Skip to content

Detecting hidden personality parts

Excerpt from The 5 Knots by Claus Springborg, PhD
12 minutes read

In Section 6.2 The layered personality structure, I described personality as a system of automated patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour. Furthermore, I proposed that these patterns are developed to deal with specific problems and that sometimes the problem one pattern deals with is an unintended side-effect of a previously established pattern.

As a result, the personality structure is a layered structure. Clients are generally only aware of patterns in the outermost layers of this structure. Patterns in the deeper layers operate beyond clients’ awareness and the effects of these patterns will, therefore, appear as facts of life rather than products of clients’ own activity.

In Section 6.4.3, I presented a range of tools for bringing awareness to automated patterns that normally operate outside a client’s awareness.

The metaphor of seeing automatic patterns as separate inner personalities can assist in this work of expanding what patterns the client is aware of. The metaphor makes it possible to detect patterns clients are not aware of by asking questions about patterns clients are aware of. Three such questions I often use are:

  • How do you feel about a particular part?
  • What is a particular part reacting to?
  • Who is a particular part talking to?

You can either ask these questions directly to the client or use them as background questions that guide the inquiry.

Below, I will comment on the use of each of these questions.

How do you feel about a particular part?

A very effective way of detecting hidden parts is to ask clients what they feel about the parts they are already aware of.

If a client has an opinion, positive as well as negative, about a particular part of themselves, it is a sign that the client in that moment is operating as another part. But the client may not be aware that the opinions and emotions they experience when looking at one part of themselves are, in fact, the opinions and emotions of another part – i.e. that they are automatic responses.

A client may, for example, tend to please other people, disregarding their own needs and wishes in the process. The client may be aware that this tendency to please others is a part of them that take over in certain situations. When asked what they feel about this part, the client may say that they dislike it, and that it seems weak and pathetic to them. This answer reveals that the client contains another part, which is trying to deal with the problematic side-effects created by the people-pleasing part and judges it negatively.

Alternatively, the client may say they feel protective of the people-pleasing part and see it as a beautiful but fragile part that is unfairly exploited by others. Furthermore, the client may feel anger at anyone who dares to take advantage of this part. This answer also reveals that the client contains another part. However, whereas the client’s feelings about the people-pleasing part in the previous example revealed a part that was trying to protect against the problems created by the people-pleasing part, the client’s feelings about the people-pleasing part in this example reveals a part that tries to protect the people-pleasing part against external abuse.

Thus, asking what a client feels or thinks about a particular part of themselves, is a good way of discovering other parts, which otherwise could go unnoticed, since the client would be likely to consider the feelings and opinions of the hidden part as facts of life. In the first example, the client may believe people-pleasing is inherently pathetic. Similarly, in the second example, the client may consider that people-pleasing is objectively a beautiful trait that must be protected.

As a rule of thumb, any charged relationship the client experiences towards a personality part is an indication of the presence of another personality part. Whenever a client feels an urgent need to do something with the part they are looking at, this indicates the presence of another part. Sometimes, clients may wish to do several things with a personality part. This would imply several other parts. For example, a client may simultaneously feel that their people-pleasing tendency is pathetic and should be changed and that it is fragile and should be protected against external abuse. As these are two distinct agendas, such a response would indicate the presence of two distinct parts.

If the client looks at a part without being identified with any other part, they will usually feel a non-judgemental curiosity and interest, and they will have no wish to change or transform the part they are looking at.

What is a particular part reacting to?

Another effective way of detecting hidden parts is to ask clients what a part they are already aware of is reacting to.

If a client has a part with a strong urge to prevent a particular problem, it is often a sign that the client has another part that produces exactly this problem. However, as this second part may be operating outside the client’s awareness, they may not be aware that their urge is a reaction to something in themselves.

A client may, for example, have a strong urge to be assertive and not let other people take advantage of them. The client may be aware that this urge belongs to a part of them which takes over in certain situations. When asked what this part is reacting to, the client may become aware that they have another part, which fears conflict, and that this fear of conflicts leaves them open to being taken advantage of.

It is not always necessary to ask a client directly what a particular part is a reaction to. It is also possible to use this question as a means to develop hypotheses and then ask the client to confirm or refute these hypotheses.

For example, if a client has a part that actively argues for the client’s worth, one can hypothesise that the client must contain another part that feels worthless. If this were not the case, there would be nothing to prompt the first part to argue for the client’s value.

Similarly, if a client is concerned with taking up too much space, one can hypothesise that the client must have another part that wishes to take up space. If there were no part pushing for taking up space, there would be no reason for the client to have another part that was concerned with taking up less space.

The two questions “what do you feel about a particular part?” and “what is a particular part reacting to?” are complementary. The first question helps identify hidden parts that are responses to a part the client knows about. The second question helps identify hidden parts that the known part is responding to. In other words, the first question reveals what comes after a certain part while the second question reveals what comes before.

Figure 25: Uncovering hidden parts

Sometimes, clients will be aware of two parts that are reactions to each other. For example, a client may be aware of one part that seeks to minimise needs and another that seeks to inflate needs. The first part may seek to minimise needs to avoid the problems created by the part that inflates needs and vice versa.

In this case, one can ask what the “controversy” between these two parts is a reaction to. Asking this question may reveal the two parts the client is proposing two opposing answers to the same question, namely: How to get your needs met when you meet opposition from the outside. One part believes you are more likely to have your needs met if you minimise them. The other part believes you are more likely to have your needs met if you demand to have them met. Both answers presuppose that having your needs met is difficult because other people will oppose it. Thus, both parts are reactions to a third part which believes that needs will not be readily met. If it were no difficulties in having your needs met, there would be no reason to devise strategies for how to do so.

Figure 26: Uncovering hidden parts underpinning inner controversies

Thus, asking what the parts clients are aware of are reacting to can be an effective way of discovering hidden parts.

The advantage of this particular question is that it helps move the client’s awareness upstream as discussed in Section 6.4.3 Elucidating agency (deconstructing the “natural” state) under the header “Moving awareness up stream”. Thus, repeated use of this question can bring client’s awareness all the way back to the initial part, which is a reification of Being.

Who is a particular part talking to?

The third tool for discovering hidden parts is a variation of the previous question of what a part is reacting to.

Sometimes, when a client is describing the thoughts and feelings of a particular part, you, as the therapist, can imagine that the part is talking to someone on the telephone. If you listen to someone talking on the telephone, you cannot hear what the person on the other ned is saying – but you can make very qualified guesses based on what the person you can hear is saying.

Imagine the following is a transcription of someone speaking on the phone. While you read it, notice how easy it is to guess what the person on the other end of the line is saying.

  • Hello, can I speak to the manager, please?
  • I’d like to inquire about one of your products.
  • Pricing and delivery options.
  • Oh, great, thank you that would be great.
  • Yes. Just a second. The product number is X4KJ7. I’m interested in the black version.
  • That’s perfect. I’d like to order two and have them sent to my home address with the express option.
  • 123 Main Street, Knotsville
  • No, that’s all. Thank you so much.
  • And a great day to you too!

While you cannot be certain what they person on the other end is saying, you can get a pretty good idea just by listening to the part of the conversation you can hear.

In the same way, it is possible to listen to a client’s account of their situation as if what they say are responses to another part inside of them, which you cannot hear. Consider the following description a client may give of their issue with their partner. See if you can get a sense of what another hidden part must be saying that the part you can hear is responding to.

  • My problem is that my partner doesn’t respect me. He keeps down-prioritising the relationship, and I’m fed up with this behaviour.
  • I’m really not asking for much here. Just some basic consideration.
  • I’m not a needy or clingy person.
  • I’m fine being on my own. But what is the point of a relationship if we hardly ever spend time together.
  • I don’t want to control his life or suffocate him but it feels like he doesn’t care about our relationship anymore. I miss the connection we used to have.
  • I can easily find another boyfriend. I get lots of offers. I’m just tired of the whole dating thing.
  • But I think I’ll have to end the relationship. It isn’t healthy, and I’m worth more than this.

As in the previous example, it is not possible to know for sure, what the conversation partner you cannot hear is saying but you can make some good guesses.

For example, the client most likely has an inner part that holds the following beliefs:

  • The client is asking for too much
  • The client is needy and clingy
  • The client should stay in the relationship because they wouldn’t be ok on their own – for example, because they would be overwhelmed by loneliness.
  • The client is controlling and suffocate their partner
  • The client may not be able to find another partner and are not worth their partner’s (or anyone’s) time and attention

If the client did not contain inner parts holding the above beliefs, there would be no reason for the client to refute them in their description of their situation.

Listening to a client’s account of their situation as one side of a telephone conversation can be a very effective way of developing good hypotheses about what hidden parts the client contains, which can inform your work with the client.

1 thought on “Detecting hidden personality parts”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.