Thought of the Week Archives

What is Primal
Who Is It For?
Working with Sam
About Sam
Thought of the Week
Ask Sam
Suggested Reading
Contact, Location
& Fees

  July 28, 2003

Inner Conflict - Part 5: Working with Subpersonalities

In a regular primal session we focus on feelings, their expression, and their traumatic connections. We do not normally need to be aware of the subpersonality that presents the feeling in order to follow the feeling and express it. If, however, inner conflict is the main feeling problem, it can be useful to engage the subpersonalities at the heart of the conflict.

I find it beneficial for clients to have some prior awareness of their subpersonalities before engaging in this type of work. Analysis and discussion, as mentioned in the previous articles, can bring an awareness to the process that will help the client direct the work. This awareness will also help remove confusion and anxiety around the idea of having subpersonalities and working with them. "Talking to yourself" is often considered to be a sign of "insanity," and yet, it is exactly what we need to do!

We talk to ourselves all the time, anyway. This can be both a normal mental organization technique and a sign of subpersonality interaction. To work with inner conflict, we need to direct this interaction in a therapeutically safe way. The most effective method I use is the "Empty Chair" technique developed by Fritz Perls, the creator of Gestalt Therapy.

Originally, Perls would sit in one chair and have two other empty chairs beside him. The client would sit in one chair, and Perls would have the person imagine that another part of her was in the other "empty" chair. He would then have her speak to that part. As the interaction developed, Perls would instruct the client to switch chairs in order to speak from each part. Perls would have the client go back and forth until some kind of resolution was reached.

Perls believed that there was always an essential duality at work in neurosis, and called these subpersonalities the "Topdog" and "Underdog." I have referred to these parts also as the "Parent" and the "Child." Freud referred to them as the "Superego" and the "Id." In any case, it is very common for us to carry a "critical parent" subpersonality that tries to whip the playful, fun-loving "inner child" into shape. To Perls it was the Topdog that whipped the Underdog.

Since that time, it has been discovered that we can develop many more subpersonalities than those two. For that reason, a true "empty chair" technique often requires more than two chairs! In fact, since much primal work is done on covered foam mats, we use pillows instead. The client will sit on one pillow, and I will place another pillow in front of them to mark the location of another subpersonality. I will often place more than one pillow depending on the number of inner forces seeking expression.

I tend to be much less directive than Perls, and ask the client to "switch" from pillow to pillow less often than he did. I also encourage clients to make the switch themselves so that they begin to direct their own process.

The following is a fictional example.

Brian has a troubling conflict. He has many things to accomplish in his busy life, but no matter how he tries to organize himself, he tends to get distracted. At these times he will end up playing guitar, eating snacks, or spending hours at the computer. This inner conflict often leaves him feeling disgusted with himself. Chores are not done, friends and family have been ignored, and the bills pile up. He berates himself and sees himself as a worthless, undisciplined slob. He has identified these two conflicted parts and calls them "Big B" and "Veg."

In this example, Brian comes into session frustrated with himself again. After discussing the situation with him, I suggest some gestalt "pillow" work, and he agrees to try. I set up two pillows on the mat and invite him to sit on one.

S: Okay, Brian. Take a few deep breaths and focus on your feelings.

B: (After a minute) Okay.

S: Be Big B and talk to Veg. Give yourself the permission to speak from the feelings of Big B without censoring yourself at all. Be as strong in your words as the feelings are.

B: (Pauses, then gets animated) I am so sick of you! You are such a pathetic slob! I have tried so hard to make good things happen, and whenever I do, you ruin it. I'm exhausted. I feel like giving up. (Pauses, seems to lose energy. I sense a shift, the possible rising of the other subpersonality).

S: If it feels right, switch.

B: (Moves to the other pillow, turns and faces the first pillow. He sits with a slouch and looks sad.) You are always yelling at me. I'm so tired of being yelled at. Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. I don't want to do that stuff anyway. It's always "Do this, do that. Go here, go there." I just want to disappear. (Gets agitated. Looks at me.)

S: (I nod with my head to the other pillow with a question in my eyes as if to say, "is it time for Big B?")

