by Barbara McGavin & Ann Weiser Cornell
This article appeared in the Focusing Folio: Volume 21, Number 1, 2008
Over the past fourteen years, we have been developing a body of practice and theory that we have been calling Treasure Maps to the Soul. During that time, the theory and practice supporting our work has become more refined and elaborated and, we feel, more effective. The primary areas of application are addiction, depression, severe self-criticism, unfulfilled desire (‘obsession’), and in fact any area of life that the person experiences as persistently stuck and unchanging. We have developed our theory and concepts from the interaction between experiencing and conceptualizing. It would take more space than we have here, to recount how those understandings were developed, but in the next section we give a brief summary of the origins and history of the work.
What we will be presenting in this article is a brief outline of the current state of our theoretical understanding and its applications. The companion article in this volume, “Inner Relationship Focusing,” will describe methodologies and give examples.
We are currently using the term Inner Relationship Focusing for the overall body of work. For now, Treasure Maps to the Soul remains the name of our 6-day workshop.
Origins and History
When the incident occurred that led to the work we are describing in this article, we had both been Focusing teachers for years. Ann had been developing applications for using Focusing with action blocks with some success. Barbara had experienced a life-changing Focusing session that had transformed her suicidal depression (which she wrote about in McGavin 1994). And both of us had been collaborating on developing Inner Relationship Focusing, which was changing our approach to inner criticism, among other things. Yet even after over thirty years of combined experience Focusing, we were each still struggling with difficult, stuck life issues that included action blocks, addiction to alcohol, addiction to eating for comfort, and obsessive longing.
On September 15, 1994, Ann realized that she was addicted to alcohol and had to stop drinking. As fate would have it, we were just about to co-lead a series of three workshops in the UK and Ireland. In the days leading up to the workshops, and in every free moment during them as well, we took every opportunity to do Focusing together and we started noticing certain things about our process.
It became clearer than ever that we couldn’t simply do Focusing as we had learned it; i.e., Focusing with what we could already find in our bodies. We realized that, in the alcoholic drinking, Ann had been acting from a part of her that she could not feel, yet which was extremely powerful. We needed a way to make Focusing work more effectively with this complex kind of process if these problems were ever going to change — for us.
Ann’s previous work with her writer’s block was helpful in our understanding of the dynamics between conflicting parts and how relationship with such parts is crucial for their transformation.
Barbara’s previous experiences of working with her inner critics were also very helpful here. She had already noticed how it was possible to turn towards aspects of one’s self that can’t be felt in the body, but that can be inferred to be present because of the effect that they are having. From the feeling of wanting to withdraw or feeling nauseous with shame or feeling worthless came the realization that there was something in her doing the shaming even when that could not be sensed directly. This inferred part could then be invited into awareness.
In those weeks of intensive Focusing, we were experiencing something remarkable: when we managed to do Focusing with those aspects of ourselves not in our awareness and yet generating ‘unwanted’ behavior, thoughts, or emotions, we got huge, life-changing shifts that were about much more than the problem area.
Not only was our capacity for acting freely in those previously impossibly difficult situations dramatically increased, so was our ability for interacting in the world in general. We felt like we were releasing whole areas of our selves. We found ourselves saying that the most difficult areas of life were “treasure maps to the soul.”
Our workshop participants were so excited about the hints we dropped about our discoveries that we found ourselves sharing our thoughts and insights almost as soon as we were finding words for them. By the following year we had started offering six-day workshops called Treasure Maps to the Soul. From 1995 through the present day we have been offering these an average of three times a year, all over the world.
In the development of this model, we have also been studying Gendlin’s work intensively, especially A Process Model (1997), over the past several years, and our theoretical conceptualizations have been deeply influenced by his thinking. Many of the terms that we use come directly from this work. Here are some of our key definitions based on Gendlin’s concepts from A Process Model:
• A situation is an interactional context which has an implying of its next steps.
• Body is much more than the physical material delimited by our skin. It is body as bodily felt, which includes the sense of here and now, there and then, and future. It is body as interaction with its environment. It is body as sensed from the inside.
• Environment is the interactional field of body and what the body lives in. It is more than what is immediately present and external to the physical body. It includes our symbolizations of situations that are not currently present.
• Felt Sense: “A felt sense is the wholistic, implicit, bodily sense of a complex situation” (Gendlin, 1996, p. 58).
• Carrying forward is a transforming of the interactional context (the situation) as a whole, bringing further new steps of living, and creating a new implying. The exact nature of that next step cannot be predetermined but ‘fulfills’ the situation’s implying. It changes it in a way which brings greater order and possibilities, interactional complexity, flexibility and creativity.
• Implying is experienced as implicit knowing of what will bring carrying forward of a situation.
“What is implied is not some explicit structure (not even what usually happens and has many times carried forward) but something that will carry forward” (1997, p. 252).
• Implicit: What is consciously experienced but not yet symbolized, not yet explicitly formed. Not unconscious, also not ‘buried’, not already formed contents that we ‘discover’ or ‘uncover’.
