Theoretical reflections on Psychosynthesis
Beth Hammarström 2010
Assagioli describes psychosynthesis as a dramatic conception of our psychological life, “which it portrays as a constant interplay and conflict between many different and contrasting forces and a unifying center which ever tends to control, harmonize and use them. It is a synonym for human growth, the ongoing process of integrating all the parts, aspects, and energies of the individual into a harmonious, powerful whole.”
Subpersonalities are people within us who express who we are. We create our subpersonalities to fill a real need. The need may be for protection from real or imagined dangers. We may need to be loved, to belong, to be seen, to express ourselves.
Subpersonalities fill a purpose when they are created but they become so rooted within our personality that we forget that they are not who we truly are. “A subpersonality is a synthesis of habit patterns, traits, complexes and other psychological elements. But in order to have a synthesis, there has to be a center around which the synthesis occurs. In a subpersonality, this center is an inner drive, or urge, which strives to be expressed, to be realized. It is this center that attracted and synthesized various personality elements to create what can be considered at its own ‘body’ – its own means expression.”
Subpersonality work entails coming in contact with our subpersonalities, finding out how they have served us, accepting that they were necessary when we created them and accepting that we can then use them if they still serve a purpose or control them if they interfere, thus integrating them into our personality. We learn to disidentify from a part of our personality so that it will no longer control us. Assagioli says, “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate, direct and utilize everything from which we disidentify ourselves.”
Because our subpersonalities are created to fill a need, there is a higher quality within them. For example, a very active critic subpersonality holds a need for discernment. In the process of disidentifying from the critic the quality of discernment will be revealed.
A subpersonality will have a polarity that is it’s opposite or related in some way. A person may have an active achiever, a do’er. The opposite is the be’er. If a client is mainly focused on her achiever, the be’er will be more or less unconscious. This is quite typical, that one subpersonality will dominate and the opposite will be unconscious. Until we consciously awaken and accept our opposite subpersonality we will not be able to fully use our resources because each subpersonality has qualities and gifts. We will then be able to transform these polarities into a higher form, a synthesis of both.
In working through subpersonalities we use the steps of: recognition – this pattern is a subpersonality, something one can control and not be controlled by, acceptance – realizing that this is part of one’s personality that has served one well at one time in one’s life, even if one doesn’t appreciate it now, coordination – understanding what the subpersonality needs and how and why it exists with its gifts and qualities, integration – bringing it closer into the field of consciousness and in relation to other subpersonalities under control of the ‘I’, and finally synthesis – this involves the polarity or subpersonality that is related and finding the higher quality and gifts these two contribute to a synthesized subpersonality that will serve better. The final step of synthesis is a process over time working with polarities – feeling the synthesis in the body and with grounding qualities of synthesis – i.e. the higher quality of discernment in the synthesis of the critic subpersonalities.
Assagioli defines synthesis as a development of a higher nature from the components – psychosynthesis. Two subpersonalities when thoroughly accepted and integrated into our field of awareness, close to our ‘I’, may then transform into a higher form, which synthesizes the higher qualities and gifts of both. This is not a compromise, but transformation into another subpersonality which is more than the sum of the parts.
Psychosynthesis is also reuniting with who we are, with our Self who already knows why we are here, our purpose, our suffering and our delights. “The self creates diversity from unity in order that all beings can find their way to realize the unity from whence they came and to which they are returning. We are divided for the sake of love, for in love we can find ourselves again and, in findings ourselves, discover that our separation was an illusion.” Psychosynthesis is a process of Self-actualization where in we are no longer separate, but one with all of creation. From our birth we are dependent upon our caregivers. In the process of maturing we separate from our caregivers and go through the process of finding ourselves, the process of individualization and on toward oneness with all of creation. “Developmental stages are the work of bringing connection to the Self. This is the great work of the alchemists, sometimes described as turning the lead of the ego into the gold of the self”.
