Conflict of Self: Working with the Sub-Personalities in Coaching

Author : Erika Scarth

conflict of selves

16th November 2018

I remember the day I met my selves. It was a beautiful summer morning, I was on a retreat with a group of incredible social entrepreneurs and I had just quit my nine-to-five job. Yet instead of excited anticipation, I stood in tears.

Thirty-six hours previously, I had acted against my principles, identity and expectations of myself. I found myself overwhelmed by profound regret and shame, desperately seeking self-love and self-forgiveness. In just a day and a half, my regular, optimistic self had been hijacked by another version of me – a low energy, sorrowful, suffering self. In that moment, as I processed the experience, and in the weeks and months that followed, I met my selves.

What Are the Sub-Personalities?

At some point you may have said, “part of me wants this, but another part of me wants that”, “I’m trying to get myself to…” or “I’m in two minds”. Sub-personalities, such as the ‘inner critic’, the ‘inner child’ and the ‘higher self’, are recognised in psychotherapeutic schools as relatively enduring parts of the psyche. They are made of different qualities with particular patterns of thought, feelings, behaviour, perceptions and sometimes mannerisms.

From this perspective, the self might be better represented as a ‘community of selves’, a phrase used by Miller Mair. A dominant personality that we identify with most may shine out as your ‘every day’ self.

Inner conflict, indecisiveness and overthinking can be the result of two or more of these sub-personalities having different wants, needs, values and perspectives on our experiences. It can feel as though these sides of us are fighting a battle whilst we sit playing Piggy in the Middle.

What if we could bring a sense of harmony to the self? How could this impact how our clients make decisions and how they feel about themselves?

Resolving Conflict and Acknowledging Fear: Giving a Voice to Parts of Yourself

Inner conflict arises when different parts of the self want different things. Clients may want to take action but feel held back by fear or uncertainty. They may be torn between two options where each option meets different needs.

What do they do?

I think of the selves like a group of friends who are planning a group holiday. There are plenty of places to go and everyone wants to have a great time. The problem is everyone is a little bit different – some friends want a detailed day-by-day plan, others want to make sure there’s a budget, others want to splash out because, well, they’re on holiday, some want to be adventurous and some just want to chill on a beach and do nothing.
How do they find a solution?

We encourage communication. Just as you would get everyone together to discuss the group holiday, similarly, we can create dialogue between the selves. We can ask them what they want and what they need. We can listen to the hang-ups and hesitations; we can discuss resentments (yes, one part of yourself can feel resentment towards another part!), find out who’s been getting the most attention and who’s been getting left out.

We can create a plan that includes everyone.

Through a process of coaching and negotiating, each sub-personality in the situation can be brought to light. What is it that this part wants? What does it need? What does it value and what does it fear? How is this part currently showing up and how can it show up in more effective ways? In this way, new roles can be offered to old characters. Overbearing, fearful or over-thinking sub-personalities may be invited to fulfil their needs in more useful ways. Sub-personalities that were previously hidden away may be invited to step into the spotlight more often. In return, these sub-personalities might make specific requests, which may include being acknowledged, seen and listened to more.

It can be useful to remember that no matter how “self-sabotaging” a sub-personality might seem, each part of the self only ever wants the best for the whole self. These parts over-analyse, procrastinate, create conflicts, become aggressors and victims because they believe this will be the most effective approach for self-preservation.

In truly hearing each part of themselves, our clients are able to make conscious choices that are aligned and congruent. This means not only listening to and acknowledging these parts, but actually bringing them on board to support them in their goals. No longer will our clients need to fight their separate selves, rather, they will be willing companions, guardians and advisors on the journey. Success becomes a team effort.

Radical Self-Acceptance: Learning to Embrace More of Who You Are

At some point in our lives we learn to identify with some human qualities and reject others (courageous, fearful, lazy, motivated, etc.) We create labels and definitions for ourselves that enable us to say “this is who I am.” Whilst offering a sense of stability, these identities can also be a hindrance, that limit our potential. As we start delving into the sub-personalities, the concept of ‘who I am’ and ‘what I am capable of’ expands, offering us more freedom and acceptance.

As we support our clients to create dialogues with the sub-personalities, they can start shining a light on the parts of themselves that they had previously rejected and disowned. In doing so, they can acknowledge the inner power they might have relinquished, the confidence they might have covered up, the beauty they might have locked in a box.

At the same time, they can learn how to remove any judgement and shame that they have about their “darker” qualities, and instead learn how to use them consciously and effectively.

For instance, supporting others whilst setting personal boundaries becomes easier when one allows themselves to be both selfish and selfless; striving for success becomes easier when power and vulnerability are allowed to co-exist.

I found peace with my experience about five months later when I discovered my hidden shadow, a silent self that is capable of unspeakable betrayal. I had always considered myself incredibly loyal so I struggled to understand how I could ever have betrayed myself. But in her dormant, unconscious state, this part of me had power – because I didn’t know she existed. Today, as a conscious part of me, I’m more aware of when she’s showing up: when I’m not being truthful to myself, when I might be betraying what’s right for me in order to comply with other people’s expectations, when I might be sacrificing my dreams and ambitions for more instant gratifications.

In reconnecting with these hidden or ignored sub-personalities, I’ve seen clients rediscovering younger, more vibrant selves that they thought no longer existed. Phrases such as “I wasn’t like this before” or “this isn’t how I was when I was X age” are the key. Through the process of integrating parts of themselves, they have recaptured forgotten dreams and have re-embodied the conviction, excitement and creativity that once coursed through their veins.

In supporting our clients to explore and expand their identity through the sub-personalities, we enable them to learn to work in harmony with themselves. They learn how to express sentiments kindly and clearly, first to themselves, then to those around them. By becoming better at identifying the voices they may have introjected, they are able to act with more authenticity and congruence. With a new self-image they are offered the freedom to choose how to ‘be’ rather than being reactive. Finally, by acknowledging that they are a multitude of paradoxes, clients are invited to embrace all that they are – the love and the power, the vulnerability and the fear, giving themselves permission to exist and be seen. They are able to recognise that they were always whole, always complete, they just forgot that they were.

I invite you to bring all of yourselves to the table.

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