March 24th, 2021

📝 Reading 📙 Subpersonalities (1990)

I found a 1990 book about subpersonalities and psychological multiplicity.

I started hearing about Internal Family Systems last year. Then I got interested in the general idea of Multiplicity and wrote 📝 More Weird Fishes: Gods, Languages, Addictions and a few other posts on the topic.

Now I found this book 📙 Subpersonalities from 1990 by John Rowan which seems like a good overview from a psychology and therapy perspective.

Rowan takes the existence of self-like parts to be an almost self-evident fact of common sense, theorized in various ways all the way back to antiquity, used in clinical practice, but somehow still kind of ignored.

It is an extraordinary fact that there is at present no systematic book on subpersonalities, and the word does not appear in any text on personality theory known to me. It is not in the dictionaries of psychology nor in the dictionaries of psychotherapy. Yet the thing itself is used by virtually every clinician who has ever written about working with people, and by more and more psychologists paying attention to what is there as opposed to what is supposed to be there. *

Here's Rowan's definition:

My own working definition of a Subpersonality is a semipermanent and semi-autonomous region of the personality capable of acting as a Person. *

The book is a great kind of research bibliography of psychological multiplicity. If you want to know how for example certain Hegelians in the late 19th century thought about it, look no further:

In the field of philosophy, too, there was an interest at this time, and one of the most eloquent statements was made by the British Hegelian William Wallace, when he said: ‘We have hardly formed our resolve when we regret it: the voices of our other selves, of that manifold pack of half-formed personalities within us, none of which we dare honestly disown, are raised in protest against the usurping monarchy of our overt resolve’ (Wallace 1898). *

This language of a conflicted inner polity reminds me of 📰 The Government Within. Rowans makes a point about the political implications of multiplicity. If we have subpersonalities, then social conformism might not dominate our whole selves, which creates space for radical change.

Many theories of politics, both conservative and radical, say that the person is conditioned early into conformity with society. The pressures of society are so great, they say, that the person is bludgeoned willy-nilly into being the kind of personality which a particular society needs. It is difficult, with all such theories, to see any place for radical social change. *

Here's the crucial thing about naming that's so crucial to Internal Family Systems and also 📙 Focusing:

Once a subpersonality has been named, it becomes easier to use it in this kind of way, as a method of raising awareness of what is going on internally. *

Such awareness is also useful in relationships. If we can address subpersonalities, we can talk more precisely and avoid identifying a negative event with the whole of the other person.

‘I think your martyr is trying to make me feel guilty. Do you agree?’ We have stopped saying that the whole person is bad – now we are drawing attention to a problem for us that may also turn out to be a problem for the person themselves. *

Rowans mentions James Hillman as an important figure especially in the view that multiplicity is not problematic and that the insistence on always integrating subpersonalities is a bias:

Most psychologists assume that, no matter how many subpersonalities we find, ultimately all has to be reduced to one. This is the most general conception of mental health. But Watkins, and her mentor James Hillman, ask the question ‘Why?’ Would it not make more sense to live with multiplicity, to recognize more than one centre within ourselves? Hillman suggests that this quarrel is rather like the quarrel between Monotheism and Polytheism. Psychology, he says, is secretly monotheistic, and wants everything to be neatly hierarchical or bureaucratic. But could we not envisage a polytheistic psychology, which admitted that there could be many gods and goddesses, many egos, many identities, many selves. *

In 📝 Godoids, Selfoids, Plotoids I quoted Jordan B. Peterson as a contemporary exemplar of this "monomaniacal monotheism", who formulates it very strongly in 📙 Beyond Order:

It is necessary to lift your eyes above the horizon, to establish a transcendent goal, if you wish to cease being a puppet, under the control of things you do not understand and perhaps do not want to understand. Then all the subsystems or subpersonalities that might otherwise be pursing their own limited fulfillment will join together under the aegis of the truly ideal, and the consequence of that will be an engagement that approximates the ultimate or total. Under such conditions, all the parts of you are going to be on board. That is the psychological equivalent of Monotheism. That is the emergence of the higher self that might be the true servant of God, in whatever metaphysical reality potentially underlies what is obvious to our blind and limited mortal selves. *

