Lockdown Emergence: Integrating Our Various Selves
During the rage of COVID-19, few people have been able to continue, unmodified, the daily life schedule they employed before the pandemic. The months of “sheltering-in-place” incarceration have generated some wonderful humour (witness all the jokes about home schooling and weight gain!), and more than a little reflection on what truly matters — and what, therefore, we actually need. At this writing, The Guardian has published a clever article asking readers what their “pandemic personality” is. From the “Smug introvert” to the “Urban escape artist” to the “The shamer”, the months of lockdown have engendered for many a more in-depth examination of who they are (Benwell, 2020). In this article, we take the opportunity to move that question a step forward, asking “What do your various ‘selves’ coming forward now say about what you need?”
Subpersonalities: The ‘many’ constellating to meet needs of the ‘one’
Let us backtrack a moment to explain how we got to that question.
The multitudes within us
Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal therapy, is based on the notion that we are all a “multitude” of selves. Even though we may wake up, go through the day, and pop back into bed with one sense of “I-ness” — of one whole self that is navigating through life — we can acknowledge that different, often conflicted, attitudes, beliefs, and drives are operating within that one same person: us. It is not that hard to see the “many” that live within our one same personality, as we acknowledge the various sides of ourselves that may become dominant at different times to handle different situations (Ferruci, 1982; Assagioli, 1965; Vargiu, 1974). For example, we may have a furious row over breakfast with a partner defending some action, only to say with the sweetest smile to the boss a few hours later that we are “more than happy” to do the project no one else put their hand up for. Later in the day, still another side may come forward as our hilarious political remarks engender side-splitting laughter from friends. Each part running the show for a time has its own gestures, thoughts, feelings, and means of expression. In fact, each constitutes a miniature personality, or what Psychosynthesis calls a “subpersonality”.
Mostly we concede this inner diversity: “Oh, yes,” we say, “That is true; I have several sides to myself.” But we are nevertheless surprised when we or others act “out of character”. Out of which character, we can ask? Which aspect of ourselves is so dominant that that part is deemed to be the person’s total “character”? And here are some important questions if you are working, in the wake of the pandemic, with clients experiencing a crisis of identity or transformation: which parts — formerly squashed down by other, more dominant subpersonalities — are now emerging to challenge the (normally) powerful character(s)? What is the psychological cost to the client of having been out of touch with other parts? And what, finally, do those emerging subpersonalities need?
Arising to meet needs
Psychosynthesis takes it “as read” that those of us inhabiting a body have needs; to be human is to have needs. Logically, then, the rational person takes steps to meet the needs, no? Yet therein lies the rub — and also the grand opportunity that COVID-19 has afforded many. Subpersonalities arise, or “constellate” to meet needs, yet those needs are not always met very fully, or at all (Ferruci, 1982; Vargiu, 1974). The (seemingly new) “pandemic personalities” referred to in The Guardianarticle (Benwell, 2020) are the subpersonalities within us that have heretofore been “in hiding”: squashed down by more dominant parts of ourselves, which had managed to convince us that the weaker parts didn’t deserve to see the light of day. Obviously, we will not work hard to meet the needs of parts of ourselves that we do not recognise or accept that we have. An example will illuminate our point.
A shifting of identification
Let’s take one of the “new” personalities named in The Guardian — the “Radically progressive traditional housewife” — and see how her life could be playing out with the lockdown. Let’s say her name is Jill, she’s a late-30s or early-40s CEO of a medium enterprise, wife, and the mother of a couple of nearly teenage sons. Perhaps Jill’s life in recent years has been an exhausting round of work, travel for work, and mad scrambles to (sort-of) keep up with domestic obligations. She says she loves her work, yet she is also chronically exhausted, on the edge of burnout, and in danger of disconnecting emotionally from friends and family as she meets perennially challenging work deadlines. But along comes the coronavirus and Jill is told to “work from home” for the duration of the lockdown. The sudden lack of need to commute to the office or to travel interstate affords her much time and she suddenly finds — to the amazement of all — that she can’t get enough of baking banana bread, although she feels vaguely guilty doing it! In Psychosynthesis-speak, what just happened here?
