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tug o warIn my last blogpost, I spoke about how often we find ourselves torn between opposing positions. In the course of a day, how many times do you experience “a part of me wants to do x, yet at the same time another part of me wants to do y”? It may be that one voice is telling you that you “should” do something, and another part of you is somehow on the receiving message of this command. In a healthy state of functioning, there is an ability to shift between these different parts to suit the needs of the situation. We may have all experienced a time when we know that one voice is speaking for our best interests, and it is fairly straight forward to over-ride the other voice, make a decision and move forward. A classic example is knowing we are full after a meal and overriding the voice that says “Go on, have dessert”. Another example of fluidity is a couple with a good relationship who can flow between Parent, Adult and Child ego states when there is a need to express caring concern, to bring logic to a dilemma and plan, or when they want to let their hair down and play.

But it isn’t always that straight forward. At times when there is a struggle with mental / emotional health, the internal voice that says “go on, have another helping” can be incredibly stressful, as it can be accompanied by all sorts of introjects about what is and what is not allowed. Even if you override the voice of the Master, one can be overwhelmed with guilt and regret. Back to the example of the couple, there may be times when one will take on a role inappropriate to the scenario – finding themselves being Parent and wanting to give their partner a good ‘telling-off’; this can have the effect of pushing the other in to the Child ego state…an example of an unhealthy transaction, and one where conflict arises. Whether the conflict is with another or felt inwardly as a push and pull, it can lead to great stress, anxiety and depression. Depression is especially prevalent when there is a sense of being ‘stuck’, as the anger is turned inward. At times like this, it feels impossible to make decisions as to how to best act, or to even see a way forward. I often see clients in this position experiencing a great deal of frustration – as they seem to know what they want, yet find themselves getting derailed.

So, what to do?

I explained last time around that across the different psychotherapeutic models, different terminology is used to describe these ‘parts of self’: Transactional Analysis refers to the different ego states of Parent, Adult and Child; Jung writes at length about the complexity of the psyche and our ‘shadow’; therapists adopting the Person-Centred approach pioneered by Carl Rogers will speak of ‘configurations of self; and in the Gestalt psychotherapeutic language, the one I adopt for my counselling and therapy work, the internal dialogue is referred to as Top Dog and Under Dog. Despite the differing terminology, the approach to easing the internal war has one thing in common – essentially, we need to overcome the natural reaction of suppressing the ‘bad’ voice or unhelpful emotion.

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organise the peace.”
― Aristotle

shouting and not being heardThere can be a lot of fear in giving voice to all the different parts. When I speak with my clients about this, they find it hard to believe firstly that these warring fractions are normal outcomes of childhood experiences and upbringing. Then, we need to take a leap of faith – that the way around the conflict is to turn up the volume of all the voices. This is none more so when the voice being suppressing is one of anger or one of criticism. “Surely if I let my anger speak it will overrun everyone and cause hurt?” or equally “Why should I let my Inner Critic speak? They only cause me pain and I want rid of them!” Of course, great care is needed that the ‘shadow’ or darker sides of our ‘polarities’ as human beings do not take over – but that is where a finding a trained therapist to assist this exploration is crucial. The process can be mis-understood as licence to ‘act out’ without care for others. In Gestalt therapy, the experiment* (e.g. where a client is encouraged to exaggerate some tendencies) is designed to increase awareness rather than re-invent the personality outside of the therapy room.

Psychological health is about bringing balance to our human nature. The more we try to suppress ‘bad’ or unwanted’ parts of our character, the more those parts turn inward – they have to find ways of coming to the surface and being expressed, or they can erupt without invitation! So, in therapy we bring voice to ALL parts.

One way to do this is through a powerful intervention called “Chair work”. Having heard the client expressing different voices and witnessing the confusion this brings, the therapist invites the client to take part in an experiment. The therapist introduces two chairs, from which the client is encouraged to speak each voice or role. As an example, let us consider two possible parts of me, Helen: I might have a Sensitive Helen, and there might be a Critical Helen. I sit in each chair in turn: I may start speaking from the view of Critical Helen (often the overpowering voice will start the dialogue), allowing her to voice her complaints against the ‘weak’ Sensitive Helen – the therapist would encourage me to fully inhabit this role, no holding back! Once the opinion has been fully expressed, I would switch chairs and sit as Sensitive Helen. The therapist would ask me how it felt to hear the criticisms, and what I would like to say back. And so, a conversation unfolds. With each move, the client does their best to operate (posturally and attitudinally) and communicate (verbally and tonality) wholeheartedly from the part-of-self.

For me, it has been a wonderful experience witnessing the reconciliation and change this process can bring to a client. My role in the dialogue is to facilitate the client through the stages of contact:

  • Opposition. The first stage is to let each voice be heard. Externalising each part in this way allows the client to become fully aware of the internal dialogue and to become acquainted with the characters. The two chairskey to this stage is separating out the opposing voices, and to identify with clarity what each is saying.
  • Contact. This second stage brings forward what it feels like to be each part, the client really steps in to the roles and contacts the experience it generates – whether that be sadness, anger, fear etc. It is at this point that the introjects and beliefs start to come through, and the impact that these messages have on the client. It is very common that the dialogue points to the needs that each part is wanting to be met.
  • Integration. At this point, the roles of each part start to emerge. We might begin to understand why the Inner Critic exists, what is their role, what is he/she there to ensure happens? Rather than being the enemy, the part-of-self on the receiving end may start to see the efforts of the Critic. For example, maybe it is there as protector rather than aggressor? The two parts start to negotiate; and if compassion is accessed in this instance, a peaceful co-existence can be agreed.


two chairsIn some cases, I have seen the Inner Critic express a wish to ‘retire’ at the end of the exercise, exhausted by their long years of service, fed up of the battle and not wanting to do it anymore. And this is the paradox – that by letting the voice be truly heard without editing or suppressing, it often ceases. However, a client engaging in this exercise simply to rid themselves of the voice is less likely to find this peace…the Inner Critic is very clever and knows when they are being set up!

I have also witnessed more voices emerging during the dialogue. And while it can be tempting to draw up another chair, it is often best to let these voices come in from exile (as they can be deep and hidden) only when given the opportunity to take centre stage – and perhaps this comes during another session. Indeed, it can take a few sessions over concurrent weeks to allow all parts to come forward, to feel sufficiently heard so that they then soften toward reparation.

I am hoping that this two-part blog has thrown some light on why we might get stuck between a rock and a hard place; and as to how we might alleviate some of the stress through a process of ‘separation for integration’. In layman’s language, that means in order to be free of the stuckness we need to acknowledge it, tease out the main players, ensure they all get heard, listen and understand their positions and needs, and then finally allow each to soften in to a compassionate place. Whilst counter-intuitive, it is only when we allow (without editing) these parts to exist can they lessen their grip over our internal world.

I’d welcome any thoughts on this topic. Has this posting resonated with you and your life?

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*The purpose for an experiment in gestalt therapy is to move from talking about something to experiencing something

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