• Stoppage occurs when the interactional possibilities in a situation become constrained. What is implied doesn’t occur, and therefore the implying of that situation remains unchanged. Much else occurs but none of that carries forward the situation as a whole. Discomfort is the bodily experience of stoppage. Unhappiness, frustration, anger, sadness… are the emotional experience of stoppage.
“The organism stays in the field of the stoppage. It remains at the spot, and under the conditions, of the stoppage. It would have spent only a moment there, if the process had not stopped. Now new events might form with the environment, which could not have formed before the stoppage” (1997, p. 77).
• Missing: At a stoppage there is a missing. What is missing is what would carry forward the (organism, situation, body …). What is missing is implied. From the felt-sense of what’s missing comes the knowing of what’s implied. What is implied is what ‘needs’ to happen. This is not a specific, single occurring. So it’s not that what was originally missing still needs to happen literally, but whatever brings carrying forward now is what ‘was’ missing. We experience this as wanting or longing.
In the remainder of this article, we will describe and discuss our own concepts as they have developed in our understanding of what enables carrying forwardin people who are experiencing the results of a serious and long-term stoppage. The first and most important concept is Self-in-Presence.
Self is our capacity for interaction, our ability to meet (if not master) the challenges of the world. The state of our capacity for interaction is always in flux, determined by many factors. A person can experience Self as confident, clear, having a large perspective, flowing, empowered, peaceful, calm. In this case the capacity for interaction is (high, open, wide, unimpeded, free…). Or a person can experience Self as being on the verge of overwhelm or paralysis, at the mercy of others or of outer circumstances, small, vulnerable, fragile, wounded; the capacity for interaction is (low, constrained, narrow, limited…).
Presence is a state of being. It is the state that occurs when the capacity for interaction is unimpeded. When our Self is in a state of Presence, we are capable of acting with flow, sensing the whole situation (given the limits of what we can be aware of), connecting with here-and-now experience, and interacting freely with our environment. We call this Self-in-Presence.
Self-in-Presence is not an object within ourselves that we have to find. As we look out of our eyes, as we act in the world, embodied, calm, appropriately friendly, assertive, and curious, we could say we are Self-in-Presence. As we experience ourselves from the inside, as we sense the intricacy of our situations, as we create a safe inner environment for those aspects of our being that need rehabilitation, we could say we are Self-in-Presence.
Learning to actively cultivate Self-in-Presence is key for doing inner work with deeply stuck areas, and knowing how to facilitate others in cultivating Self-in-Presence is key for supporting and facilitating this process. Here are some of the ways in which we teach people to do this:
Grounding in the body here-and-now:
- Noticing whatever feels open, alive, flowing, warm (…) in your body right now – even if that is only small or partial. Welcoming whatever feels alive and acknowledging whatever doesn’t feel that way right now
- Being aware of the sensation of support under your body, sensing the quality of resting on the chair, feet on the floor, etc.
- Sensing your solid foundation, your base. Feeling the support of your hips, your pelvis and lower body
- Opening your eyes and looking at something
Keeping company with:
- Using Self-in-Presence Language: “I’m sensing…” “I’m aware of…” “I’m noticing…”
- Disidentifying from Partial-Selves: Saying “something in me feels or is like…”
- Putting a gentle hand on the body location of a physical sensation or an emotional state
Drawing on models and metaphors of Self-in-Presence:
- Remembering being a Focusing Companion, caring friend or therapist and offering another person acceptance, openness, empathy without an agenda
- Sensing the qualities of a person you admire (your therapist, your Focusing partner, a fictional character, or spiritual being (Buddha, Kwan Yin, Jesus)
- Recalling a metaphor for Self-in-Presence such as a large bowl, a lap that many children can sit on
- Imagining a place of safety and beauty – sensing that in your body
- Pausing and noticing how you are feeling. Directing attention to inner experiencing and holding it there. ‘Having’ that experience directly. Sensing for the whole thing as widely as possible.
Each of the ways of cultivating Self-in-Presence listed above can be translated into suggestions that a healing practitioner can give to their clients. For example:
- “You might take some time to feel your feet, your seat, the support of the chair beneath you.”
- “You’re sensing…” “You’re aware of…” “You’re noticing…”
- “Something in you feels or is like…”
- “Maybe you could put a gentle hand on the place in your body where you’re feeling that.”
These are elaborated further in Cornell (2005a).
Every chronically difficult life issue can be seen as a situation that has one implying with many competing attempts to find what will satisfy that implying and carry that situation forward. Each of these competing attempts fails to supply what is missing for carrying forward. Self-in-Presence is markedly absent.
During the course of our daily lives, as we encounter those situations that are perpetually stuck, we find ourselves attempting one solution after another. Each of these attempts is only partially successful at dealing with the logistical and experiential challenges of that situation, bringing limited feelings of relief at best. Some of these solutions are sufficiently successful at relieving distress and discomfort that they become habitual, repetitive sequences of emotion and behavior. None of them brings carrying forward of the whole situation.
Repetitive and habitual reaction sequences can become individually identifiable as they persist over time. Each has predictable emotional reactions, thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors. They often acquire labels, either self-given or from others: ‘my problem with anger,’ ‘your neediness,’ ‘borderline personality.’
