Ego State Therapy and Child Ego States
My favoured approach in treating clients with hypnosis is addressing issues ‘compartmentalised’ in ego states. Generally, this
entails making direct contact with the relevant Child Ego States.
These ‘child ego states’ exist in a time warp so that they believe ‘past events are still current’. So, even though the adult thinks that ‘it was all in the past so it is no longer relevant and I have moved on’, the reality is that these ego states exist
in the present (bringing the past with them) and hence are able to influence our lives in the present. All this happens in the subconscious mind. My aim is to achieve the desired therapeutic outcome by use of hypnosis to work directly with these ego states to resolve their ‘issues’ and promote their ‘healing’. Child ego states may encapsulate negative self-beliefs, emotions, motivations and behaviour patterns that are dysfunctional or self defeating – which can be changed with a plausible alternative reframe. Negative feelings can be resolved, released and replaced with more positive feelings.
A perspective in exploration of the makeup of a personality is to identify facets or parts that represent different qualities or characteristics of the individual. Oddly, these ‘parts’ can even appear to have an opinion of their own. For example, someone might say something like, “I am thinking of quitting my job and starting up my own business – but ‘part’ of me doesn’t think it is such a good idea”. These ‘parts’ can also appear to have a
separate identity from our own. For example, most people would be familiar with the term ‘inner child’. It is generally used when recommending someone get in touch with their ‘inner child’ by engaging in fun activities in order to get some balance in their life instead of just work, work, work. The term, ‘wounded child’ may be used to explain emotional pain that has its origins in childhood. While generally spoken in jest as an excuse to have fun, or the need to nurture the self, the term ‘inner child’ does reflect acknowledgement that, deep within, there does exist some remnant of the child of long ago. There does, indeed. Actually, there is more than one such ‘inner child’, although there is no specific number. Each inner child can be referred to as a Child Ego State, representing attitudes, feelings and different aspects of personality shaped by childhood experiences. These child ego states are generally integrated and function as a coherent ‘family’ unit. Although they can all be contacted in hypnosis, individual ones generally come to our attention only when they represent unresolved issues and are ‘out of synch’ with the rest. Just like family members, conflict can exist between ego states or between one ego state and the adult ‘primary personality’. Fleeting contact can be experienced via the spontaneous experience of a feeling and an associated memory from the past. These experiences may be triggered by an aroma, a taste or a particular sound or being in a familiar situation (such as criticism from an employer that reminds you of the hurtful feelings of being criticised by your father).
When you get in touch with an inner child, who is it likely to be? Is it the five-year-old who has happy
memories of visiting granddad’s farm, helping him feed the pigs and chickens and collect eggs? Or is it a five-year-old who is angry at parents who divorced and took away her emotional security? Is it a twelve-month-old who feels unloved and alone because her mother seems to spend most of her time taking care of a new baby? Is it a three-year-old who feels unloved and alone because her mother spends a lot of time in hospital or being
drunk? Is it a six-year-old who lives in fear of school yard bullies? Is it a four-year-old who always experienced excitement and pleasure unwrapping presents at Christmas and saw something magical in the angel placed at the top of the tree? Is it a ten-year-old who felt important, spending happy days in a boat with his father, fishing and learning how to bait a hook? Is it a self-conscious teen who was overweight or had severe acne? Whoever they are, they are responsible for covert influences, shaping attitudes and beliefs and underlying
subconscious motivations for the things you do and how you react to situations and what people say. They all
contribute to ‘the person you are’, that observable personality others know as ‘you’ as well as your inner world that no one sees, ‘behind the mask’ you wear.
Ego State Theory
So, what are these ego states and how do we acquire them? For an explanation, we can turn to Ego State Theory, a psychodynamic theory of personality developed by John Watkins and Helen Watkins (1997). Their particular account has been drawn from earlier theories based on the concept of the personality being a ‘multiplicity’ rather than a single ‘unity’.
According to this theory, the normal personality structure consists of covert personality sub-entities, parts or segments. An ego state is defined as an ‘organised system of behaviour and experience whose elements are bound together by some common principle’. While the personality is experienced as a unity, it actually consists of these various segments or sub-entities that serve different purposes, and represent information associated with particular experiences, relationships, feelings, beliefs and attitudes. If positive, these sub-entities may modify or facilitate functioning of the ‘primary personality’ (ie, the person we think of as ‘who we are’ and whom the world sees as ‘who we are’). If negative or dysfunctional, they may interfere with it, although the individual may be unaware at a conscious level of this influence in decision making and emotional reactions. These influences represent subconscious motivations. The process of developing Child Ego States begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood as a means of adapting to or coping with conditions existing at the time.
According to this theory, the normal personality structure consists of covert personality sub-entities, parts or segments. An ego state is defined as an ‘organised system of behaviour and experience whose elements are bound together by some common principle’. While the personality is experienced as a unity, it actually
consists of these various segments or sub-entities that serve different purposes, and represent information associated with particular experiences, relationships, feelings, beliefs and attitudes. If positive, these sub-entities
may modify or facilitate functioning of the ‘primary personality’ (ie, the person we think of as ‘who we are’ and whom the world sees as ‘who we are’). If negative or dysfunctional, they may interfere with it, although the individual may be unaware at a conscious level of this influence in decision making and emotional reactions. These influences represent subconscious motivations. The process of developing Child Ego States begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood as a means of adapting to or coping with conditions existing at the time.
Ego States develop by one of three processes:
1) Normal differentiation results in creating Child Ego States that are sub-entities of the personality. Their boundaries are ‘flexible’ and ‘permeable’, they are generally aware of each other, may share some content, and are integrated in a coherent ‘family unit’ that is the individual personality.