Identification and disidentification
A Psychosynthesis practitioner would note that Jill was heavily identified with her “Executive” subpersonality: a part of herself that may believe that career aims are to be achieved at all costs, that the world does not reward lazy people, and that no price is too great to pay to achieve recognition on the career ladder. Perhaps she had parents who rewarded work achievements, or who were high-achievers at work themselves. For whatever reason, Jill became very identified with her role of CEO, so much so that other parts of her were stunted in their expression: not least because there was no time for them to express with any dominance. But once Jill is home, week after week, she begins cooking and baking — and likes it, despite niggling guilt and worries. Her family gobbles up the results and they all live happily ever after, right? Not so fast.
Through the baking, Jill may have become identified with another part of herself, which constellates to meet her (heretofore squashed down) needs: perhaps to relax, to care for others, to be free to eat what she wants, or to just be. The new part — suddenly popular with Jill and the whole family — encroaches on The Executive’s position of power (i.e., Jill becomes disidentified from The Executive). The emergent part challenges The Executive and jostles with it for supremacy or “floor time” in Jill’s life. Does The Executive go down without a whimper? Of course not. Seemingly, it will be allowed to become dominant again (i.e., Jill will re-identify with it) once the lockdown restrictions are eased and Jill goes back to work, but if we believe what many are writing as we come into a post-pandemic world, the reality is that the time at home has, for many, allowed the fresh expression of subpersonalities that were dormant for years. Once awakened, they don’t wish to go back into hiding again, with the result that the subpersonalities are now in huge conflict with one another, and with the total person (meaning, in this case, Jill). Which one will Jill identify with more now? Which one’s needs will she attempt to meet?
The process of synthesis
To understand what is in store for Jill, or indeed for any of us who have spent time lately in reflection about who we “really” are, it is useful to re-examine what happens — and the potentially transformative results that can obtain — when we begin to identify a new part of ourselves emerging. The process of synthesis, as noted, is that of recognising and accepting our needs: all of them. But when, for whatever reason, we judge that certain needs (such as, say, to nurture others, to set boundaries, to achieve recognition, or to deeply relax) are not deemed important by more dominant parts of ourselves, those needs are repressed but still remain. Eventually, they form (constellate) into a subpersonality which demands attention by “acting out”: that is, acting in ways that may dismay us. Sadly, there is no true peace in the land until such parts’ needs have been met, and living in our wholeness requires that we undertake the demanding process of synthesising (integrating) such “wayward” parts into our whole self (Assagioli, 1967).
So what happens if, post-lockdown, a client presents with a new “identity” that they are struggling to understand or they are upset because they have now awakened substantial inner conflict as a result of experiencing a new subpersonality at odds with recognised ones? What steps can you guide them through to re-establish inner harmony — and we would say — preserve the precious gains from lockdown reflection? We can boil the process down to six aspects that should be reviewed in the order listed: 1. Description; 2. Worldview; 3. Behaviour; 4. Wants; 5. Needs; 6. Quality. We created a mnemonic to help you remember that: “Doing Wonderful Behaviour Will Never Stop”. Here’s what’s involved:
Begin by asking your client to imagine the newly discovered subpersonality standing in front of her. Get your client to describe what the subpersonality looks like (including gender), how it moves, and how it is dressed. Invite her to tell you its name, and how she feels about it as she gazes at it. Be prepared to hear such things as “Gimlet eyes”, “An ugly little old man cowering”, or perhaps in Jill’s case, “just a housewife: a fat, not-very-smart, non-achiever”. The more colourful the description, the better, as it will give both you and the client good information about how the subpersonality is being viewed. Ask your client to tell you what she thinks of it, and how she feels about it as she gazes at it. Again, there may be fear, but quite often the feeling is more one of revulsion or loathing.
Even if the subpersonality is only emerging now, your client will nevertheless have some ideas about their worldview, or way of seeing the world. For instance, Jill (above) may be concerned that her new part, “Sally Stay-at-home”, just bakes all the time because she is “too dumb” or “too lacking in ambition” to do anything useful in lockdown. Obviously, the lens through which the subpersonality is viewing the world will explain much about its behaviours, wants, and needs.