B: (Moves to the first pillow, turns and faces Veg.) Christ! What the fuck do you want?! If I am not on your case, nothing happens and our life goes to hell. You don't want to do stuff? What the hell do you want to do then? (Stops and shifts to the other pillow on his own.)

B-Veg: I don't know! Nothing! Anything but this! (Tears come to his eyes. He really starts to sob.) I can never enjoy myself without worrying that there is something productive I have to do. I never get to play the guitar without feeling nervous inside. Maybe if you had let me, I would have been a decent guitar player. (Brian rolls over on his side and cries. I sit quietly and just "be there" with him. I sense that he is in a very deep feeling connected to his childhood. After fifteen minutes, he gets more quiet, blows his nose, and sits up.) Why have you always nagged me like this? (He moves over to the other pillow).

B-Big B: If it wasn't for me bugging you, Dad would have really lost his temper. Without me pushing to get the homework done, we would have got the belt more often. (pauses)

S: Switch.

B-Veg: Okay, I can see that. But I could have been a professional guitarist if I'd really focused on my playing instead of studying all that crap. No matter what Dad wanted, I didn't have the knack for Science. I dropped out anyway. (pauses) But Dad's not here anymore. So why keep nagging me? (switches over)

B-Big B: Bills won't get paid if I don't nag you. Nothing gets done around here. (Switches)

B-Veg: Yeah, you've got a point. But maybe if I could actually enjoy myself without you buzzing in my head, I'd feel good and actually want to do some stuff around the house.

S: Okay, Veg. Is there a small request you can make of Big B so this can happen?

B-Veg: Yeah. This Saturday, there's a jam with the guys. I want to go, and I don't want you making me feel like a loser for going.

S: Big B, what do you think? (I motion for Brian to switch)

B-Big B: Okay, I can do that if you are willing to spend an equal amount of time in the afternoon taking care of the bills. (Switches)

B-Veg: (Thinks) Okay. Four hours. That's it. It's a deal. (Switches)

B-Big B: Okay, it's a deal. (pauses, looks at me)

S: Okay, guys. I hear that you are getting to understand each other a little better. Veg will spend four hours Saturday afternoon doing bills, and Big B will let Veg enjoy the jam Saturday night without interfering. Great. We can check in on things next week. (I grab a third pillow and place it on another spot away from the first two.) Brian, have a seat.

At this point I ask Brian how he is feeling and what impressions he got from the process. He realized very deeply that Big B's words were very much the words of his father. As Veg, he felt very small, sad and scared. He was afraid of his father's anger, and deeply sad that his father never seemed to like what Brian enjoyed. He had also never realized that Big B came into existence to protect him from his father's anger by nagging "Veg" to get things done. He cried again about how he essentially had never been able to relax and just be a playful kid. As an adult, his "vegging" was an attempt to be the carefree child he never was, even though it was now sometimes in excess. Brian came away from the session with a deeper emotional understanding and compassion for himself. Though it took many sessions to work through these dysfunctional patterns, he eventually became a person who was more at ease, more creatively fulfilled, and more productive and efficient.

This fictional example is over-simplified, but quite representative of how subpersonality work can unfold. Variations on this work will occur when other "voices" appear and other pillows are laid down. It is important that each voice speak from a different physical location (chair or pillow). The different locations help physically clarify and separate the voices and thoughts, which can alleviate the confusion we feel in our minds when we normally argue with ourselves.

If a person gets into deep primal feelings, the gestalt process can stop while the feelings are dealt with in typical primal fashion. After a primal, the gestalt process can continue (as per the example), or the session can wrap up as usual.

To Review:

- Have the subpersonalities speak, individually, without interference from the others. If others need to speak, use pillows or chairs for these parts to speak from different locations.

- By expressing without interference in this manner, the subpersonalities will discover the original traumatic reasons for their existence.

- By expressing in this manner, the subpersonalities can uncover, express, and integrate the primal feelings and needs that motivate them.

- When subpersonalities are in conflict, they can resolve issues just like individuals do, by expressing their feelings and views, understanding one another, and making arrangements and compromises.

Maybe it's time to really talk to yourself.

back to index