This drive toward unity can be seen on the microcosmic level within us and on the macrocosmic in our relationships with man, nature and the universe. Assagioli speaks of the supreme synthesis. I connect deeply to Pierre Teilhard De Chardin description of this because I experience the feeling of “the earth opening and exploding upward into God; and the sense of God taking root and finding nourishment downward into Earth” within my body when I contact with nature. Uniting spirit with matter.
“The sense of the earth opening and exploding upward into God A personal transcendent God and an evolving Universe no longer forming two hostile centers of attraction, but entering into hierarchic conjunction to raise the human mass on a single tide. Such is the is the sublime transformation which we may with justice foresee, and which in fact is beginning to have its effect upon a growing number of minds, freethinkers as well as believers: the idea of a spiritual evolution of the Universe. The very transformation we have been seeking.”
“Assagioli saw that Self is not simply a passive presence, but continually acts via the transpersonal will to which we respond – or do not respond – with the freedom of our own personal will. This deeper will of Self is felt as an invitation to pursue particular directions in our lives. Such an invitation may be encountered in discovering an overall life direction as in the phenomena of a ‘call’ or ‘vocation’ and ‘dharma’, or in sensing the more here and now impulses to increased authenticity, more compassion, greater wholeness, and better relationships with others. This ongoing interplay between ‘I’ and Self is termed Self –realization by Assagioli.”
“The stunning paradox of human spiritual maturity is that, as we become one with all creation, we also at the same time become completely and uniquely ourselves”.
The more we learn to know and accept our subpersonalities, the more stable becomes our ‘I’, center of awareness and will, and the more we expand our field of awareness. The ‘I’ is the observer and we develop our sense of observing the more we use it. The ‘I’ is a projection of Self; it is the conscious self. “Because we are now more sure of who the ‘I’ is, we actually have more freedom to move around between the different ‘mes’, …… not compulsively this time but by choice”. In doing this we exercise our will, “the most immediate and direct function of the ‘I’”. As more material comes to consciousness and under control of ‘I’ from the lower unconscious and the higher unconscious as well as the middle unconscious, the field of awareness expands and the connection between ‘I’ and Self also becomes more conscious.
In the beginning, before the infant has developed a sense self or center, the mother is the external unifying center, mirroring the infant. As the infant starts to form its own unifying center a separation will occur. Will Parfitt places the ego as the organizing principle for our past, developing as a survival response to the infants fear of separation from the mother. He explains that as each crisis comes in our development we can “re-center at our core, ‘self’ or ‘I’ or remain in continuing reaction to our past, controlled by our ego”. We create our subpersonalities as responses and reactions to experiences in our life journey. He places the ego in the lower unconscious. As our ‘I’ strengthens, coming more and more in contact with our Self, we are able to disidentify from our ego needs, thus letting the ego die, one part at a time. This is not an easy process; the ego will put up a fight. “Moving to ‘I’ or Self as the center of one’s being rather than being centered on the ego is a life time work in progress”.
Love and Will
As a child we tend to develop either our love energy or our will energy. We are often rewarded or punished so that one or the other serves us. Assagioli felt that, “one of the principle causes of today’s disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving,” and therefore found it necessary for the integration and joining of love and will.
“The common denominator for the rich and ramified group of transpersonal phenomena is the subject’s feeling that his or her consciousness has expanded beyond the usual ego boundaries and has transcended the limitations of time and space”. Wilber describes these experiences as a transition from one level of consciousness to another. This coincides with my way of thinking. We are striving toward closer contact with Self and closer and more intimate contact with the God energy. The more we expand our consciousness, the more phenomena we come in contact with in our universe. Our reality expands. Self is transpersonal.
“The will is the function in closest relation to the self, the most direct expression of the self”. The will is central in psychosynthesis and Assagioli differentiates between the strong will, the skilful will, the good will and the transpersonal will. The simplest and most direct exercise of our will is through determined action and struggle. Assagioli stresses the importance of training the will by first realizing that there is a will, then that we have a will and finally realizing that we are a will – “being a will”. The will is the active principal of the self toward growing oneself.
