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).

Thank  you,


Answer from  Hal and Sidra

Dear  M,

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!