We call these repetitive reaction sequences Partial-Selves. We call them Partial to denote their incomplete nature and acknowledge their functioning as if they are semi-autonomous or autonomous parts. The term Selves points to their positive living-forward qualities.
Any chronically blocked situation involves a complex, conflictual relationship between Partial-Selves. The person experiences identification (merging) and dissociation (exile) with Partial-Selves. This can be serial in nature, identifying with different Partial-Selves in turn – sometimes within a matter of seconds. Sometimes people become perpetually identified with one Partial-Self point of view, rejecting and attempting to control other Partial-Self processes when they become active (with varying degrees of success).
Partial-Selves are aspects of a situational process and form within the situation either here-and-now or as part of an internally formed symbolic sequence of there-and-then.
What happens when we are identified with Partial-Selves
If we try to do Focusing and we are not Self-in-Presence, we don’t get felt senses. Instead we get caught up in repetitive reaction states, including emotions, thoughts, beliefs, behaviors. Of course it is possible to do Focusing with these reaction states—but only if we can move into Self-in-Presence first. When we are not Self-in-Presence, we are identified with a Partial Self.
Partial-Selves arise at a stoppage. In Process Model terms, they are a versioning or leafing. They are attempts by the organism to live past the stoppage; i.e. carry forward. Gendlin says (1997, p. 236) that when the felt sense forms, the person is living past the stoppage. But felt senses cannot form when the person is identified with a Partial Self.
We can get a felt sense of a Partial Self, but only from Self-in-Presence. So recognizing Partial Selves and moving into Self-in-Presence is a pre-requisite to Focusing. It needs to happen first.
Partial Selves may then need a kind of reparative process, which includes giving them acknowledgement, respect, compassion, and a kind of deep listening for what they have been trying to contribute to the person. Although a Focusing guide or therapist can contribute to this reparative process, in essence it must be done by the person herself, as Self-in-Presence. Thus, the helping person’s primary role is to facilitate and support the person to be Self-in-Presence.
Sometimes the reparative process with the Partial Selves can take months and years before getting a felt sense of the whole situation can happen, which is what really changes the stoppage. All of this is important and essential to the recovery process.
Three Kinds of Partial-Self
We have differentiated three distinct kinds of internal process that we call Controlling Partial-Selves, Defending Partial-Selves and Compromised Partial-Selves.
A Controlling Partial-Self is almost constantly anxious and tense. Anything could go wrong! It micro-manages everyone and everything. It creates visions of heaven and hell to lure or frighten the person into doing what it thinks is right. It is often hyper-aware of what others might think or say. It cajoles, manipulates, argues, rescues, reassures, criticizes, reasons, plans and generally tries to take control.
A Defending Partial-Self is highly reactive. It acts automatically, impulsively, compulsively, with little or no regard for the consequences of their behavior. A person who is in the grip of a Defending Partial-Self can feel as if they have been taken over by a compelling force that cannot be controlled.
A Compromised Partial-Self is often experienced as being wounded, in pain, small, helpless, grieving, enraged, believing that it is unable to be as it is without rejection or failure. A person who is merged with it may feel very young, easily hurt, fragile, worthless, useless, disgusting, contemptible, on the verge of falling apart and easily overwhelmed by emotions or memories. Often it is experienced as a wordless sense of distress, fear and/or physical discomfort.
Compromised Partial-Selves are desperately seeking the restoration of living forward. One of the most common ways this shows up is in actions driven by overwhelming longing for what was missing in the original situation.
Those familiar with the work of Richard Schwartz (1995) may recognize resonances with his three types of parts: manager, fire-fighter, and exile. However, the correspondence is not exact, and there are important differences, notably in our understanding of the importance of agency, and the process of exile. We also do not believe that parts are permanent. And finally, our process of working with Partial-Selves is different from the Internal Family Systems process.
We will now discuss these three kinds of Partial-Self in more detail.
People who are identified with a Controlling Partial-Self may feel critical of themselves and others, emotionally cold, logical, controlling, angry, revolted by their emotions, thoughts, or actions, guilty, inadequate or frustrated in their inability to control themselves or others.
A Controlling Partial-Self takes on the responsibilities of an adult, trying to make sense of the world, and find solutions and strategies to our problems. When we spend time with it, we often discover that it is actually more like a child that has needed to be old beyond its years. We may discover that it is exhausted from all of the years of trying to keep our lives on course.
It tries to control everything: the person’s life, other people in the person’s world, and the person’s inner experience. From its point of view, it believes that if it isn’t in control, everything is in danger of collapse.
Controlling Partial-Selves are hyper-alert to situations that they perceive as potentially dangerous. They fear situations that are unpredictable and can become overwhelmingly anxious about the future. They often feel that only if they know and understand everything they will be able to predict the future and so be able to control the future. They plan and scheme and strategize. They present a forceful (though not necessarily coherently logical) argument as to why their way is the right way.
They are the most logical of the three kinds of Partial-Selves. They can be highly analytical and very observant. They set boundaries and guard them. They are focused on defining right and wrong, deciding what reality is, judging good and bad. They evaluate constantly – behaviors, thoughts, emotions… and can be highly critical of self and others.