The therapeutic relationship
The relationship between the therapist and client is the basis of therapy, and although the focus is upon the client, it contains healing power for both the therapist and client. Freud first expounded the phenomena of unconscious feelings transferring from the therapist to client and from client to therapist. He first thought these should be avoided and tried to maintain a distance from the client. He later came to see the value of this information as he realized that analyses involved not only the past, but also the present therapeutic relationship. “The clinical relationship contains within it the whole story of the patient’s problems, indeed the whole story of the patient’s life. It is an astonishing microcosm. And it lays before the therapist a remarkable opportunity, not only for learning the secrets of the human mind but for helping the patient as well. It was puzzling and painful to Freud that he had not found the way to extract the full potential from this opportunity."
Freud found two aspects of transference; the theory of templates, “In our earliest relationships we establish templates, patterns into which we tend to fit all of our subsequent relationships, or at least all of our important subsequent relationships.” And repetition compulsion, “we have a need to create for ourselves repeated replays of situations and relationships that were particularly difficult or troubling in our early years.” For the client the relationship with the therapist is an important relationship and as such the client will tend to see it in the light of earlier ones and will try to reenact earlier difficult situations. It was also found that the client might experience the relationship in terms of how he wished it had been. In the course of therapy, regardless of the therapist’s gender, the major relationships will be transferred onto the therapist.
Rogers took up the gambit in developing the quality of the therapeutic relationship with his concern for the client feeling loved. When therapy communicates genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard the client will be able to feel loved and appreciated. Rogers opened up to allowing the therapist to show feelings and thoughts in a transparent way. This necessitates a deep understanding and acceptance of ones own process as a therapist. In showing empathy for a client he encouraged acceptance both of the client and self-acceptance within the client. He emphasized the importance of holding the view that, “clients are worthwhile human beings struggling gamely to find their way back to their birthright of growth and self-development, and as such they should be prized.” He said we are the therapy; we are not doing therapy. He found no therapeutic value in diagnosis. Rogers believed that the purpose of life was to, “be that which one truly is”.
Gill went on to further develop the phenomena of transference in the therapeutic relationship in seeing it as an interpersonal situation. He felt it important for the client to not only remember the past, but to re-experience the past and the present and this time in the here and now directly in relation with the therapist. He felt that practically everything the client brings into the therapy room is about the relationship with the therapist.
Gill postulates that the conditions for therapeutic re-experiencing have been met if the therapist: “helps the client get in touch with these feelings, makes it safe for the client to express them, discusses these feelings with the client in a nonjudgmental, nondefensive, interested fashion, and eventually, when the therapy has progressed far enough, helps the client learn the ancient roots of these feelings.”
The therapist will inevitably awaken feelings and memories within the client and it is important to take responsibility for this by holding a nondefensive attitude and encouraging the client to explore her feelings and reactions. Gill instigated the movement called intersubjectivity or social constructivism, which means that, “just as the client’s conscious and unconscious responses affect the ongoing process, so do those of the therapist. There are two subjectivities in the consulting room.” He agreed with Freud that our unconscious expectations and needs strongly affect the way we interpret our environment, but he saw this not as a distortion, but as perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. We are constantly presented with ambiguous stimuli and situations that we interpret to the best of our ability. The advantage of therapy is that we have a chance to discuss what is going on thus making it less ambiguous. We become more aware of what is happening in the relationship and can carry this with us out into our world. Gill shows this by encouraging clients to, “increasingly become aware of their feelings about the therapist and helping them see how their old attitudes determine their interpretation of the events of therapy.” “The therapists nondefensive support and encouragement will be an unique experience for the client, and it is this experience which Gill sees as essential.”
Kohut, though he developed his theories before Gill, went further in increasing our understanding of the phenomena of transference and the value of empathy communicated to the client. He was concerned with “the development of the self, which goes on throughout the lifetime of the healthy individual.” Kohut postulated that there are three needs to be fulfilled so that the self may develop fully: the need to be mirrored, the need to idealize and the need to be like others.