And I have also already quoted the polytheistic view of Hubert Dreyfus in 📙 All Things Shining:

The multiple meanings of the universe simply don’t add up to a single, universal truth. Our only hope is to engage in each of them fully, live contentedly in the truths they reveal, but feel no urge to reconcile them to one another. The image for this kind of plural Polytheism is neither the deafening chaos of white noise nor the dumb blankness of the color white. Rather, it is the rainbow that separates out the colors of the spectrum, and reveals each in its own wonderful hue. *

Going back to John Rowan's 📙 Subpersonalities, we get an autobiographical glimpse that suggests the late Dr. Rowan would have been a wonderful presence in the Twitter circles where I see people exploring their own inner parts:

Then I took an LSD trip (perhaps more common then than now, but in any case something familiar to me – I regarded myself as something of an astronaut of inner space), with the explicit object of getting into each of these personalities in turn, and asking the same eleven questions of each of them. This was an extremely useful exercise, which made a number of things very much clearer to me, and made me feel that here was something quite powerful, which could be pushed quite a long way in terms of self-understanding and self-acceptance. *

I don't know much about Jung, so it was interesting to learn that his notion of "complexes" basically refers to subpersonalities. I like Jung's word, actually. Rowan quotes Jung:

The tendency to split means that parts of the psyche detach themselves from consciousness to such an extent that they not only appear foreign but lead an autonomous life of their own. It need not be a question of a hysterical multiple personality, or schizophrenic alterations of personality, but merely of so-called ‘complexes’ that come entirely within the scope of the normal. *

He goes on to show a lot of interesting references to various psychologists, which I skimmed and then skipped over to the later sections about the transpersonal, when he starts looking beyond the arena of selves and personalities towards something more holistic.

We have left it ambiguous as to whether there is such a thing as the Real Self, or the Higher Self (Transpersonal Self, Greater Self, Deeper Self, Inner Self, Self with a big S, and so on), or whether there is such a thing as the soul. In a way this is not a particularly important issue. There is plenty of work to be done, as we saw in the previous chapter, regardless of how we may wish to answer this question. But at the same time it would be cowardly not to admit that there is a real question here, even though it may be difficult to answer. *

After treating multiplicity so thoroughly, this question feels somehow more pragmatic and real than it does when asked in other contexts of spirituality and philosophy. It's like admitting subpersonalities makes it clear that selves exist just as much as flowers and animals, so we can go on to think more clearly about whether there are also processes that integrate or transcend those Weird Fishes.

Rowan here begins to draw on Ken Wilber with whom I am only very vaguely familiar. I haven't finished reading this part yet, but it feels like it's kind of similar to David Chapman and Meta-Rationality and Robert Kegan's 📙 The Evolving Self and so on. First you are a little baby, then you develop a confused adolescent multiplicity, then you gather yourself as an adult and make yourself kind of coherent, you even develop a playful agility of moving between selves, but beyond all this there's a next level of development, which is the Transpersonal.

Rowan describes coming to a point of integration that transcends the subpersonalities, but then realizing that those selves are still there.

Now certainly the subjective experience here is an experience of unity. It seems to us as if we are for the first time one and single, and as if the subpersonalities are no more than aspects as seen from outside. It feels as if we are real, and as if there is one person taking responsibility for all that we say and do. All the stirring phrases of existential philosophy seem to have come true: ‘Free and alone, without assistance and without excuse’; ‘There are no limits – our own choice is everything’; ‘To be that self which one truly is’; ‘The encounter is here and now’; ‘I create my world’. So what has happened to the subpersonalities? After a while, I believe, we find that they are still there, even though they may have been transformed in various ways. *

That's the point at which one can launch the next Pokémon evolution of one's psyche.

That is all very well, but Wilber says that it is not the end of the road. What we now come on to, if we continue with the process of development – and we now have some choice over this too – are the transpersonal bands. *

I'm curious to learn what that's all about.

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