Ask your client to describe the subpersonality’s behaviour, in as precise a way as possible. For instance, Jill may first say, “This part is disgustingly home-oriented, lazy, and is soon going to weigh a ton!” That’s a start, but it’s ultimately more helpful if Jill can say (less judgmentally) “Sally baked banana bread or some fattening treat every day this past week — and didn’t exercise at all; not once did she open an edifying book, such as a self-help one!” You and the client both need to know in what ways the subpersonality is acting out if that behaviour is to be transformed to something more congruent with its good core and the rest of the client’s personality.
What does the subpersonality want? Get your client to give you a full description of the wants (available at “surface” level, without too much digging), because the clearer these are, the more information you both have to dig down to deeper levels in a moment. Subpersonality ‘Sally’ may want to rebel against dietary guidelines she normally follows, use up ripe bananas, or even find a way to distract her bored sons from lockdown. She may want to rebel against her very structured, high-energy life as a CEO.
Ask your client to tell you what this subpersonality needs. The needs are lying beneath the wants, and are not as immediately obvious. In fact, they are largely inferred. If your client has been following along with this process, however, she will probably be able to respond, possibly with prompting, to this question. In the example we have been following, meeting Sally’s needs may very well offer Jill a much-needed sense of self-expression, an opportunity to express love for her family, a way to enjoy “down” time where no particular “achievement” is expected (apart from the item coming out of the oven ok), or even a “legitimate” way to have sweet treats that she otherwise denies herself for fear of gaining weight. You get the idea; there are many possibilities.
Once we are talking about true needs, not just the more superficial wants, we are getting very close to the core of the subpersonality, and beginning to get a real idea about what “makes it tick”. All of this sets you and your client up to proceed to the most revealing step: the core, at which you both discover the spiritual quality that the subpersonality would manifest were it not to have been distorted with unfulfilled need.
Spiritual quality (Stop)
As you and your client approach this step, be sure to observe your client keenly; are there any signs of a softening toward this subpersonality? How has the client shifted, if at all, her stance or attitude toward the part? You will ask this formally in a moment, but for right now, just gather the data; observe. Ask your client: “If ______ (say, ‘Sally’) could have her needs met, not just a little bit, but wholly and completely, what quality — a spiritual one — could come into your life (or come in more fully)?” (Mental Health Academy, 2013)
If clients have not “clicked” up to this point that the subpersonality is actually “on their side” — albeit acting from a narrow, misguided, “blinders-on” perspective — they often “get” it at this point. Meeting Sally’s needs may very well usher into Jill’s life the qualities of creativity and/or love expression, balance, and opportunity for “being”: freely, joyfully in the moment, without the need for “doing” or achieving. ‘Sally Stay-at-home’ may come to be recognised, ultimately, as a stepped-down version of “The Earth Mother”, or some similar spiritual archetype.
Ask the client how she sees and feels and thinks about her subpersonality now that she has been through this compassion-engendering exercise (Mental Health Academy, 2013).
“Keeping” the new subpersonalities: An argument for continuing synthesis
In the case of Jill, she is likely to still value the CEO part of herself. But if, post-lockdown, she is able to also enjoy occasional cooking and baking, or just staying at home having “down” time (no expectations!) with her family — without feeling guilty about such “non-achievement-oriented” or even fattening pursuits — she may have achieved the invaluable gain of welcoming back into her life a long-dormant part of herself. It is one whose emergence now can majorly contribute to a most elusive quest of many high-achieving westerners: the pursuit of wholeness. Ultimately, offering up “squashed-down” parts of ourselves for fresh examination may be the most valuable compensation COVID-19 gives us for all that lockdown pain!
- Assagioli, R. (1965). Psychosynthesis: A manual of principles and techniques. New York and Buenos Aires: Hobbs, Dorman & Company.
- Benwell, M. (2020). Smug introvert or urban escape artist: Find out your pandemic personality. The Guardian. Retrieved on 28 May, 2020, from: Website.
- Ferrucci, P. (1982). What we may be: Techniques for psychological and spiritual growth through Psychosynthesis. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
- Vargiu, J. (1974). Subpersonalities. Synthesis Vol 1: The realization of the Self. Redwood City, CA: The Synthesis Press.