The need to be mirrored
Our parents or caregivers first mirror us and if the mirroring is adequate so that we feel a sense of being appreciated then our “grandiose-exhibitionistic need is met” and we begin to develop a sense of self-esteem. Winnicott states that the child first becomes a unique, individual human being when mirrored by the caregiver, “When I am seen so I exist.” As a child we then start to mirror our selves through a process of what Kohut calls “transmuting internalization” thus building an important structure of the self. If this need is not met it does not become integrated into the developing personality resulting in feelings of worthlessness, insecurity and occasionally unrealistic grandiosity and boasting.
The need to idealize
The second need of a developing self is an “idealized parent imago”. The child needs to believe that at least one of the parents is calm, powerful and confident thus counting on help from them in a world where they are rather helpless. A child who is able to idealize a parent will gradually take on these powers themselves through transmuting internalization and develop a sense of power and confidence. This leads to a guiding star of ideals in their life as well as impulse control and a capacity for self-soothing in times of stress and pain.
The need to be like others
The third need of the developing self is the twinship need or the need to be like others. A child need to know that they have something in common with one or both parents thus developing a sense of belonging. People who have not filled this need will feel that they are not like other people; that they do not fit in.
“Kohut believed that a person’s sense of self is always dependent upon a connection to some other who is experienced as essential to that self.” This other he calls a self-object. If the child needs can be adequately met, she will develop a healthy self, which entails high self-esteem, a guidance system of ideals and values, and the self-confidence to develop one’s competence.” The development of the self is an ongoing process throughout our lives and we continue to need self-objects - people with whom we can mirror ourselves, idealize and feel a sense of twinship.
Kohut emphasizes the importance of empathy in “letting the clients that you are doing your best to understand the way things look to them.” Accepting what the client has to offer in the relationship with the therapist is the basis for growth. Resistance, fear, anger, love, blame are all parts of the clients history and they need to be received in an empathetic environment to set the scene for change and growth.
COEX – Condensed Experience System
COEX – Condensed Experience System – is a system of concentrated experiences, a compromised constellation of memories, experiences and fantasies. The COEX is identified with a basic hypothesis that we create when we are confronted with a primal wound such as a separation from vital caregivers, an invasion of our system, a threat of extinction. It is what pushes our buttons in a reactive emotional charge. We identify with this reaction by creating an affective identification that gives us a selective perception so that we interpret and arrange our experiences so that they meet our expectations. The COEX has a controlling or steering function in our existence so that we seek to repeat these situations time and time again. Every time we repeat the experience we receive verification and can say, “What did I tell you?” It is a well-known survival technique that we are familiar with. We can trace our COEX back to our birth, pre-birth or early childhood experiences.
It is essential to recognize and take responsibility for our COEX. The basic tenets are:
– We create the world we are most afraid of.
– We own responsibility for this world we have created.
– We can change this world.
– We do not give away our power to anyone else.
The rights of the soul - Massimo
The right to exist – to be here
This is the most basic right; there is a lot of fear involved - scary. The soul does not feel welcomed and the individual is very sensitive to how or if she feels welcomed. When we are not met, we are wounded in our soul which creates very deep needs with strong reactions. This is an offense to our spirit – the spirit is not woundable.
Mother earth is the “good enough” mother – when we go down into the earth we receive healing. Mistrust goes back to our right to exist.
This right holds the quality of staying or acceptance.
Assagioli, Roberto, The Act of Will, Turnstone Press, Great Britain, 1999
Brown, Molly Young, The Unfolding Self, Psychosynthesis Press, 2000
Firman, John and Gila, Ann, The Primal Wound, State University of New York Press, 1997
Grof, Stanislav, The Adventure of Self-Discovery, State University of the New York Press, Albany, 1988
Kahn, Michael, Between Therapist and Client, Henry Holt and Co, New York, 1997
Parfitt, Will, Psychosynthesis, the Elements and Beyond, PS Avalon, UK, 2003
Rowan, John, Subpersonalities, The People Inside Us, Routledge, London, 1995
Teilhard De Chardin, Pierre, The Future of Man, Doubleday, New York, 1964
Vargiu, James, Subpersonalities, an article from Psychosynthesis Academy in Stockholm, Sweden