A Controlling Partial-Self can seem superficially reasonable, yet underneath, a quality of anxiety, tension, urgency and rigidity can be sensed. A Controlling Partial-Self can even be fragile and subject to breakdown in situations that are beyond its resources and control. It can then become very critical and despairing.
The most important thing to know about Controlling Partial-Selves is that they are afraid. They are attempting to control the person’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions because they are afraid – often deeply, deathly afraid. And any Partial-Self that is afraid needs compassion and company from Self-in-Presence in order that it can go through steps of life-forward change.
Knowing a Controlling Partial-Self is There
A Controlling Partial-Self can operate without the person being directly aware of it. Here are some of the signs that it is there:
- feeling ashamed, embarrassed, guilty
- hearing one’s self say: “I’m so stupid!” “What is wrong with me?”
- labeling one’s self: “I’m just lazy.” “I’m pathetic.”
- diagnosing one’s self: “I’m trying too hard.” “I’m not trying hard enough.”
- coming up with quick solutions: “I just need to get up earlier.” “If I just change this my life will be fine.”
- experiencing friendly feedback as if it were criticism
Ought, should, must, never, always… those are words that Controlling Partial-Selves use.
Different people experience their Controlling Partial-Selves in different ways. Some people hear them. Some feel bad when they are around. Some see the dire consequences of “bad” actions or thoughts played out in their imagination.
Capacity for Action
A distinguishing feature of Controlling Partial-Selves is that they are not able to act directly in the world. To effect action, they have to persuade a Partial-Self capable of acting to do the action. This is why people often experience a Controlling Partial-Self as a voice in the head saying, “You should…” or “Why don’t you…?” The methods of persuasion include criticism (“You’re so lazy!”), threats (“If you don’t…!!”), blandishments (“It will be so good if you…”), bribes (“If you … then you can …”), and encouragements (“You deserve it!”).
Just as a Controlling Partial-Self is unable to act directly in the world, it is also unable to stop action being taken, except by exerting a constraining influence on a Partial-Self doing that action. One way that it does this is through the body: restricting breathing, constriction in the throat, headaches, stomachaches, distortion of sight, etc. It also generates catastrophic thoughts, threats of hellfire and damnation, and so on. It creates visions of the delights awaiting the person if only they try harder to limit behavior: for example, being able to fit in a size four dress, finding the perfect partner, achieving fame and fortune, and the like.
Rather than being always harsh, it can be subtle and manipulative; e.g. “Don’t you think you could try a little harder?” It offers quick solutions for problems: “If only you were more…” or “What you have to do is…” It can give the person direct orders: “Just get up and do it.” What this array of strategies has in common is that they are all efforts to exert influence on another Partial-Self because of a fundamental inability to act on its own.
Controlling Partial-Selves are also concerned with who we are as well as what we do. They have ideals about the kind of person that we should be and shame us for not living up to that ideal. They tell the person that they know what is wrong with them, and why they are in such a mess. They can be harsh and attacking: snide, sarcastic, sneering, righteous, impatient and, above all, belittling. They can undermine one’s very being: “You’ll never be good enough.” They can even sound helpful, making suggestions on how the person could improve: “Just think positively.” They make generalized judgments about who the person is: “You are a failure.”
Dynamics with other Partial-Selves
Controlling Partial-Selves find the actions of a Defending Partial-Self worrisome or even frightening. They fear the loss of control that Defending Partial-Selves can bring. They may feel an overwhelming need to keep the pressure on Defending Partial-Selves to keep them on task (dieting and exercise are two common areas).
Controlling Partial-Selves also fear being overwhelmed by the emotions and memories of a Compromised Partial-Self. They are very frightened of the chaos that can occur if a Compromised Partial-Self ‘escapes’ and takes over the Self position. They try to make sure that Compromised Partial-Selves don’t come into our awareness, working hard at keeping them in exile. It attacks them fiercely when they do escape from their bonds, showering disgust and revulsion down on them. It is extremely afraid of what might happen if they take over Self.
How a Controlling Partial-Self needs to be treated by Self-in-Presence
Controlling Partial-Selves often want appreciation for the hard work that they have done over the years and are usually very open to communicating their concerns and hopes. They need to have their concerns acknowledged in a respectful manner (without getting caught up in whether they are right or wrong). By empathizing with the fear underneath their controlling, we can begin to help this Partial-Self to relax.
They are often open to new information and can respond well to being approached in a logical way. However, trying to negotiate or reason them out of their point of view is counterproductive. Connecting with what they are trying to help one be able to experience (what they are Wanting for the person) allows a reconnecting with the aspect of the implying that they ‘hold.’
A Controlling Partial-Self returns to Self
When they feel confident that the person is Self-in-Presence, Controlling Partial-Selves transform. They no longer need to exert control over other Partial-Selves or other people. It is as if they melt away and all their abilities for planning, logical thinking, all their knowledge of the world, and abilities to hold a vision become incorporated into Self, available as needed in any situation.
The first important thing to know about a Defending Partial-Self is that it is trying to save the person’s life and maintain their integrity at the same time. The other thing that is essential to know about them is that they can act. They are not the only aspects of the person that are capable of action, but they are responsible for many of the actions that are taken in the face of unresolved, difficult life issues.
