Issue 19 September 2005
Disowned Selves and Pathology
Hal Stone PhD & Sidra L. Stone PhD
John Coroneos asked for questions you might like us to address in these Voice Dialogue tips. We’ve chosen the following question about disowned selves and pathology to answer.
My question relates to the following comments regarding disowned selves. “Whatever you judge is a disowned self! Whatever you hate is a disowned self! Whatever drives you crazy about your partner is a disowned self! On the other side, whatever you yearn for and overvalue is also a disowned self.”
I am married to someone who has Asperger’s Disorder. It is difficult for me to accept that the various aspects associated with Asperger’s are my disowned selves. (i.e. the need to question and research and investigate everything to the point of non-action, difficulty in social situations which require being able to interpret social cues, unable to sleep for 24 to 32 hours at a time because of difficulty with boundaries, difficulty going to bed because not all the deep philosophical issues or even personal issues have not been resolved, etc).
I have tried very hard to understand how they can be my disowned selves and what to do with it because in my mind some of the above behaviors are not healthy or normal. I have the same question regarding the “disowned selves” associated with psychotic mental illnesses in the other person one has a relationship with. Please comment on the above. (Both my husband and I are in individual therapy and I have done some voice dialogue in therapy as well as in journaling).
Answer from Hal and Sidra
Your question is a good one! It’s a question that has been of interest to many people.
It can be very difficult to think in terms of disowned selves when you are dealing with mental illness or other kinds of non-normal behavior. The behavior of the other person is so out of the ordinary that it is hard to believe that there might be something to learn or to integrate. It just sounds too frightening.
For instance, ” Warren ” whose mother was psychotic, was so afraid of becoming psychotic that he identified with a Rational Mind and Control as primary selves and disowned all emotions because emotions seemed dangerous and he feared that they might lead to psychosis. Because his mother’s erratic behavior caused him shame, he also developed a strong “What will people think?” primary self and disowned his own spontaneity.
Primary selves like the Rational Mind, Control, “What will people think?” or the Psychological Knower can be wonderful adaptations to growing up in a household with a psychotic parent. In fact, they often save one’s life or one’s sanity. At the very least, they bring some measure of stability and reasonableness to an otherwise chaotic and disturbing situation. But even though these selves might be absolutely necessary early in life, they have some limitations as time goes on. They do not allow for feelings or spontaneity – emotional reality is just not part of the equation. This puts serious limitations on the depth and excitement of relationship.
So when Warren ran into some difficulties with his relationship, he felt that it was time to do something new. He now had enough stability in his life to make him feel safe and he was motivated to change in order to keep this relationship. He went into counseling and separated from the primary selves (Rational Mind and Control) that had saved his life and he began – gently and gradually – to integrate his feeling side, his emotions. This made his life richer and more textured and it led to a greater degree of intimacy in his relationship.
In looking for disowned selves (as in Warren ‘s mother), it is important not to be too literal in our thinking. Please remember that we never talk about becoming the disowned self, just about separating from the primary self and embracing a very small amount of what it is that the other person carries. We are not talking about becoming like the other person. We are not suggesting that Warren should become psychotic or irrational like his mother, just that he embrace a fraction of the energies that might be useful – we call it a homeopathic dose.
There are many different ways to describe this process. One that is helpful to many people is the following: Pretend that you are able to distill the essence of the other person and can take just a tiny drop of that essence under your tongue every morning. What would it give you? Well, if you are thinking about someone who is psychotic, that can sound pretty frightening. So, instead of thinking about the big picture, think of some of the qualities of the person.
For instance, Warren ‘s mother did not worry about what other people thought about her, she was only interested in her own ideas. She was also very emotional and creative in her approach to life. So with Warren, a very, very dilute homeopathic dose might bring with it the ability to be less concerned about “what other people think” and be more concerned with his own process. It also might bring more feelings into his life, more spontaneity, or more creativity.
When we work with people, we think in terms of balancing opposites – and we work with opposites. Warren , because of his mother’s illness, has developed a personality over-weighted on the rational and controlled side. This “homeopathic dose” of feeling and spontaneity would bring in missing energies and could help to create more balance in his life.
If we look at you and your husband in this way, we are not suggesting that you become like him. But there might possibly be something to learn from him. There might even be something about the aspects of the Asperger’s Disorder that you mentioned that could represent a disowned self. Following our way of looking at relationship, we would first have to determine what your primary selves are. Let us say that you are a feeling person who is more interested in people than in ideas. If that were the case, then his preoccupation with ideas and a resulting lack of emotional connection would represent a disowned self. A homeopathic dose of his energy might bring you your own impersonal energies or your own Rational Mind and its fascination with ideas.
