How sub-personalities are born

This is a story about how sub-personalities are born. They are the loyal soldiers that patrol the psyche. They are the defence mechanisms that keep us safe, yet more often than not, also keep us trapped, once they’ve passed their sell-by date.

Little Amy is resting quietly in her mother’s womb, softly rocking to the gentle rhythm of her mother’s heart. A dawning awareness of selfhood bathes her without words. She is just body sense, rocking gently, safely held. She experiences a state of gentle joy, waiting for her life to unfold, inwardly watching, hearing, sensing.

In this quiet state of being Amy becomes aware of visitors to this realm. No one is actually seen, or heard, but there is a sense, nevertheless, of knowing that these visitors are all part of her, parts that are to be, to the outside world, aspects of Amy. For now, swaying gently to her mother’s walk, she is whole but one day some of these parts will be invited out to play, while others will not. Some will just disappear backstage while others will evolve to a more distorted version of themselves. All this Amy will know yet she won’t remember until the pain of being separate from her whole self becomes too great.

She watches as each self-part comes by; Courage and Bold leading the parade, as do Caring for Myself and Others. Like the director of her own play she watches Fair Critic scuttling by, busy with a clipboard in her hands to note all that needs noting. Oh, and there are Joy, and Playful, as well as Shy, bashfully hiding behind Bold. Responsible is there too, with a slight frown between her eyebrows. And there are Curious and Intelligent, with academic hats on their heads to prove their point, and far, far behind them, a limping Mathematician…. On and on her inner cast presents itself to Amy, who just lies there, observing and smiling. This is Amy, all of Amy, all her potential, all the characters she will at one time or another be able to play in the theatre of her life… and she giggles, burps and enjoys the parade.

But as she is watching, she notices something strange. Some parts seem to have a twin following them. Not quite seen, nor real, more of a whisper of what might come. Fair Critic is twinned with Unreasonable. Boldness has a Dare devil shimmering in her wake and Caring-for-Others is closely followed by Pleaser. Amy knows she must remember this, but already her gaze fades and she becomes tired. Thumb in mouth she rocks back to sleep and lets the world turn without her a little longer.

Making early life decisions

Amy is now walking and talking, and her days in the womb are slowly fading from her consciousness. Neither forgotten nor remembered, her inner world is caught up in a lively dance with the people around her. Mummy loves Playful and Bold, but doesn’t seem to have much time for Shy. “Come on Amy, say hello to the nice lady, shake hands, just like I taught you.” And when Shy would rather hide behind mummy’s skirts, Bold takes over and moves forward with an outstretched hand. Amy is praised. That feels nice. Bold gets brownie points. Shy loses and is slowly pushed into the shadows.

And Daddy is a funny one. He likes Playful a lot, and his Playful really likes to do the silliest things. But then, suddenly, when their joint Playfuls knock over vases and tables he will get cross and say ‘Look what we did, you should have checked Amy, you should have seen there was something behind you.” Then Fair Critic comes along with her clipboard and makes notes. Fair Critic knows that she needs to protect Amy by keeping a score of everything that goes wrong so she can avoid it happening again. But Fair is confused, because Amy can’t yet tell Daddy it was his job to look out for the vases, not hers. Amy can’t tell if Daddy is cross with her or with himself, and gradually she begins to talk to herself in the same tone of voice that he does; “stupid me, I should have known, it’s all my fault…”

Slowly but surely the Pleaser is born. Pleaser knows what is needed to stay connected to the people who take care of you and whose care and attention you still need to survive. Pleaser was unhealthy twin that walked behind Caring-for-Others, but now both aspects of Caring retreat to the shadows, since Caring-for-Myself is called Selfish by the grownups, and not liked.

Beliefs revisited and life decisions mellowed or deepened.

At school Critic and Pleaser help her to figure out what the teachers want her to be, and what the other children expect from her. Here Playful is allowed much more space and broken things don’t matter as much, so Critic feels she can rest a little and is even revisited by Fair, especially when Miss Gillian is around. This is her favourite teacher and she always tells Amy to try and remember we all make mistakes and that it is more important to try and fail than not to try at all. 

Mister Jarvis keeps asking her why she doesn’t understand her fractions and divisions, and instead of being able to tell him she has a limping Mathematician in her cast, she finds a new character; Misunderstood Rebel. Playful and Bold are co-opted by the Misunderstood Rebel to create a bit of chaos in the world and for a while Amy gets a lot of attention from the other children in the class. They giggle when they see her come into the classroom, waiting for the Rebel to enliven their day. But Miss Gillian is sad and she talks to Amy about acting out. Amy can’t tell her that Mister Jarvis is being unreasonable to her, but Pleaser and Critic quickly step in to save the day. Rebel, Playful and Bold once more disappear back into the shadows, though shouting loudly from the wings hoping to get her attention. Sometimes Amy gets so tired of hearing them argue that she gets tummy aches. Caring-For-Me makes an appearance helped by Miss Gillian, and the school nurse calls home to say Amy needs some extra cuddles. But after a few weeks her mum and dad run out of patience with her, and Caring-For-Me is once more distorted to Selfish.