Identification with a Defending Partial-Self
People who are identified with a Defending Partial-Self may feel overwhelmed, emotional, rebellious, ‘fake,’ adolescent, disconnected, depressed, embarrassed, ashamed, self-doubting, unable to do what they want to do, unable to stop doing what they don’t want to do, lethargic, resistant, compulsively people-pleasing, compulsively antagonistic, escapist, exhausted… the list goes on. They may also be highly competent, energetic, driven, always on the go, always “Great!” One person may experience some or all of these states – and more – at different times.
Knowing a Defending Partial-Self is there
Like a Controlling Partial-Self, a Defending Partial-Self can operate without the person being directly aware of it. Here are some of the signs that a Defending Partial-Self is present:
- When the person acts impulsively or compulsively
- When the person acts without previous thought or deliberation
- When the person feels taken over by emotions, overwhelmed, swept away
- When the person feels defensive, reactive, ashamed
- When the person feels depressed
Of the three kinds of Partial-Self, the Defending Partial-Self is usually the easiest to sense in the body initially and so is often the part that the person encounters first in a Focusing or therapy process. When the person is aware of emotions – anger, sadness, confusion, longing – these are likely to be the emotions of what we would term the Defending Partial-Self. Or the person may be aware of a generalized discomfort: something heavy pressing on the chest, an ache around the heart, a pain in the belly.
As the person gets to know it better, the Defending Partial-Self tends to be young, often adolescent, but usually not as young as the Compromised Partial-Selves.
The Job of a Defending Partial-Self
Defending Partial-Selves are caught in a paradoxical and impossible situation. Defending Partial-Selves have a number of purposes that they are simultaneously trying to fulfill. Some of these purposes are contradictory in nature.
- They are attempting to maintain both the safety and integrity of the Self.
- They need to contain and soothe the emotions and urges of a Compromised Partial-Self.
- They may also be contending with anxious Controlling Partial-Selves that are either vying for dominance or attacking them (or both).
- They may be dealing with other Defending Partial-Selves that believe that they have a better solution to the presenting problem and who are also attempting to take over.
- And last, but not least, they have a double-barreled burden: they need to resolve, (heal, carry forward…) the initial situation (which is often no longer in awareness) and they also need to solve the problems that have arisen from the failure of the initial situation to carry forward.
Needless to say, this is impossible for any Partial-Self to do successfully.
How they operate
A Defending Partial-Self reacts powerfully and automatically whenever it feels that the Self is being threatened. From its point of view, the Compromised Partial-Self it is defending is Self, and it is triggered into action when that Partial-Self becomes active. The Defending Partial-Self has become the next step of the situational sequence.
When it is trying to prevent the feelings of pain of a Compromised Partial-Self from entering and overwhelming awareness, a Defending Partial-Self responds so quickly that the person doesn’t even know that they have become identified with it until after it has acted. The call to action, when one is aware of it at all, can feel like an overwhelming, compelling urge. We call this “hijack.”
There are four basic strategies that a Defending Partial-Self uses: being ‘good,’ being bad,’ running away, and collapsing.
The human need to affiliate is natural and cooperation is a valuable human capacity. However, when a person’s need for affiliation is linked to the constraint of vital interactional possibilities, the result is an activity called ‘people-pleasing.’
Someone may believe that s/he needs to work extra hard, be extra successful, or strive for perfection in order to be accepted, to be ‘good enough.’ Someone may become obsessively goal-oriented in order to gain success at work or in school, attain bodily perfection, or have fame and fortune. When a person is identified with a Defending Partial-Self that holds these beliefs, the person does whatever it takes to achieve the stated goals.
These two styles of being ‘good,’ compulsively pleasing others and ruthlessly pursuing goals of hard work and achievement, are often socially approved, especially for women in the first instance and men in the second.
When the human need to maintain autonomy and integrity feels more important than being accepted, and there is constraint on the full life-forward energy, the result is fighting, rebelling, being ‘bad.’ When a person feels that s/he can never succeed at being accepted or included, that person may choose being ‘bad.’ When a person feels that s/he cannot respect or trust those in positions of authority, that person may choose being ‘bad.’
A Partial-Self that is fighting says things like “I’m not stupid!” or “I don’t care! I’m doing it anyway, and hang the consequences.” This kind of part will react against anything it feels is constricting or phony or meaningless or arbitrary. Many of us identify with our rebelling Partial-Selves. Being merged with a rebelling part generally feels a lot better than being merged with any of the other types of Defending Partial-Selves. There’s usually a lot of energy available when we are merged with a rebel. A rebel often has a stubborn teenager quality or righteous freedom fighter quality about it. In action blocks, the part that doesn’t do the action is often a rebel. In addictions, the part that does the behavior is often a rebel. In depression, the part that refuses to be cheered up is often a rebel. In the case of unfulfilled desire, the part that clings to the desire is often a rebel. There is a lot of counterculture support for this kind of behavior – from James Dean to gangsta rap.
A Defending Partial-Self that is running away handles discomfort and distress by withdrawing. It often creates feeling blank, confused, numb, forgetting, going to sleep. Anything to “get me out of here – right now!” Often it uses addictive substances and behaviors to withdraw our awareness from our immediate experiencing.
