If you’re reading this blog, chances are you are managing in today’s world. You at least have access to a computer. You can probably drive a car or navigate the bus or metro system. You can buy groceries, probably cook at least a simple meal. Likely you have or have had a job or are in school. Possibly you have a partner, children or maybe elders you are responsible for, in addition to managing yourself. In short, you are an adult.
As we explored in last week’s blog, based on the movie, Inside Out, we all have many different “selves” that can take hold of our inner steering wheel and be driving the bus before we know it. And it may not be that adult self at the wheel! Remember the last time you lost your temper or giggled until your face hurt. That may have been a younger self driving the bus.
In this post, I want to build on the idea of different emotional characters or “selves” that can take over our behavior and shape our reactions to experiences (both internal and external). In the movie, these inner selves are conceptualized as the primary emotions of joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. While these primary emotions are important, our inner selves are often more complex.
Why do we have more than one self anyway?
One reason there are more than one of us is our uniquely human self-conscious mind. Consciousness is still not completely understood, though we do know that one area of the brain is crucial for it’s existence. (See, for example, http://www.ted.com/talks/antonio_damasio_the_quest_to_understand_consciousness)
We also have a somatic or embodied self that does a lot of our day-to-day activities without taking up precious (and limited) conscious resources. Thomas Hanna has one of the best explanations of why we have at least two “selves” a conscious mind self, often the “I” of the stories we tell ourselves, and a somatic or body self, which often operates outside of our conscious awareness:
“The body of life was and is four-dimensional; it has height, depth, width, and time. … The soma arose as a system that always strives to achieve stability and balance—a task that takes place in time and is never complete. … the soma is not a thing or objective body but rather, is a process.” (Hanna, 1980, p. 6)
Soma’s primary process is staying alive. For example, if I suddenly threw a ball at you, your body would mobilize to catch it before your conscious mind had even identified the object.
With the development of a conscious mind, an “I’ that seems to be running our lives, it’s easy to forget the intelligence of the body. We are goal-driven creatures, needing food, shelter, mates to survive. In focusing on our goal, the means (our physical self) disappears quite naturally from our awareness. Without going into this point in more depth, we can see there is already a split between our embodied self and our mind self. The embodied self is busy driving the car while our mind self is planning what to eat for dinner, for instance. This allows us to make long term plans (even if only what to have for dinner) while our somatic self handles the momentary unfolding of life events.
One way to think of this system of selves is that we have an embodied self and a conscious, self-aware self, and the dance between these two is mediated by our emotions. Emotions, as Antonio Damasio and others have discovered, are critical to navigating through life. Our feelings tell us what is “good” (seek more) and what is “bad” (avoid). They shape every aspect of our behavior. So, the body may be the bus, and the mind the map or GPS, but the bus driver is often the emotions. Which is why, even when we know better, we find ourselves doing what we don’t want to do.
Because of the power of the emotions to take over the bus, several approaches, from Mindfulness, to NeuroLinguistic Programming, to Internal Family Systems, to Voice Dialogue (to mention a few), encourage us to develop a meta self, a self a few steps removed from our emotions and that can help us manage the emotional “bus driver.” This is all well and good, but what happens when we encounter pockets of experience and memory that are so disorganized and so powerful that they swallow us up whole?
Trauma takes over the bus
These disorganized pockets of experience contain strong somatic reactions and don’t fit in with the conscious mind’s narrative of self. When we get “triggered” or reminded of an unresolved trauma, we don’t have a safe place for this experience in our story of self, and the strong feelings make it hard to remember our adult self. In order to go on in time, we isolate the overwhelming, disorganizing experience, separating it from our “story of me,” and go on around it. Until we get reminded and experience those difficult feelings again! Over time, these disorienting experiences get split off to form inner parts so that we can go on with life.
Not all of our inner parts are holding trauma. Some inner parts are resourceful, a part that excels in school studies for instance, or a playful comedian that can lighten a dreary afternoon stuck with colleagues in the airport. Thus we develop different “selves” to suit different circumstances. The “self” that you may become while on a night out on the town with friends likely behaves quite differently than the one who visits a frail elderly aunt in the hospital. Different circumstances and situations call forth different behavior patterns and resources from us. Over time and with repetition, these congeal as inner selves. (Please note that trauma is a complex and increasingly well-researched phenomenon and this simple explanation offers just enough background to help you understand the process that follows. I am happy to provide references to the excellent research done on understanding trauma and how to treat it.)
No bad parts
Or to borrow a risqué line from Rihanna, “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it.” These younger inner selves are often working perfectly at achieving an old goal that may not be relevant now. An inner part may be eating too much ice cream, or sabotaging success at work, but that part isn’t trying to be bad. Parts arise in response to some need, to deal with a situation that would otherwise overwhelm us, or to go on after an overwhelming experience. Of course, in certain contexts, some parts are more useful than others. The confident comedian might be more useful when giving a keynote speech than the frightened, bullied eight year-old, for instance. Part of the art of self-regulation is being able to call on the appropriate inner selves at the right time. When we find that an experience overwhelms our normal resources, then this process can help. Mind you, this is not for severe PTSD or other severe traumas, just for the normal childhood events that leave us feeling unresourceful in our daily life. This is a very important distinction. In cases of severe trauma or PTSD, a safe environment, a deeply trusting relationship with the facilitator, therapist, or other skilled support person, and time are needed to resolve these experiences and integrate them safely with the “story of me.”
This process uses both the somatic self that carries the emotional experience and our adult self (the one who can drive you to the therapist’s office, for instance) to help a younger self that is still experiencing distress. Usually a present day experience reactivates this younger self (like having to give that speech!), and sometimes we find a younger self “driving our bus” when we need our adult self in charge.
Let the Soma lead to the source
It is important that we create a relationship of trust as the first step in any work that accesses somatic cues. If you are working with a client, be sure that you have their full permission, including agreement from their non-verbal, somatic self, before you go further. At any time, you may lose permission, so stop and regain rapport with the client’s inner self before continuing.
First, if you are working with someone else or with yourself, it’s important to stabilize the sense of a capable adult self. Remembering all the skills and talents you or your client employ in daily life is a great place to come back to during this process. Perhaps chose one or two well-honed adult skills that would be useful in dealing with the issue at hand.
Next, allow yourself or the person you are working with to access the body sense of where the less-than-resourceful-self resides. It’s important to identify the locations in the body—the heart or the throat, or the belly, sometimes hands or face or head, for instance. Often placing a hand on the part of the body with the strongest sensations helps. Naming the sensations, such as hot or cold, buzzing or weak or tense, and so on, is the next step. Describe in specific body-based language the sensations that go with this less-than-resourceful experience. Then ask if there is an emotion or emotions that describe that experience. Putting emotive language to sensory experience is an integrative act, connecting left and right hemispheres in the brain, and part of the wonderful practice of focusing developed by Eugene Gendlin.
Once you’ve identified where and how this part is feeling in the context of the issue, ask if there are any previous memories of times when this feeling was present. Keep probing gently until you find the earliest memory available. Now you have met the younger self (yet maybe not the youngest self) that is driving this unwanted experience.
The Soma and younger self have to agree to play
Once you’ve made connection with this younger self, you will often notice shifts in posture, expression, or voice tone that are different from the adult self. Note these patterns because they will cue you as to which part is talking to you—the younger self or the adult self. Ask the younger self if it is willing to work with you to get what it needs. This is a crucial step. This part was overwhelmed in the past and it needs to feel secure that you will not override it again. Wait and work gently with this vulnerable part until it agrees to work with you, and if the part will not work with you, stop. Now isn’t the time or you aren’t the right person. Be aware that you can lose this agreement and may need to regain it at any time.
Why was this part necessary?
It’s important to take the side of the younger self at the beginning of this process. Ask the younger self what it was trying to do by creating the sensations and emotions experienced. It’s important to take the time to understand the goals of the younger self that is creating the less-than-resourceful response now. At the time the younger self decided on a belief or behavior pattern, it was the right thing to do given the resources available.
Introducing the selves
Ask the younger self if it knows that an older, adult self exists. Often these younger selves are literally stuck in time, unaware they survived the crisis and life has gone on. It’s important to reassure this younger self that it survived. The sentence, “We made it!” is often very helpful, especially if the adult self can gently share that with the younger self.
Allow the younger self to learn that an older, capable adult self is present. Ask the older, adult self, if it is willing to care for this younger self. Some negotiation may be needed as the adult self may be irritated with the problems caused by the younger self. Help both selves understand the other’s perspective. What was it like as an overwhelmed youngster? How would the adult self respond if he or she came across a child in such distress? Most adults have an instinctive response to help a youngster in distress.
Negotiating needs and alternative ways of getting them met
Now allow the younger self to tell the older self what it needs in order to be able to do something different than what it has been doing in the situations it found so overwhelming. It’s important that the capable adult self be able to reassure the younger self that it will take care of this younger self now, so that the younger self doesn’t have to keep grabbing the wheel of the bus in those scary situations. This inner dialogue is delicate business and requires love and support for both the younger and the adult self. When done well, this dialogue can provide a newly integrated way forward with the adult self leading and caring for the younger self. The adult self also benefits from befriending and caring for the younger self, as this excerpt from Meister Eckhart so beautifully shows.
If I were alone in a desert and feeling afraid,
I would want a child to be with me
For then my fear would disappear
and I would be made strong.
This is what life in itself can do
because it is so noble, so full of pleasure
and so powerful…
Invite the younger self and the adult self to imagine how they will go forward together, hand in hand, as the photo at the beginning of this post shows, into the situation that once was so frightening and now can be handled safely.
PLEASE NOTE: This procedure may open you or your client’s awareness of past trauma and needs to be approached with care. This procedure is not a substitute for medical or psychological treatment. Please consult your physician or therapist if you have any concerns about using this method.
Hanna, T., (1980). The Body of life: Creating new pathways for sensory awareness and fluid movement. Healing Arts. Rochester, Vermont
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