Mummy and Daddy have been cross with each other since Amy’s little brother arrived. He doesn’t seem to have Playful, Bold, or any of the other characters. He just seems to have Sick and Not Well. Amy feels sad for him and with the help of Pleaser decides that Responsible is now called for. She blocks out her tummy aches knowing that it is Selfish to ask for attention now. She learns how to take care of herself, and eventually even forgets what it feels like to have others caring for her. She is praised for being Strong and Responsible, and this just confirms her understanding that Caring-for-Me equals Selfish, and that others need her more than that she needs others. After a few difficult years her little brother gets better and soon everyone in the family returns to life as normal. But by then Amy has forgotten about Playful, Caring-For-Me and Bold, and a new Executive is formed by Pleaser, Critic and Responsible. If, in later years, she does think of them, it is with a childlike nostalgia. “That was then, and this is now”, her Executive tells her, please don’t dwell.

I am what I am – and sometimes I’m not

As Amy grows into a beautiful strong self-sufficient woman she describes herself as Strong and able to see to other’s needs, (that’s the great job of the Pleaser), not terribly smart (the Unreasonable Critic reminds her often), and seriously dedicated to her work (since Playful is childish). If someone had told her more than half of all she might be is waiting back stage, in the wings, like half broken action dolls in an old toy chest, she’d laugh and tell them not to be so fanciful. She is what she is, and that’s the end of it.

But sometimes… sometimes she is haunted by these lost parts, and sometimes even kidnapped. Once in a while, when Unreasonable Critic is turned the other way and Pleaser lost in her thoughts, she might suddenly find herself taking risks and charging forward, just as she used to do as a child. And because Bold is no longer balanced by Shy, and Courageous no longer tempered by Intelligent, these adventures lead her into terrible trouble, with Daredevil and Misunderstood Rebel leading the way. It never lasts long, and soon enough the Unreasonable Critic will put her back in her place, and Responsible will do what it takes to lock Bold and Courageous away in a box marked dangerous.

One night Amy lies dreaming in that sweet state of heightened consciousness where all we seek in the world is temporarily forgotten and different worlds open up. Amy is visited by all the cast members that have been relegated to the wings. Amy watches them as she once did while lying in her mother’s womb, but this is now a sorry parade. Unreasonable Critic and Pleaser are leading them on like prison guards; Courage and Bold walk stooped like old men, Caring-for-Myself is weighed down by Selfish, riding on her shoulders, the Fair part of Critic has shrunk to a dot, while Joy and Playful don’t even seem to know they exist. Responsible walks tall, but looks tired, and far, far behind the rest come the Misunderstood Rebel holding the limping Mathematician.

Hot tears stream down Amy’s face as she wakes up, without really remembering why they are falling. But hot tears keep falling, day after day, and Depression rears its head for the first time. Amy is exhausted. Even the Executive is exhausted. After all, they all meant well. They meant to keep Amy safe from harm, safe from ridicule and safe from the pain of being unloved even if it means Amy’s life is half un-lived.

Waking up to the inner parliament

When Amy walks into the treatment room for the first time her bossy inner Executive comments on every little thing; Unreasonable Critic can’t help fretting over the dust balls under the chairs, while Pleaser tries to find ways of complimenting the friendly lady on her hair. Eventually the Executive manages to get it together enough to explain to the woman quietly listening that they need help to stop Amy from having these ridiculous outbursts of Daredevil behaviour. And soon they are falling over themselves to give examples of how badly Amy behaves. Surely the competent lady agrees.

But then the kind lady does a strange thing, and asks Amy how she feels, observing that she hears that Amy is quite tough on herself, unsure of how to please, while responsibly pointing out to her, the kind lady, what needs to be fixed. Amy is so used to her inner Executive trotting out her life story that she is thrown by the question. The kind lady persists, “but what about YOU, Amy, how do YOU feel? And then, just for a moment, she experiences a strong sense of injustice, of being reined in, held back, belittled. In fact she realises she feels angry, judged, and somewhere deep inside she begins to hear the echoes of her Misunderstood Rebel speaking with the strong voice of Bold. And she notices Courageous and Shy, holding hands, trying to show her that they are there and willing to work together. And in that moment, in that small glimpse of something beyond mere survival, beyond Pleasing, Amy finds her first steps on the hard journey of regaining her true place of leadership within her own theatre. In time she will regain the witnessing role of the wise Director that knows how to let the whole cast play, with the inner freedom to choose, moment by moment which combinations of characters are called for.

And what does the kind lady do? She watches, and welcomes, and helps the Director to grow strong and clear. Gradually democracy returns to Amy’s inner world, and the kind lady smiles while the room fills with grace, as one more human being returns to being as much of her selves as she dares to be; moment by moment, in the ever changing theatre that is Life.


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