The fourth response is the response of last resort – collapsing. A person is merged with a Collapsing Defending Partial-Self when s/he feels overwhelmed and defeated, unable to act or think. One feels embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty. One may also feel bad, depressed, despondent, self-doubting, hopeless, pathetic, useless, weak, and so on. A Collapsing Defending Partial-Self agrees with a Controlling Partial-Self, saying, “You’re right, I am that bad, and I feel so bad about it.” It feels like the truth. There is a lot of social rejection for collapsing which, needless to say, increases one’s sense of collapse.
How Defending Partial-Selves Interact with Other Partial-Selves
Defending Partial-Selves occupy a position between Controlling Partial-Selves and Compromised Partial-Selves. This is a complex position. On the one hand they are reacting to the attempts at control from Controlling Partial-Selves and on the other, they are dealing with the emotions and actions of Compromised Partial-Selves. There are also their own emotions, their fears and desires, that somehow need to be dealt with as well.
Defending Partial-Selves and Controlling Partial-Selves
Defending Partial-Selves may view Controlling Partial-Selves as the enemy. In that case their responses are likely to be fight (‘bad’) or flight (‘running away’).
Conversely, when they don’t know what to do, they may look to Controlling Partial-Selves to guide them. Some Controlling Partial-Selves can feel like adults to Defending Partial-Selves, and they will cooperate willingly. Coalitions are formed between Controlling Partial-Selves and Defending Partial-Selves when they share an ideal of how to be and then work together to make it happen. They agree on the problem and the solution.
The more capable a coalition between a Controlling Partial-Self and a Defending Partial-Self is at keeping us functioning successfully, the more we tend to become identified with it. But there is always an edge of anxiety and urgency to such collaborations, even at their most highly functioning.
Nothing that a Defending Partial-Self does is ever enough to allay the fears of a Controlling Partial-Self. A Defending Partial-Self may find itself moving from being ‘good’ to ‘rebelling’ in the blink of an eye. Or it may run away from or collapse under demands that it finds are too much.
Defending Partial-selves and Compromised Partial-Selves
Defending Partial-Selves react powerfully and automatically whenever they feel that Self is being threatened. From its point of view, the Compromised Partial-Self which it is protecting is Self and its job is to take care of it.
When it is trying to prevent the feelings of pain of a Compromised Partial-Self from overwhelming awareness, a Defending Partial-Self responds so quickly that the person doesn’t even know that they have been ‘hijacked’ until after it has happened. The call to action, when one is aware of it, feels like an overwhelming, compelling urge.
A Defending Partial-Self learns many ways to soothe/numb/contain/distract a distressed Compromised Partial-Self. Here are some of the most extreme examples:
- Addiction – drug, alcohol, sex, computer games, exercise, shopping, work…
- Compulsive behavior – shoplifting, shopping, self-harming, eating (overeating, anorexic eating, bulimic eating), stalking…
- Acting irresponsibly – for example not paying bills on time or driving recklessly
- Persistent procrastination
- Having affairs
- Violent behavior
- Lying and bargaining
- Suicidal thoughts/attempts
Sometimes Defending Partial-Selves and Compromised Partial-Selves band together and cause complete havoc in a person’s life. There is usually a rebellious, stubborn, angry quality to their actions (even if the action is staying in bed with the covers over one’s head). When a person is taken over by them, it may feel as if one is out of control, crazy, manic, not thinking clearly.
A person taken over by a Defending Partial-Self can act with impulsive disregard for their own well-being and the safety of others. They often abuse alcohol, drugs, people, food, money, their bodies, etc. A good example of what can happen when this kind of coalition gets the upper hand was portrayed by the main character in “All That Jazz” who, even when he had been diagnosed with a severe heart condition, threw parties, drank champagne and did drugs in his hospital room. In the story, the character dies.
How Defending Partial-Selves Break Down
The coalition between ‘good’ Defending Partial-Selves and Controlling Partial-Selves is very prone to breakdown. Although this can be quite a stable and productive relationship lasting for several years, it can become quite unbalanced when stressed: the hard working employee who becomes a ‘workaholic,’ the person who exercises regularly who becomes addicted to exercise, the good student who becomes obsessed about his/her grades and always has to achieve top marks. ‘Good’ Defending Partial-Selves may become exhausted by the unrelenting efforts that they have made to satisfy the requirements of the Controlling Partial-Self that they are linked to. As the need for authenticity and autonomy starts to gain the ascendancy, a ‘bad’ or a ‘running away’ Defending Partial-Self may take over the Self position: the ‘good’ student starts staying up all night drinking, having unprotected sex, and doing drugs; the ‘hard worker’ can’t stop playing computer games; the person who has achieved their target weight now finds that their eating is out of control.
‘Bad’ and “running away’ Defending Partial-Selves may collapse under the criticism of a Controlling Partial-Self that tells it how bad or weak or lazy it is.
And Defending Partial-Selves that are in collapse already are vulnerable to attack from Controlling Partial-Selves that criticize them, telling them that they are lazy, pathetic, good-for-nothing, exacerbating their state of collapse and potentially pushing them over the edge into suicidal depression.
