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The Silence of the Subpersonalities

The predominance in our culture of what I call a ‘jam-jar imagination’ is one of the more interesting challenges I face as a psychosynthesis therapist and trainer. Rather like a child peering into a jam-jar at their goldfish or tadpole, a person with a ‘jam-jar imagination’ holds images at arms-length, a micro-world of captured imagination, studied through the distortions of thick glass walls. This ‘jam-jar’ container places a limit upon imagination and with it the possibilities for healing. Images fail to touch us through the glass. Given the emphasis psychosynthesis places upon image work this is an important clinical issue.

An everyday example of the ‘jam-jar imagination’ happens to me sometimes at the cinema. My friend, who has been sitting quietly beside me for half the movie suddenly leans over and whispers in my ear, ‘another rebooted 70s moment, a total Tarantino rip off!’ I am jolted out of my immersion in the film. Whereas before I had been walking down the main street of a frontier town in the wild-west, now I am sitting in the plush red seats of an Odeon cinema. