Words of Caution: This guide has been designed for people who are working with me to manage dissociation, who have been taught in collaboration with me to identify and work with dissociated parts of themselves. If you are experiencing severe distress or urges to harm yourself or others, please seek the help of a qualified therapist before you attempt this work on your own.
What is an Ego State?
We all have experiences at times in our lives during which we feel overwhelmed by something, and sometimes we are not able to fully understand and process the experience. When we think about it, we can’t manage to make sense of it, and it is as if a part of us got frozen in that moment. A part of us never moves on.
Later on, if something reminds us of the experience, we may act as though we are still there, stuck in a childish, adolescent or emotional state, without access to the wisdom, maturity and balance we can enjoy at other times.
This is especially common for people who have survived a trauma, or experienced poor emotional attunement with their parents, or neglect or abuse during childhood or adolescence. We are all born helpless, unable to meet our needs for survival (food, shelter, warmth and safety), and unable to soothe our own emotions. We depend on the care of adults around us to meet our needs and regulate our emotions. Even as adults, survival and emotion regulation are group tasks; we live in societies, and we share our experiences with others to help us to cope with difficulty.
Healthy psychological development depends on an environment in which it is safe to express valid needs, and to express emotions. When children grow up without this safety, they often feel overwhelmed, and may learn to dissociate their needs and emotions, to avoid overwhelming pain, to reduce stress on the family, or to prevent further exposure to danger from their caregivers.
Dissociation happens in the first place because of a lack of emotional safety. It follows then that healing begins by having the adult part of you establish psychological safety for the parts who became isolated because there was no safety. As a child, you had little or no control over your environment. As an adult, you have many choices that can help you to be safer, and to overcome the difficulties of the past and present.
Exercises to Help You Help Your Parts
Sarah Krakauer (2001), an American clinical psychologist who works with highly dissociative people, has described and developed three useful images and a helpful exercise to help people to connect safely with and make links with their dissociated parts.
1. Place of Safety ~ In order to map out what dissociated parts may exist within you, it can be helpful to imagine a safe place in your mind, where each part of you has its own private space that it can close the door on, and enjoy privacy, comfort and security. You may imagine a hallway, if this feels safe, or something else if it doesn’t, where each part, including you, has its own room, and the hallway as a whole represents you as a whole. This can be a valuable device for getting to know yourself better.
Some key points to keep in mind in the Place of Safety:
- Safety is the first priority in this place, do whatever it takes to feel safe.
- It’s in your imagination, so you can make changes as you see fit to ensure your and your parts’ safety.
- Each part has a private space with whatever that part needs in its space to feel safe and secure.
- No part can enter any other part’s private space without an invitation from the space’s owner.
- Any part should feel free to go to its space and close the door if it feels unsafe at any time.
2. Theatre ~ No matter how fragmented you have become, you are one whole person, with one brain. When you injure yourself, your body gets on with the process of healing itself, and in a similar way, your brain is working to make you whole and healthy. If you have many parts, you have probably become somewhat disconnected from your mind’s healing force, which you can think of as your inner wisdom, your intuition, or your collective heart, as one of Sarah Krakauer’s clients named it. It is helpful to develop skills to re-connect with your wise, healing intuition, and the Theatre can help you to do this. The Theatre is a private place in your imagination to connect with your inner wisdom, healing force or intuition, and your wisdom or intuition is what controls the movie screen.
Some key points to keep in mind in the Theatre:
- Each part, including you, has its own seat.
- Emotional Remote Control: Because safety is so important in this work, and because many of your parts are almost certainly children, each part may have a different range of emotions, and may experience different things or intensities of emotion as dangerous. At each seat, there is an Emotional Remote Control that allows each part, including you, to dial up or down their own emotions, as they feel comfortable.
- Nothing and nobody is better placed than your inner wisdom or intuition to answer questions about your parts, mediate conflicts between parts, or consider the problems you are facing in your life.
3. Meeting Place ~ The Meeting Place is an imaginary place where your parts can get together to communicate, get to know each other, and to solve the problems that are preventing you from moving forward. The purpose of the Meeting Place is to create a safe, neutral ground for your parts to discuss whatever they need to discuss to be able to cooperate.
Some key points to keep in mind in the meeting place:
- Parts must treat each other with respect, and listen to each other non-judgementally.
- Any part who is speaking gets to finish what they are saying before another part speaks.
- Try not to rush to the Meeting Place, wait until you and your parts are ready to meet and discuss things calmly.
A Helpful Exercise for Anger: The Anger Rock
Unmet needs, neglect and trauma in childhood often mean that people are forced to dissociate from their anger about the injustice of their situation. This dissociated anger may flare up suddenly, causing problems in current functioning. Some people may feel constantly overwhelmed by anger, and unable to channel it safely. The Anger Rock is a useful exercise for any part or person that is struggling with anger.
Imagine going into a clearing in the woods, if that feels safe, or another open space if it doesn’t, and imagine the angry part finding a rock the size of its anger. It will know how big the rock is. Invite the part to smash this rock to pieces however it sees fit, and to enjoy this process of venting its anger to the point where it can communicate safely about what is angering it.
Some key points to keep in mind with the Anger Rock:
- If you are considering using the Anger Rock for any of your parts or yourself, then there are valid and legitimate reasons to feel angry. This exercise is not about disregarding or dismissing your or your part’s anger, it’s about venting valid anger safely so that nobody gets hurt.
- The Anger Rock provides you or your part with a safe way to vent the anger, so that it can express and make use of that anger, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
- This takes place in your imagination, so nobody can get hurt by this exercise, and you can imagine and use anything that would help you to vent your anger (tools, magic, etc).
- When the part has finished venting its anger, the part should be congratulated, and invited to communicate about what is not going the way it would like in the present.
Overall Goals of these Imagery Exercises
These images are designed to help you to understand yourself better, so that you can reduce internal conflict and learn to foster internal communication, effective problem solving, and inner harmony.
Every human being is unique, and so is every part of a human being. All your parts are valid parts of you, and each one deserves respect and love, just as you did when you were born.
If you are going to heal your dissociation, you will need to:
- Learn to love all the parts of yourself, no matter how many difficulties you feel they have contributed to.
- Remember that no part of you will ever be destroyed by this work. All your parts are real, valid parts of you, and while they can learn to cooperate and support you better, they will not disappear.
- Figure out how each part developed to help you solve an important problem in your past, and learn to be grateful for the assistance that you have received from that part.
- Validate your parts’ feelings, which are appropriate and proportionate to the experiences of your past, even if they appear to be extreme in the present.
- Nurture and care for your parts to make up for the gaps in nurturing in your past.
- Learn to be the head of your internal family, and remember that as an adult who survived your past, you know everything you need to know to solve your own problems. No matter how confronting a part may seem, you are the adult. You are bigger, you are stronger, you are wiser and you are kind, and you can help your part to heal.
Some people use this work until they achieve full integration of their parts, and no longer feel like they have separate parts, but instead play different roles when appropriate. Others use this work to establish a cooperative team within themselves, but choose to maintain their separate parts because it adds to the diversity in their lives. Each person must make their own decision about when the work feels finished for themselves.
Author: Dr Catherine Hynes, BA Hons (Philosophy & Neuroscience), MA (Cognitive Neuroscience), PhD (Clinical Psychology & Clinical Neuropsychology).
Dr Catherine Hynes has a PhD in clinical psychology and neuropsychology from the University of Queensland and can provide expert help to people troubled by dissociation. She uses evidence-based therapies, and works with her clients in a warm and supportive way to help them decide what therapy and what strategies are most suitable to their personal tastes and circumstances.
To make an appointment, you can book Dr Catherine Hynes online, or freecall Vision Psychology on 1800 877 924 today.
- Krakauer, SY (2001) Treating Dissociative Identity: the power of the collective heart. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Watkins JG & Watkins H (1997) Ego States: Theory and Therapy. USA: Blackwell.