by Thomas Zinser, Ed.D.
In Part 1 of this introduction to Soul-Centered Healing, A Paradigm Shift, I talked about the energetic, psychic, and spirit dimensions of the self. They are levels not recognized yet by modern medicine and most of psychology. In Soul-Centered Healing, these are the levels where much of the healing work is focused.
I also listed four main categories of phenomena that are most frequently involved in a person’s healing process. They are not physical phenomena, but their effects can manifest at emotional, psychological, and physical levels.
The first category of phenomena is ego-states.
An ego-state, or sub-personality, is a part of the self created by the mind to take over when the self can no longer consciously tolerate what is happening in his or her experience. This split in consciousness is what psychologists call dissociation. The self dissociates from experience. In the extreme, it’s as though for the self, it just didn’t happen. Dissociation is considered one of the major psychological defenses.
“Nature abhors a vacuum.” When the conscious self splits away, it’s as though the mind creates a clone of the self, a temporary stand-in, whose function is to be the self in those moments and do whatever is necessary to survive and/or protect the self from pain.
The problem is that once an ego-state is created, it does not just dissolve or disappear when the trauma or crisis is past. Once the self resumes consciousness, the ego-state moves to an unconscious level where, depending on several factors, they can still affect the conscious personality, even years later.
There are a number of schools of psychology that recognize and deal with ego-states as a valid phenomenon. They go by different names—ego-states, sub-personalities, or alter-personalities—and there are many different therapeutic approaches to working with these parts of the self.
There is not always agreement, however, on how to understand or view these parts of the self.
Soul-Centered Healing also recognizes that ego-states are real and, under certain conditions, can significantly affect the conscious personality. This is one of those places, though, where the shift in paradigms happens. SCH goes a step further than traditional psychology is willing to go. It views ego-states, not just as psychological states, but as conscious beings. It is a limited consciousness to be sure, usually limited to the world of experience in which the ego-state was created.
Ego-states exist in a psychic realm. (It’s the best term I have for it right now.) It’s a place outside time and space. It’s a reality sustained by the ego-state’s own energy and consciousness. We would see it as a slice in time. Yet to the ego-state, it is its whole world. They live in their own eternal present.
It’s a realm governed by the laws of consciousness, not matter. In these realms, a ten year-old can fly, and a child can hide in a thimble. It’s a realm more akin to the dreamworld, where consciousness lives unfettered from the flesh. In fact, our ego-states often present in our dreams and give us glimpses into this psychic world. Like Peter Pan and his band of boys, most ego-states do not grow up unless, or until, they are awakened to a different consciousness. Most of these inner beings are not even aware of the conscious personality or current reality.
They are created especially in childhood and adolescence when the ego-self is most vulnerable and ego identity is still developing. Ego-states are also created in adulthood, but not as frequently, unless a person is subjected to ongoing trauma. An adult’s ego-defenses are usually more developed than a child’s. Adults usually have developed coping mechanisms that enable them to deal with the outside world without being overwhelmed.
Not surprisingly, ego-states often appear as a “copy” of the conscious personality at the moment of its creation. It may be wearing the same clothes, be the same age, or be an exact duplicate, for example. However, ego-states can take any form the mind calls for in its attempt to meet the needs of the situation. An ego-state can be as tiny as Tom Thumb (all the better to hide) or they can be built like the Hulk (waiting to explode).
Most ego-states perceive themselves as having a body. Given the opportunity, it can communicate to you about itself: whether it is in human form or not, what it is wearing, how old it is, whether it is male or female, and where it is. Often, they have names. They feel; and they react to pain and pleasure.
Every ego-state, though, is a unique creation of the person it is part of. We might find similar ego-states among different people because they serve the same function or were created in similar situations, but every ego-state is a unique being. They can range anywhere from dormant to very active in one’s life. They can be strongly involved in particular areas of a person’s functioning, or they might be triggered periodically by events in the person’s conscious reality.
If you’ve ever been surprised by an intense emotional reaction to someone or some situation, or if you’ve ever said later, “I don’t know what came over me”, chances are you’ve experienced an ego-state. The conscious person is usually aware when an ego-state has been triggered, though they wouldn’t necessarily think about it in those terms. A panic attack, a fit of rage, or a sudden feeling of rejection could all be examples. A person knows when these feelings and thoughts have been triggered, but usually does not understand why, or why they are so intense. A person may give little thought to the episode afterward, unless it gets them into trouble in some way, or they begin to recognize it as a pattern.
The Price of Protection
Ego-states are created for protection, but it comes with a price. Most ego-states live in a state of pain or distress. They are not created in the fun, happy times. They are created in times of trauma and pain, hurt and confusion, and this is the reality they take with them into the unconscious. This in itself can be a problem for a person. Deep pain or hurt, even though encapsulated at an unconscious level, can still affect the self. Like nuclear waste, the toxic energy continues to emit its deadly emanations.
Problems arise also when events in one’s conscious reality trigger an ego-state. Usually, it’s because what’s happening in current reality matches the ego-state’s own situation, feelings, or perceptions. An experience of rejection in the present, for example, can trigger a four year-old ego-state who was created in an experience of rejection by a parent. The ego-state responds to the threat, not from the conscious self’s point of view in the present, but from within its own experience and perception. It will respond in the same way it did in the original trauma.
This is where ego-states can become a problem for the conscious self. Their reaction and defense is based on old information, but they don’t know that. And unless the conscious self is aware that an ego-state has been triggered, he or she may be caught up in the reaction or left confused by the aftermath of feelings and thoughts.
The Healing Process
In Soul-Centered Healing, ego-states are frequently a central focus in the healing process because they are so often a source of a person’s pain, fear, or confusion. Within the context of healing, the question is whether an ego-state(s) is significantly involved in the client’s presenting problem or complaint? If so, then the aim of healing is to identify it and help it move through a process of sharing and release. This is basic Freudian psychology: bringing the repressed experience to consciousness leads to abreaction and release. In the process, the ego-state is released from its too narrow reality into an expanded consciousness that can integrate with the self in the present.