If your primary self is decisive (or impulsive), needs action and can’t bear to wait for a process to work its way through, then just a bit of his energies might bring you the ability to slow down, to consider alternatives, and to wait before you act. We are not suggesting that you need to integrate non-action to the extent of losing your ability to make a decision. If we look at what you said about his inability to interpret social cues, it might possibly be that you are particularly sensitive to these – that you care very much what people think or that your primary self is a Pleaser. If any of this is true, then just a little less sensitivity would be the integration of a disowned energy that is needed to give you more choice and balance in your life.
This is not to discount the need to view pathology as pathology. A situation involving pathology needs to be dealt with appropriately. And the more information you have about the particular disorder of the other person, the better. That way you know what is the illness and what is more personal. You know what to expect and what it is unrealistic to expect. You are less vulnerable and less judgmental. You can deal with a situation – and the other person – more creatively and with more understanding. You will know how – and when – you need to protect yourself and your own vulnerabilities.
When you are in relationship with someone who is suffering from some disorder, it is important to gather information. There are many excellent books written these days that give clear descriptions of what to look for and even, in some instances, what you can do to mitigate matters. Support in the form of therapy or support groups is available. Let’s see what this might look like.
“Terese’s” mother was very abusive. She was charming, beautiful, and clever; she looked great in public. But when she was home alone with her children she was both emotionally and physically abusive. Living with her was like living in a nightmare, a nightmare that nobody else suspected. To the rest of the world their mother looked great and their complaints would sound unrealistic – maybe even disturbed.
The children were terrified of their mother and vowed never to be like her when they grew up. They would never be abusers. They would not hurt others as she had hurt them. They would never put their needs first and ignore everyone else’s. They would be extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings of others and be sure to honor them.
So Terese grew up to be a very responsible, loving, understanding human being. She was identified with her feelings and was very empathic. She disowned any parts of her that might even remotely resemble her mother. She disowned her aggression. She would not allow herself to feel even the slightest annoyance with another person and she would never allow herself to react in a way that might possibly be interpreted as negative. She disowned her own coldness, her ability to think rather than to feel. She disowned her own selfishness or narcissism to such an extent that she couldn’t say no to anyone in the fear of hurting them; she couldn’t set any kind of boundary to protect her own time and space. Her feelings always came last.
When Terese grew up she tried very hard to live an exemplary life. But occasionally she would experience an outburst of anger that seemed to come out of nowhere. She found this very distressing so she sought counseling. Her therapist helped her to understand her own feelings and taught her about her mother’s pathology. Terese’s mother was a borderline personality and, as such, was extremely difficult to live with. Terese read books and got new ideas about how to deal with – and how impossible it was to deal with – her mother.
Interestingly enough, it was the selfishness, the “my needs first” quality of her mother that Terese had disowned but she now needed to integrate before she was able to deal with her mother more objectively and set the necessary boundaries. Terese needed to separate from her nurturing, responsible and compassionate primary selves in order to protect her own vulnerable child and to deal with her mother more effectively. As she did this, as she developed an Aware Ego process, she had more choice and made more creative decisions.
As she became more aware of the situation and of her mother’s pathology, Terese was better able to take care of herself. She learned to say no even though it might hurt others. Her seemingly irrational outbursts of anger were no longer a problem. She learned to deal with her mother more objectively and at a greater distance rather than to continue her efforts to establish a compassionate, deep and rewarding mother/daughter relationship. She was no longer operating in a bonding pattern where her behavior was automatic.
Most people live their relationships in bonding patterns. This can be particularly painful when the other person is emotionally disturbed. In the positive bonding pattern, the selves operating are usually a combination of responsible parent and guilty child that deals with the pathology of the other; in the negative bonding pattern, the selves are often a combination of the judgmental parent (frequently armed with much psychological jargon) and a betrayed or victim child. Neither of these bonding patterns is particularly helpful.
When dealing with people like Warren’s or Terese’s mothers, people need to move out of these bonding patterns. They need choice in dealing with pathology. They need the creativity, the flexibility, the objectivity, the power, and the vulnerability and access to feelings that is available with the Aware Ego. We can’t talk about this in detail just now, but we wrote about bonding patterns in earlier “tips”, and there is much information on them at the website http://www.voicedialogue.tv
So, in answer to your question, M, we have given this picture of how lessons can be learned from disowned selves even when there is severe pathology involved. Please do not take this to mean that one must remain in a relationship that is destructive or toxic just to learn a life lesson. You, M, and your husband are involved in therapy as partners and this is working well for you. There may be others who read this who are in relationships that are too toxic and must be handled differently. They do not have to remain victims in these relationships.
Each person, each relationship, each life’s journey is unique and we honor them all!