Many therapeutic approaches deal with our thinking as a major part of the work needed to recover from our ills. CBT, especially, doesn’t look at events but how our perception of the event affects us. It looks at layers of thinking from automatic thoughts to core beliefs as an aid to this. CBT, however, works at changing those thinking patterns in the “here and now” without purposely delving deeper into why those thoughts exist. This is an ideal “brief” therapy and has helped many people get through a crisis. Sometimes, it is not enough and much deeper explanation is needed for the cause of our thinking and behaviour, especially in terms of behavioural issues such as codependency.
Starting in January 2023, a new round of online groups for codependency. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or go HEREDr Nicholas Jenner
Many theorists when talking about how we think have worked on the premise that our mind and personality is unitary. That means that we process in one mode of thinking before it moves onto another part, rather like lights switching on and off before it is either processed or subdued. I believe in multiplicity. I believe that our thinking and personality are similar to a family or “tribe” of thinking modes or parts (one could use elements, concepts, etc) that all have their own personality, needs and wants. Very similar to being part of a family or collection of people with different personalities who see the world in a specific way. Sometimes, they agree, sometimes they are in conflict (polarised), sometimes they are friends and sometimes they are enemies. Each “part” is formed, initially in childhood but also as we grow and gain experience. They could be different genders, ages or maturities but they frequent our thinking and dictate our behaviour. As we get to know them and understand them (usually a task for therapy), we can label them and personify them. The Manager, The Procrastinator, The Striver, The Angry Child, The Monster, to name but a few. They all carry negative and positive aspects of us and are so strong sometimes that they are capable of exiling other parts so that they cannot move into consciousness. The Scared, The Abused, The Neglected are often banished along with the Healthy, The Compassionate, The Inquisitive and The Decision Maker. These exiles need to be found and either healed or encouraged to aid recovery.
One thing, they all have in common is that they are protecting the Self. The Self is the healthy, inquisitive, compassionate part of us that sees the world as challenging but exciting. However, at some stage, the Self has been threatened or abused and the “parts” have developed themselves to protect it. These “protectors” are so good at their job, they have in effect put the Self into hibernation, almost like worker bees around the Queen of the hive. However, the Self is not a separate “part”. The Self is the “whole” and the “parts”are elements of it. We can liken it to a family house where different people with different ideas and views are residing, trying to get along. However, they all at times look after where they live.
This may seem rather complex but the fact is that if we can, in a therapeutic process, understand what these “parts” are protecting us from and how they relate and work with and against other parts, we can start to move towards “freeing” the Self. This means in real terms, taking charge, leadership and being the compassionate, inquisitive, decisive being we once where long ago. You will notice, these qualities being displayed in children from a very young age. Freeing the Self means negotiating and working with the parts just as you have to in a company at work or in your family (incidentally, many of the parts that clients describe mirror family members)
In this case, the sum of the parts is certainly not greater than the whole…unless you choose for that to be the case.
I have been quite active lately promoting the use of tools and methods to challenge and potentially overcome blocks in thinking that keep one stuck in the proverbial “hamster wheel” of inaction and overthinking. Partly inspired by reading and the influence of such therapies as psychoanalysis and internal family systems, I have been quite happy to help clients see how the parts of the personality were formed and how these parts affect their view of the world. How the critical “protectors” (or parts), send constant messages to stop us getting to the real truth, that is, the childhood pain we all carry in terms of trauma, guilt and shame. As a quick reminder, I truly believe that defense mechanisms formed in childhood develop into parts of our personality to protect the Self, the true, compassionate, logical, inquisitive part of us. When they feel the Self is threatened, they influence thinking to avoid pain and hurt. They also keep us trapped in that thinking and tell us how we and the world “should” be and behave. When is the Self threatened? When the subdued parts of our personality (sometimes called exiles or sub personalities) are triggered. These “exiles” carry our deep wounds that we are generally not too keen on facing. It is multi-faceted, multi-level thinking designed to keep us away from our own truth. We listen to the protectors because it is the easiest thing to do and because we are conditioned to do so, sometimes through parenting styles, sometimes through forming our own protection schemas. They are strong, loud and often in conflict. No wonder we often find the world a difficult and confusing place!
So in therapy, we look for the parts that are present and the “exiles” they are subduing while promoting the definitive action that is associated with being in “Self” mode. The first part can be a difficult exercise. The messages are not always clear or obvious or one part may be working with another or as often happens, are in conflict. It is important to recognise these before recognising the “exiles”.
I strongly believe that therapists should open themselves up to relevant and constructive self analysis as often as they can. Any method they are using should carry not only a knowledge based element but also that they have used the same method to analyse themselves or have undergone supervision or counselling themselves using it. This puts a therapist right in the middle of a client’s journey in terms of understanding. An essential process. This is what I intend to do with the remainder of this post.
I have identified my “protectors” as a very strong part of my personality. Being someone with codependent tendencies, there are very strong critical elements to them. Here are the main ones I have identified and the exiles that I believe they are subduing. In this post, for sake of length, I have not added how I promote Self mode.
The Judge: I am very judgmental towards myself and my achievements. I am generally not happy with much that I get done even if I have done what I set out to do. I hear often ” that might have been better” “could you have done that in a different way” “you should do it this way next time”. While in Self mode, I can see the learning aspect from this, it often comes across as criticism in my mind. Consequently, I sometimes expect not only myself but those around me to do better as well. This is protecting my “not good enough” exile that I often had to encounter in my childhood and teenage years, consolidated by abusive parenting. Consequently, I am often down on myself and have anxiety about my place in the world.
The Slavedriver: I am a workaholic and I know it. Even when I am not working, I am writing, reading or planning something about work. I find it hard to let go. It has meant that I run a successful business but my mind is on the “go” full on. I identify myself in my work and what that means to me. I often note the difference between my private and public side. I appear extremely confident while working. This is in contrast to me in private. I fear the consequences of failure (exile) and all that entails. The positive side is that it keeps me focussed and this spins over into other things as well.
The Codependent: This is the biggest “voice” in my head and one that often dominates my thinking. I was put into a caretaker role early in my life for siblings and parents while being punished and reviled when things out of my control went wrong. I am, at times programed to give and feel guilt and shame when receiving. I am not a victim and nor do I wish to paint myself as one. The price that people pay when around codependency is the level of return needed for this “giving” in terms of the need for constant validation, reassurance and control. As trust is not easily formed, these “voices” will constantly remind me that small conflicts mean something much bigger, that people cannot be trusted and they only want you for what they can get from you. My unlovable exile is often triggered and this voice steps in. The reaction is that you give “a little more” and then have to deal with the guilt. A very powerful and destructive voice that is guaranteed to provide dysfunction if listened to.
The Fantasist: Many of us have an “escape” voice that lets us free from the strict critical voices. Called the “firefighter” or “inner rebel”, it can drive us to distraction, impulsive behaviour and ultimately addiction of different types. It is the other end of the continuum and while it carries positive elements in terms of self-care, it often comes along to redress the tight control of the critics. While I have never been a addict (unless you count Amazon shopping for books), I have spent a lot of time ruminating and daydreaming about being someone or somewhere else. This was very strong earlier in my life and I realise now that it was a form of dissociation. Sometimes, the lines of fantasy and reality became blurred. This, I believe was stopping me looking and dealing with my “self esteem exile” that has roots in the three previous elements mentioned.