How a Defending Partial-Self needs to be treated by Self-in-Presence
Defending Partial-Selves need greater sensitivity to the quality of the relationship than Controlling Partial-Selves need. They usually are particularly sensitive about how respectfully they are being treated and can either become reactive and angry or withdraw altogether if criticized or pushed (even obliquely). They also appreciate having their concerns (apprehensions, fears, worries, terrors…) and hopes (longings, dreams, desires…) for the person empathically acknowledged.
A Defending Partial-Self returns to Self
When they feel confident that they are accompanied by a person who is Self-in-Presence, Defending Partial-Selves transform. They no longer need to react to other Partial-Selves, other people, or situations. When they become released from their role as defender, their energy, competence, integrity, and capacity for action become incorporated into Self, available as needed in any situation.
Before a stoppage there is free interaction. Then we encounter a situation that does not carry forward. What occurs not only doesn’t bring carrying forward of the implying, it further blocks it, making its carrying forward even less possible. Our efforts fail.
There is an immediate bodily response to this stoppage – discomfort, or even pain. Body sensations and emotions that we are unable to fully experience at the time – too intense, too frightening, too difficult to stay with – become stopped. The implying of the situation that would have changed remains the same – frozen in time. How this lives in our bodies, our beings, our psyches is like a wound that never really heals.
The Treasure Maps term for this type of process is Compromised Partial-Self.
Identification with a Compromised Partial-Self
A person who is identified with a Compromised Self may feel longing and dread, love and hate. They may experience being pierced to the heart, or as if their life blood has drained away, or lost and wandering far from home. They may feel ‘skinless,’ ‘boneless,’ nauseated, terrified, violated, utterly isolated. They may feel as fragile as an egg, as young as a newborn, defenseless, open, helpless, hopeless, powerless. Their stomach may churn, their heart ache, tears may be right under the surface or running down their cheeks. They may burn with anger. They may be cold with rage. They may feel raw, their emotions ruling them and their actions.
Knowing a Compromised Partial-Self is there
Here are some signs that a person is identified with a Compromised Partial-Self:
- The person bursts into tears for “no reason”
- The person feels that they are not worthy to be alive
- The person feels about two inches tall and wishes that the ground would open up and swallow them
- The person lashes out in anger at the smallest things
- The person feels that everybody is out to get them
- The person feels overwhelmed and vulnerable
A person who is identified with a Compromised Partial-Self will probably already be feeling something in their body. Often what they may be aware of are emotions: shame, longing, despair… Or they may be aware of something that feels painful or something that they can find no words for. As the person gets to know it better, the Compromised Partial-Self tends to be very young, often pre-verbal.
During a Focusing and/or therapy process, a person may become aware of monsters, pits, stones, things hiding in caves, behind doors, or under blankets. All of these may be the form that a Compromised Partial-Self may take when it first comes into awareness. It may seem to be an inanimate object or something that seems ugly, disgusting, or frightening. This is how it appears from the point of view of another part that is frightened of it (often a Controlling Partial-Self)
The Job of a Compromised Partial-Self
When a Compromised Partial-Self forms, there are at least two situations that need to be solved:
- the release of what has been compromised (to live authentically, to be oneself, to interact freely…)
- and the carrying forward of the situation-as-a-whole.
The inner pressure exerted by these unresolved situations is enormous. A significant part of a person’s energy may be bound up in attempting to find carrying forward for situations that are no longer in their awareness.
Compromised Partial-Selves are always seeking the resumption of living forward by attempting to find what was (is) missing (or a substitute for it) in the situation. This drive is so strong that it is common for a Compromised Self to leak into people’s emotions, thoughts and actions. Its attempts to find carrying forward will now motivate actions in situations only tangentially similar to the original situation. Nothing that is found will heal this rift, this block, or fill in this “missing.” And that adds another layer of pain upon the first, the second, the third…
In this overwhelming longing, in the wishes and in the actions driven from obsessive fantasies lies the compass that points the way back to what has been left behind and forward to where we belong. The Job of a Compromised Partial-Self is to be the compass.
How Compromised Partial-Selves Operate
When a person is merged with a vulnerable Compromised Partial-Self, that person will do almost anything for the possibility of healing this wounded ‘missing,’ including seeking out and staying in relationships and situations that are destructive from the perspective of other Partial-Selves and from Self-in-Presence. Even if the person is ‘successful’ in the present situation, receiving what was initially missing, the nagging feelings of failure or lack will very often persist.
Some people live very close to this state a lot, if not most, of the time. Some therapies encourage becoming identified with this emotional state – feeling it more intensely and expressing it directly. Falling into this state can be retraumatizing, and we don’t recommend it. Alternatively, Being with a Compromised Partial-Self from Self-in-Presence can bring healing.
How Compromised Partial-Selves Interact with Other Partial-Selves
Compromised Partial-Selves and Controlling Partial Selves
From the point of view of a Compromised Partial-Self, Controlling Partial-Selves are God, Mother, Father, the Devil, the Enemy, the Savior… They experience Controlling Partial-Selves as punishing, evaluating, pushing, belittling, undermining, conditionally caring, encouraging.
- They often try to hide from them.
- They may collapse under the caustic, criticism from Controlling Partial-Selves.
