Hands up who hears inner voices in their heads?
(Anyone without their hand up right now might be a cyborg!)
We all have voices in our heads, chattering and nattering away all the time, sometimes quietly and under the radar, sometimes loudly; sometimes helpfully and often REALLY unhelpfully. These inner voices can hijack our thoughts and change our moods, like someone changing frequency on the radio.
We hear it in how our clients talk all the time. They might tell us how they reacted to a situation, saying, “It was so out of character, NOT like me at all, I don’t know what came over me!” Or they may tell us about a decision they’re struggling to make and how torn they feel, in two minds, really battling with themselves. Or they may share how they’re trying to learn a new skill or embark on a creative venture only to hear a litany of discouragement or critique from their own mind.
There are many ways to understand and talk about these voices in our heads, but for the purposes of this article, we will look at them through the lens of subpersonalities.
In transpersonal psychology, the term subpersonality was coined to describe the creation, in childhood, of parts of ourselves. These parts will have been born out of necessity, usually to keep us safe or to assist in getting our needs met in some way, but then we keep them out of habit. As we get older, we find that they’re still with us, but they can really start to out-live their usefulness as strategies for coping and living. It is often at this point that clients will come to us; torn, confused, stuck, out of flow with themselves.
We all have many subpersonalities within us. They’re their own little psychological satellites – not the whole, but a part. Each part views the world differently. In fact, they are myopic – they can ONLY see the world through their own little paradigm. Consequently, each one interprets the events of life differently. And VERY emphatically, safe in the knowledge that their way is the right way. And remember, they are essentially children – we created them when we were young. So, if we don’t acquaint ourselves (and our clients) with the parts that are controlling behaviour, thinking and choices, that sense of being hijacked, torn or beaten down will persist, as we let a bunch of kids run rampant over our lives.
The crucial thing here is to recognise that they are PART, not the WHOLE. But if we don’t know that, they certainly don’t, so they’ll continue to act with the authority of our whole selves. That’s why starting to recognise them is hugely helpful. Because when we recognise a subpersonality, we’re no longer letting it BE us. This process is called ‘disidentification.’ Snapping out of the illusion that that part is us.
If the term ‘subpersonality’ is new to you, that feeling of recognition when you ‘disidentify’ from a particular voice in your head will, I’m sure, be extremely familiar.
For example, can you recognise any of these characters, chattering away in your mind, hijacking your mental or emotional energies?
Judge, Critic, Clown, Worrier, Pleaser, Rebel, Martyr, Victim, Charmer, Perfectionist, Boss
How to work with subpersonalities in a coaching context
If we notice a high-level of ambivalence, second-guessing or hesitation in our clients, then overly enthusiastic subpersonalities may be to blame. Or if clients frequently ‘but’ – telling us their plans or stories with apparent conviction, then the energy switches as they say, “But…” and then continue with a different tone altogether; this may also be a clue that noisy subpersonalities are at play.
If this is the case, you might like to work with subpersonalities directly. Here are a few ideas of how to bring it into the coaching space.
As ever, we need to seek permission from the client that this is something they’d like to explore. For many clients, they immediately get it. They recognise the opportunity in disidentifying from these inner voices and also tend to sense that this is going to be a really fun, creative and enjoyable way to work.
Other clients will look at us blankly. Blink, and say something like, “But I’m me…” and then trail off with a vague and perplexed look on their faces. With these clients, it’s best to move on. Swiftly. This approach isn’t for everyone!
2. Change your language
The quickest and easiest way to introduce this work, and give the client something tangible to play with, is to encourage them to change their language. If you notice them saying, “I’m insecure,” “I’m nervous,” “I’m furious,” change it up to, “Part of me is furious.” This instantly grounds them back to the fully resourced ‘I’ commenting on the part, and invites curiosity about the part that is so activated.
3. Get to know the part
Now they’re curious about the part that’s insecure, nervous, furious etc, we can deepen the process by asking a few explorative questions:
These questions have a key function. Our main role as coach here is to help our clients start to soften to the possibility that this often troublesome and annoying part (let’s face it, no-one enjoys merciless criticism or judgement from inside their own heads!) could be out to help and protect them in some way. Clients usually discover that the part is trying to keep them safe from harm i.e. avoiding potential shame, humiliation, failure.
This then opens the door to the possibility that the client can offer this part some reassurance, as they ask them to stand down – “It’s ok, I’ve got this. I’m 47 not 7! My boss is NOT my dad and I can handle this meeting.” Reassurance tends to be much more effective than demonising a part and taking a more combative stance.
4. Personify them
We can build on this further by inviting the client to really start to ‘see’ the part in their mind’s eye, as its own character. This will help the disidentification to land. Ask questions such as:
Clearly this isn’t about getting it right or wrong; it’s about free, uninhibited, playful exploration, painting pictures in the air. Clients tend to get creative with this – one client’s anxiety was purple and spiky, another’s was a big, grey slimy blob – and often one or two questions is enough for them to run with, as the figure comes into clearer view in their mind.
5. Name them
Now they’ve got a sense of the part, it’s time for the client to give them a name so they can ‘meet’ their parts more quickly from now on.
Names can be descriptive: ‘Moaning Minnie’, ‘But, but Brian’, ‘Draining Derek’
It might be a name that evokes a feeling: Flash, Snippy, Squeaky-Leaky
There might be a fictional character that inspires the name: Evil Edna, Cruella
Whatever name they choose, one thing to note; often clients want to name a part after someone they know, but this can be muddling for the mind. We don’t want the client to be recalling a friend or family member when they think of the name, they want to recall the part. So gently lead the client away from any names that they associate with real people in their lives.
6. Talk to them
Now that the part has been met, visualised and named, the next stage is to start interacting with them! This makes a good homework activity for clients to practice in between sessions.
We can encourage our clients to be on the lookout and notice when the part shows up. Once they recognise the part is there, they can have a chat with it…because if they’re chatting with it, it can’t BE them.
“Hey Minnie, thanks for showing up just as I’m about to give this presentation, to tell me how useless I am at them, and how there’s a big chance I’ll cock it up and everyone will laugh at me and I’ll probably lose my job. But you know what, that’s never happened in that past so it probably won’t happen today, so I think I’ll be ok without your input today. You can have the day off, thanks.”
7. Invite more in
All the steps up to this point have been about meeting the noisy subpersonalities and practicing interacting with them, reassuring them and trying to lessen the impact they’re having on our clients. This is fine in and of itself, but there is a potential final step that can really strengthen the piece further.
We all have access to a breadth of subpersonalities and there are other more positive archetypes that are available to us. So we can also invite our clients to consider: who’s missing? What energy would they benefit from having more of?
They can then visualise and name this presence in the same way as above, and on a day when a challenging subpersonality is fretting in their ear, they can now ask it to take the day off as our client is choosing to spend the day getting wise counsel from a more empowering subpersonality instead!
This is a really lovely fun, creative and energising process that is also very practical and gives our clients something to DO. As they go through the process of interacting with their parts, reorganising the inner voices in their heads, turning the volume down on some and up on others, they start to notice big changes, and changes that stick.
Having voices in our heads is entirely normal – there’s a crowd in each of us. We are all more than the sum of our parts, but it starts with keeping our parts in order!