Who are we, really? What is it that makes us who we are? What defines us and gives us our identity?
Much of the underlying work that happens in counselling can be concerned with these questions, directly or indirectly. And a great deal of the client’s processing of this can happen outside the counselling room between sessions – not always consciously.
What happens inside and outside the counselling room can sometimes seem directionless and without structure. But, if progress is being made, this processing will be taking the client closer to their undiscovered, true self.
And yet the true self is itself difficult to define. That’s partly because the self is not fixed and unmoving. Carl Rogers described people as not existing in a fixed state of being, but as being in the process of becoming more and more open to their experiencing. In other words, on a personal journey that was bringing them always closer to their true selves. (And the work of counselling is to deal with those things that get in the way of this process). This helps explain why the concept of ‘self’ can be so hard to pin down.
Another reason for this is that the self is not a uniform entity. In a radio interview last month, Dr Jay Earley, a computer scientist and psychologist, explained a theory called Internal Family Systems (IFS). This has nothing to do with families in the everyday sense. IFS refers instead to the family of parts that make up the self for each of us.
Earley describes these parts as sub-personalities or ‘little people’ inside us, each with their own outlook, feelings, motivations, etc. Some parts are categorised as ‘exiles’ – those parts of us that we have rejected as unacceptable; and some parts are classed as ‘protectors’ – those parts that defend us from the pain that the exiles represent.
David Mearns and Brian Thorne, in their explorations of person centred theory and practice (1999 & 2000), say that the process of positive change – or ‘constructive integration’ – involves changes in the relationship between our different parts. So this does not mean changes in the self as an entity.
When positive change is achieved, the elements of the self will co-exist in greater harmony. This may explain why clients who experience positive change can feel both ‘the same’ and ‘different’ at the same time. Earley’s use of the term ‘family’ is helpful here, because it suggests a network of relationships that have to be negotiated. So we need to become accepting of our parts and get to know them better first.
As Earley says, however they affect us, each one of our parts ultimately has positive intent. We should therefore look on all of our parts with compassion.