Examples of evidence of the existence of child ego states:
▪ Someone might comment in regard to experiencing an emotional reaction to a certain situation that reminded them of their childhood: “I was suddenly five years old again”.
▪ Someone might be considering relocating interstate for a great job offer: “But, I have reservations because part of me has this fear of major change”.
▪ After an uncharacteristic outburst, someone might claim in disbelief: “I can’t believe I reacted like that – it was like it was someone else”.
2) Introjections of significant others, such as parents, represent the experiences/perceptions of a parent as being, for example: ‘loving’, ‘warm and nurturing’, ‘unloving’, ‘cold and distant’, ‘cruel’, ‘abusive’, ‘harsh/always criticising’, ’suffocating’, ‘manipulative’, ‘controlling’, ‘never there’. Introject ego states are not part of the actual personality, but they do play a role in creation and maintaining of some ego states. For example, where there is a child ego state who represents a belief in being ‘not good enough’, there may be a parent introject to remind them that what they do (even as an adult) is ‘not good enough’. The existence of introjects is ‘normal’.
▪ A common example of an introject is ‘hearing your mother’s voice in your head’ when you do something that she used to critise or reprimand you for.
▪ One of my introjects is my father’s voice saying, “You didn’t use your head, Chicky Love”, when I made a mistake. Many years later, I still make mistakes and I still hear the reprimand.
3) Reactions to severe trauma may result in ego states being created during a state of dissociated consciousness. This trauma may have been ongoing sex abuse as a child, so to escape the trauma, the primary personality dissociates and ‘goes somewhere else’, leaving the specific ego state to face the suffering and trauma. This ‘dissociation’ serves two adaptive functions. It protects the primary personality from the trauma. It also makes it possible for the child to continue behaving in a loving way towards an abuser, on whom the child may be dependent for care. Any suffering is confined to the specific ego state, which, having formed during dissociation from the ‘primary personality’, is not integrated as are normal ego states. Events experienced while in this dissociative state may be completely outside the awareness of the primary personality who may have no conscious memory of these events.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
For some who experience this dissociated consciousness, the ego states formed may have ‘rigid’ boundaries which are ‘impermeable’, so may be ‘alters’ of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Dissociating and splitting off new ego states becomes their usual way of coping with challenges in life. This results in a number of ‘alters’ which have no shared content and are not integrated in a unified personality. When one ‘alter’ is executive (ie, in charge, in control of conscious awareness), it may not be aware of other ‘alters’ and the primary personality may experience blanks in memory for periods when an ‘alter’ is in charge.
Not all ego states formed during dissociation result in DID. That is, not everyone who dissociates will have multiple personalities in the sense of DID. A person who experienced severe abuse as a child may continue to use dissociation as a coping response as an adult, but not have true multiple alters.
Why discuss Dissociative Identity Disorder?
DID has been discussed for the purpose of distinguishing between ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’ ego state
creation. This is to avoid confusion among readers who may not be familiar with the concept of sub-entities in normal personality function but have heard or read about multiple personalities or even seen movies that present cases of DID. These are portrayed with dramatic effect and mystery as each ‘alter’ emerges –
and yet another and another is revealed. However, there is no mystery - they are similar to ‘normal’ adaptive ego states but are created under conditions of dissociation of consciousness so that they are isolated from each other rather than being integrated into a ‘family’ unit of the primary personality.
It is also essential that therapists are aware of the difference between normal ego states and multiple alters.
Therapists unfamiliar with the concept of sub-entities of personality have been known to think they have ‘discovered’ a case of DID when they have inadvertently made contact with normal ego states.
Summarising differences between ‘normal’ ego states and alters:
Normal ego states are covert so are identified and only become truly overt during hypnosis. Each one is just
a part of the overall observable primary personality. At any time, they may exert their influence subconsciously
on the primary personality, who may or may not be aware of this influence, whilst retaining conscious awareness at all times. Conversely, alters of DID will become overt spontaneously when not in hypnosis.
The primary personality may experience amnesia for the times when an alter is overt (ie, executive, in charge).
Further, the observable personalities of the individual alters are extremely different from each other. For example, a provocative extrovert alter, while ‘executive’, may go shopping for clothes, and later, the more conservative primary personality (or a timid alter) may open her wardrobe and be startled to find a bright red dress with plunging neckline and thigh-high split in the skirt - and have no recollection of how it came to be there. The television series, “United States of Tara”, illustrate this contrast in alters and the limited awareness among them.
Practical applications of Ego States
Ego states do not have just a heuristic value as a theoretical model of personality structure. They have a very practical role in therapy because they can be contacted in hypnosis and treated, in much the same
way as treating an individual adult. Relevance of treating a specific child ego state in the subconscious is that commonly, the unresolved issues belongs to child ego states, not to the adult – although the adult is
experiencing the effects of the problem, these effects are second hand.
For an adult, childhood events are in the past and many regard these as no longer having any relevance. While
child ego states do continue to live in the past as if locked in a time warp, unaware of changes in the adult’s life, paradoxically, their influence is experienced in the present because they exist in the present, bringing the past with them into the ‘now’. If they did not exist in the now, they would not influence us now so they would not be able to cause problems now. The repressed anger I have uncovered has been revealed by child ego states who can recount childhood experiences that are responsible for their feelings. Other child ego states have revealed negative feelings such as ‘unloved/lonely’ or ‘unimportant’ or ‘abandoned’ and experiences that have contributed to low Self Worth and beliefs that parents did not value them.
Communicating with child ego states has been the means of acquiring the knowledge about the basic emotional needs of children that I have been able to use to construct the CAARP-ALIAS model of development of Self Worth which is covered in my website: http://www.selfesteemparenting.com.au