- They may feel frozen in place by them, unable to think, feel, move.
Compromised Partial-Selves and Defending Partial-Selves
From the point of view of a Compromised Partial-Self, Defending Partial-Selves are brother, sister, rescuer, friend, protector, cohort, playmate. However, Defending Partial-Selves can also turn on a Compromised Partial-Self if it becomes overwhelmed by the distressed feelings of the Compromised Partial-Self, like an older sibling tired of taking care of a younger child.
How a Compromised Partial-Self needs to be treated by Self-in-Presence
Compromised Partial-Selves are the most sensitive about how they are approached and related to. Often Compromised Partial-Selves have been exiled. The process of exiling is a process of identification with something in the person that rejects, despises and fears the part being exiled. Of the three kinds of Partial-Self, a Compromised Partial-Self is often the most shy. It often has little or no trust that it will be welcomed and may need time to feel confident that you are Self-in-Presence and can keep it company with gentle compassion and patience.
Compromised Partial-Selves can very easily feel unsafe and vanish from conscious awareness. They may need long periods of Self-in-Presence just quietly keeping company with them, empathizing with their feelings, directly sensing how they feel in the body, and noticing the symbols that arise that match what they are like. Any suggestion of either criticism or pushing them to be different from how they are will result in them staying the same or vanishing from awareness. Continuously sensing for how fully one is in a state of Self-in-Presence is highly facilitative for creating the kind of safe environment in which an Compromised Partial-Self can transform.
A Compromised Partial-Self returns to Self
When one is able to keep this kind of Partial-Self company, it almost always feel like getting close to the core of what “this whole thing” is really about. A strong Self-in-Presence is needed in order that a Compromised Partial-Self can recommence and complete its interrupted sequence without being taken over by it. This may include the expression of emotion or the recognition and acknowledgement of beliefs that have arisen.
Of course, sensing and symbolizing the situation as a whole, now that this Partial-Self has emerged into awareness is also an essential aspect of the healing process.
There is a strange and extraordinary paradox that we have noticed time and time again. When one is able to be with and to sense directly the aspect of Self that we call ‘Compromised’ – that in us which has looked, sounded, and felt so dreadfully wounded – it is fine. From its own point of view, it is truly all right. Sometimes much more than that – wonderful. Such transformations have to be felt to be believed, but this is something that we have both experienced several times. There is always a kind of astonishment when it occurs, and we have increasing confidence that this is not only possible, but can almost be expected.
We have differentiated four processes that address the difficulties experienced in attempting to Focus with these issues. All four of them are helpful in strengthening Self-in-Presence and felt-sensing (Focusing). For ease of reference we have called them ‘The Powers.’
The Power of Self-in-Presence concentrates on strengthening one’s identification with what is able to interact freely, turn towards one’s inner experiencing and hold it in awareness. It enables disidentification from Partial-Selves and a rehabilitative relationship to form with them.
The Power of And enables people to have more than one Partial-Self in awareness without becoming identified with any of them. It also allows the possibility of sensing multiple aspects of a situation simultaneously. This can assist greatly in the forming of a felt-sense (direct referent) of the whole of a situation.
The Power of Not-Wanting and Wanting provides a protocol that assists in sensing for the implying that a Partial-Self has been striving to realize. It also provides the depth of compassionate attention that was longed for and not available at the time of the initial stoppage, and thus the Focuser themself is able to provide the manner of relating that was missing at the time. This also contributes to the strengthening of Self-in-Presence.
The Power of Holding it All supports sensing the situation and all Partial-Selves (already known or not yet known) simultaneously from Self-in-Presence. This facilitates the forming of a felt sense (direct referent), symbolizing and resonating (Focusing).
We have discussed a few of the key concepts of the body of work called Treasure Maps to the Soul, or Inner Relationship Focusing. We have not had the space to include much more that is part of the work, including examples, applications to specific problem areas, and further discussion of the processes of merging and exile. Those can be found in a few other places: notably McGavin and Cornell (2002) and Cornell (2005b).
See also “Inner Relationship Focusing” in this volume.
We are grateful to Gene Gendlin for two levels of resource: for his powerful concepts about human process and change, and for his support and encouragement for theory creation. It is a fundamental part of his theory that theory-building does not end with him. Our heartfelt appreciation and thanks.
Cornell, A. W. (2005a). Facilitating Presence. In The Radical Acceptance of Everything, pp. 49-59. Berkeley, CA: Calluna Press.
Cornell, A. W. (2005b). Radical Gentleness: The Transformation of the Inner Critic. In The Radical Acceptance of Everything, pp. 109-125. Berkeley, CA: Calluna Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method. New York: Guilford Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1997). A Process Model. New York: The Focusing Institute.
McGavin, B. (1994). The ‘Victim’, the ‘Critic’ and the Inner Relationship: Focusing with the Part that Wants to Die. Reprinted in Cornell, A.W. The Radical Acceptance of Everything, pp. 63-68. Berkeley, CA: Calluna Press.
McGavin, B. and Cornell, A.W. (2002). Presence and Partiality, Chapter Ten in The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual, Part Two, pp. 155-186. Berkeley, CA: Calluna Press.
Schwartz, Richard C. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.