood throughout her childhood, until the age of 20.
Sylvia did not suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her awareness and emotions did, however, cycle through an array of subpersonality configurations which could be triggered quite quickly. These reactive subpersonalities operated autonomously from one another, outside the control of her will or direction, but about which she was well aware. Just as she had been pervasively sexually victimized by males in her childhood community, as an adult she was victimized by the patterns that got set in place as a consequence and artifact of her abuse. When one was triggered, it would dominate her experience until she withdrew into solitude and recovered from her upsetedness. Through counseling she became aware of the need to understand, integrate and master these dynamics. Prior to the session, Sylvia was asked to write a brief description of each subpersonality with which she wanted to communicate in order to identify and make them clear. Below are her descriptions.
Orientation to the Inner World of Sylvia
The first identifiable subpersonality was Little Shirley, a stalwart, calm little 7 year old, dressed up like little orphan Annie in red – spirited and spunky. Little Shirley was the original figure another counselor had me image when I was very acutely depressed, in an almost psychotic breakdown, during my first week in therapy with Michael. Little Shirley was identified as an externalized inner child with which I could communicate. Since then she has always been present. She shows up in different imagery as a guide. When I visualize her she is always sitting on a couch (spatially the imagery always appears to be on the right side of my brain). She sits on a couch with the second major subpersonality, my Teenager, occasionally comforting the Teenager when she's upset, telling her to be calm. Little Shirley is a tough little cookie, like Shirley Temple, tough but inside a softy, independent but longing for family and connection, a clear thinker.
The second subpersonality was my Teenager. I always see her sitting on a couch, in the corner, wrapped up in a completely enclosing cover/robe that looks like a blue gown. She has a thin face and a thin but well-formed body. If she opens her gown at all she frequently is bruised. She has bangs, brown hair, and a long ponytail like I did at that age. She is frequently morose, just sitting, waiting for rescue but I suspect actually waiting for her father/abuser/lover. She thinks no one likes her or loves her and is the repository of all my volatile emotions. She thinks she's no good, that she's a terrible person. At various times she has admitted she was pregnant by her father and was happy about that. Occasionally she'll get spunky and want to dance or move but quickly sinks back into lethargy. She is very capable of loving but still just thinks she's a piece of shit. She wants to live out loud, but frequently when she has this thought she sees blood flowing from her vaginal area that flashes in and makes her feel terrible.
The Golden One was first imaged after a terrible conversation in which I disclosed to a brother over the phone what I was doing in counseling. He basically rebuffed any sexual abuse ideas by saying he was crazy at times. He acknowledged that I could be crazy but he didn't believe me. I had a swirling attack of emotions at this conversation. My head actually felt like it was coming apart. I couldn't think of how to get out of it – die or, as Michael taught me, do a spontaneous mandala to try to put in concrete form what the emotion was and try to control the feeling of fragmentation and lack of control.
What I imaged was a tornado and, miraculously, this golden image – built like Raquel Welch – came out of the tornado to comfort me. She has stayed in my imagery since then as a guide, comforter and, I suspect, mother nurturer in the last few years. When I am in touch with her in imagery, she is always calming, warm, available emotionally, and has a very warm presence. Curiously, she has no mouth but I can hear her thoughts and she speaks to me in imagery. She wants me to be whole and less fragmented. She loves unquestioningly, just loves and encourages me. When I can image her, she's always a positive resource to my brain. I calm down and listen to her. Most of the time she presents like a golden garbed statuesque female, like Raquel, but occasionally I'll see her with angel wings. She occasionally will wrap all of the subpersonalities in her wings for comfort. Her main concern right now is making sure my Teenager feels loved, because primarily if she does feel loved I do not fragment.
Verbatim Notes– from a one and one-half hour counseling session on November 7, 1996
The counselor's role in this session was to help Sylvia remain focused in the hypnotic state, and to help her subpersonalities and her effectively interact and communicate with one another through mental imagery. The session was a fluid and organic process, a kind of inner family counseling, and represented an expertise born of 22 years' experience by the counselor with the model and methods of Psychosynthesis and with techniques of mental imagery.
M=Michael, the counselor; S=Sylvia, the client. 5 minutes of deep relaxation began the session. Each time "Deep breath" is seen in the transcript below, M has asked S to take one.
M- Why do you want to have an internal dialogue with these
In this session, a technique called active imagination was used to help the client connect with an array of conflicting attitudes, perceptions, and emotions personified in the clearly identified subpersonalities of Little Shirley, the Teenager, and the Golden One, and an unseen but heard adult Sylvia subpersonality. The process of Psychosynthesis was directed toward "the disintegration of the harmful elements or complexes" – the judgmental adult Sylvia subpersonality; the pissed and protective Little Shirley; the nervous, apprehensive, unhappy, and dejected Teenager – and "the control and utilization of the energies thus set free" – toward independence, self-love and self-protection (Assagioli, p. 23). As a result of the session, according to Sylvia, there was more cohesiveness among her subpersonalities and an awareness that she was much more integrated at the end than when she began. The session showed how creative, powerful, and inspiring the work with imagination was for this adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Of what practical use was the session? Without ambivalence or internal conflict, Sylvia moved into the new home she had built. Her PTSD symptoms diminished as a function of distance from and lack of contact with her family members. And, shortly after her move, she interviewed for and got a more satisfying job than the one she had previously held.
An American Quilt by "Sylvia," 11/12/96
Pick up the threads,
My life is like this quilt.
Like the squares on a quilt are my pieces –
My cute little Shirley, the guide, directing the pieces,
My Golden One, hovering like an angel spirit over all,
I hope I am up to the task, as difficult and long as the journey is,
Michael can be reached by e-mail through his website: www.michaelbrown.org