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Our Many Selves

by Vivienne Silver-Leigh(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 81 - October 2002

You must have noticed the bookshop shelves full of self-help as well as spiritual books, with titles offering you enlightenment, empowerment or happiness, which are bought by many of us today. They promise to make readers feel more connected to their true nature and to deal with whatever life throws at them. I am usually impressed and motivated at the time I am reading them, it is just that I cannot afterwards remember all their golden truths.

But some of the more powerful ideas stay with me: the idea that we need to appreciate our own abilities and cultivate personal self-esteem; that loving relationships are very important; and recognition that we have a higher nature, which we need to contact regularly, via a meditative state. Choosing your own meditation practice, such as counting breaths or saying a mantra, may make life start to feel more than work, worry and activities.

Models of the Self

Research shows that when we access our higher self, sometimes called your unconditioned self, we feel much better, while the opposite is true when we get into our whiny lower self. If you are in your lower self, you feel at your worst, not coping, not loved, etc., but the good news is that it is possible to train yourself to move out of this. One way is to use positive affirmations repeatedly, to change round negative thoughts. This kind of cognitive or behavioural therapy is given in many hospitals to counteract fear, phobias, anxiety and depression. You can also read two practical books which I think are particularly helpful: Shift Happens by Robert Holden,[1] and Feel the Fear>…and Beyond by Susan Jeffers.[2]

The idea of a higher and a lower self is simple, but there are other models, with different ego states, as they are often called. Jung used the term 'active imagination' in 1935 for a method of conversing with personified parts of the unconscious. Active imagination was taken further by later psychologists in the 1960s, who found that we have many forgotten subpersonalities.[3] Transactional Analysis Therapy sorts out inner child, parent or adult behaviour when relationships are difficult.

Voice Dialogue

A practice called Voice Dialogue recognizes that we have several primary selves. Usually each of us has a manager/protector, perfectionist, pusher, critic as well as 'disowned' selves which we have learned to suppress. Your perfectionist may drive you on in life, making you successful, and perhaps exhausted. Or your critic may say that you are not doing well enough, and never allows you to appreciate your successes.

Drs Hal Stone and Sidra Winkelman[4] created this way of working, where a facilitator, usually a therapist, encourages dialogue with a particular part of yourself. You may decide to speak as your critic, and you identify with that part of you for a while, and disidentify with the rest of yourself. It is somewhat like getting into a role, as actors do on stage, while you speak and act as if you are wholly this part.

This is more fun for both therapist and client than the usual talk and listen routine, and can give new insights quickly.

Case Examples

1. One of my clients, Chris, used Voice Dialogue to sort out why he was so fearful at times, although he was a very competent person, a high-powered consultant, and happily married. He selected and 'acted out' a part inside himself, a despairing small child, aged about three, fearful of the chaos in the world around him, where there seemed to be a great deal of angry shouting in the home.

Speaking as this child, he told me that it seemed as if the people who loved him when he was so small did not love each other and were always shouting. Tearfully, he told me that he had been very upset by this, and had coped with these feelings by switching off and becoming difficult at school. Now he saw why, 40 years later, he had retained this pattern, and withdrawn from certain situations, to his own surprise and confusion. But, fortunately, he had a strong inner manager, who helped him to gain a new perspective on the leftover fears, and could see possible ways to help change Chris's fearful behaviour.

2. Maria enjoyed going out to weekend singing workshops which made her feel joyful, but when she returned home she found her husband feeling lonely and angry, and irritated with her. She did not understand why this was, and reacted angrily, so that suddenly it seemed as if there were two angry children in the house. With Voice Dialogue therapy, she brought out her strong caring part, who told me that maybe she could be more understanding of her husband's loneliness, and to her surprise her anger disappeared, and she wanted to show him that she loved him. Things started to improve at home.

3. The part often called the higher self may be disowned or ignored for a long time, sometimes years, until spiritual or creative yearnings pop up. Martin could not use his creative self at his job in advertising, and felt very frustrated and miserable. When I invited this creative part to talk to me, Martin said that he should not have neglected his painting; he knew it was a talent that he had neglected. Martin's manager, a different self, contemplated what he had just heard said, and decided that he would join other artists and paint in the evenings after work. Martin kept on the well-paid work he was forced to do but felt much better in general.

If you are interested in therapy that uses this kind of approach you can look for a Humanistic Therapist who uses either Voice Dialogue, Gestalt or Psychosynthesis. Directories of professional organizations are given below.


1. Holden Robert. Shift Happens: Powerful Ways to Transform Your Life. Hodder & Stoughton. London. 2000.
2. Jeffers Susan. Feel the Fear…and Beyond. Rider. London. 1998.
3. Rowan John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge. London. 1990.
4. Stone Hal and Winkelman Sidra. Embracing Each Other: Relationship as Teacher, Healer and Guide. New World Library. 1989.

Further Information

Professional organizations:
United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapists; Tel: 0207 436 3013;
British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists; Tel: 0870 443 5252;
Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners. Tel: 08457 660326.


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About Vivienne Silver-Leigh

Vivienne Silver-Leigh had a career first as a speech therapist, and then became a lecturer in English and counselling. She trained counsellors for five years, and now has a private practice, working as a psychotherapist, from a humanistic/integrative perspective. Following a strong interest in spirituality, she learned yoga and various forms of breathwork and meditation. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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