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Embracing Our Selves

By John Kent

Have you ever heard yourself say something like...

"A part of me wants to read this article - but another part of me can't be bothered and wants to watch that programme on TV."

"Whenever I upset someone I feel guilty and then I beat myself up for being insensitive."

Most of us go through our lives under the illusion that we are consistent, singular personalities or 'I's'. But implicit in the statements above is the realisation that we are made up of many different 'I's' - also called selves or parts - each of which has a different perspective and voice. To ask, "Who is the 'I' that wants to read and who is the 'I' that doesn't?" or, "Who is the 'I' that is insensitive to others and who is the 'I' that beats 'me' up?" is to begin an incredible journey of self discovery - or more precisely, 'selves discovery.' So, where do these selves come from?

Primary selves
No matter into which culture we are born we all share a common human experience: vulnerability. The human baby is born vulnerable and must be taken care of by others in order to survive. This means each of us has to develop a personality that will get our essential needs met from the adults around us. These needs can be summarised as:

  • Attention - notice me and take care of me
  • Approval - show me that you like and accept my way of being and doing
  • Affection - love me

The three 'A's' never go away. Our Vulnerable Self remains with us our entire lives and much of our adult behaviour is unconsciously driven by its core needs. Just think how you would feel today if you walked into a room and nobody noticed you; or if people told you that they disapprove of your behaviour, style, or way of being; or if someone said that they don't care about you or even hate you! Ouch!! Your vulnerability is hit and this can cause you to feel intense emotional pain.

To handle our vulnerability and get these basic needs met we begin to develop a personality made up of a group of protecting selves. These dominant or primary selves look around and notice what behaviour is rewarded and what is punished. They figure out the rules of our specific family, environment and culture, and have us behave in ways that are most likely to get the adults around us to satisfy our needs.

Our primary selves - which can shift and change as our life circumstances change - are unique to each of us. However, generic examples might be:

  • Pleaser: "You must always be nice to others."
  • Pusher: "You must work hard to succeed."
  • Responsible: "You must act appropriately."

These primary selves - each with its own voice - form a powerful operating system. They run our lives and determine our values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. As we grow up they colour the way we see others and also how others see us. They determine what we like and dislike and what we judge and don't judge. For most of us our operating system is us. We are identified with it. It is who we think we are. But that is only half the picture.

Hidden selves
There is no up without down, no fast without slow, no happy without sad. Life is full of these dualities. So for every primary self that we identify with there has to be an opposite self that we have hidden away, buried, or disowned. Opposites of the above examples would be:

  • Selfish: "You must put your own needs first."
  • Easy Going: "Relax, kick back, things will take care of themselves."
  • Rebellious: "Don't do what is expected of you."

The more strongly we identify with a particular primary self, the more deeply we have to bury its opposite energy. Remember: the job of our primary selves is to protect our vulnerability. They are terrified that their opposites will come out and cause problems. Their worst fear is that people around us will see these disowned selves and withdraw their attention, approval and affection from us. People will say for example, "How could you be so selfish / lazy / disrespectful?!!"

Using attraction and judgement to learn about our selves
Most of us are so identified with the primary selves that run our lives that we have no idea that these opposite selves are alive and well and living somewhere inside us. Imagine a woman who has developed a very strong Pleaser self. She always feels driven to be nice to other people, help them in any way she can and make sure that they are happy. This was what was demanded of her as she grew up in her original family. If ever she was not nice to other people and put herself first she felt the intense negative judgements of the adults around her.

Typically she might meet a man who is the opposite of her. He will be more self-centered and be able to say "no" to the demands of others. He will be able to set clear boundaries and be able to ask people to do things for him without worrying about their feelings all the time. She may be irresistibly and mysteriously attracted to him. Or she may feel very judgemental towards him for being so selfish, self-serving and insensitive to others. She may even marry him and spend her life alternating between attraction/love and judgement!

What is going on in this example? There is an old proverb that says, "When we point the finger of judgement at another person there are three fingers pointing back to us". Judgements come from our primary selves. It is the woman's Pleaser self who judges those "selfish" people. Whenever we feel a judgement towards another person we need to pay attention to the particular trait or traits that we are judging because this will tell us what selves we are identified with and what selves we have therefore disowned.

Through Voice Dialogue we can learn how to separate from our primary selves and find out the rules they have for running our lives. We can learn and understand their demands, hopes and anxieties. This means that we need no longer be overly influenced by their default attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours. Only then are we able to become more aware of the opposite disowned selves within us and find a space to stand between them where we can exercise conscious choice. This space we call the Aware Ego.

The Aware Ego process
Every time we access and then separate from a primary or disowned self we enter into and strengthen the Aware Ego. For example, if you are strongly identified with your Pusher and then you separate from it, the "you" that began the Voice Dialogue session is no longer the same "you" because you are no longer identified with your Pusher. You are then free to go to the other side and access your Easy Going self, understand its motivation and then separate from it. When you come back to centre you are again a new "you" - one that is now no longer identified with your Pusher or with your Easy Going self. Resting between these two is the Aware Ego.

The Aware Ego is constantly in process - a process of learning to stand in the space between opposites. Since there are literally hundreds of opposite selves, the process is a dynamic one and continually evolving. There is always something new to learn about our selves. It is truly a process of compassion for every aspect of our psyche in which none are judged as good or bad. This inevitably increases our capacity for awareness (the traditional witness position of the meditator), acceptance and appropriate action.

A Voice Dialogue session
A Voice Dialogue session might take an hour or more. The form is quite simple. The client sits opposite the facilitator and moves his or her chair to different places in order to access the different selves that wish to speak. After talking to a self the client moves back to the starting place - the Aware Ego. The facilitator's skill lies in helping the client experience each self fully and then separate from it. In a typical session the facilitator may talk to three or four different selves.

It is important to understand that Voice Dialogue is not a technique for getting rid of any part of us. Rather, it is a natural and inclusive process that enables us to embrace and respect all of the many selves that exist inside us without making any of them wrong. It is safe because we always talk first to the primary self that is in charge of keeping the client secure - for example, a Protector or Controller self - and get its permission to go ahead with the session. We never try to circumvent or violate the rules of the primary selves. Each session unfolds at the client's own pace.

Having dialogued with a particular set of selves and given them voice, the client is now able to stand between them with more awareness, not flip-flopping and being pulled first in one direction and then the other. Voice Dialogue gives us an opportunity to find a place of calm consideration and discernment rather than visceral judgement or unconscious reaction. It enables us to step back from our habitual ways of being and doing and therefore have more choice in how we handle what life brings us.

Born in London, John Kent (email) has lived and worked worldwide as a communication trainer, seminar leader and facilitator. He studied Voice Dialogue with Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone and has over 20 years experience both in offering Voice Dialogue workshops and in conducting private sessions. For more information about Voice Dialogue or to contact John about his workshops and private consultations check
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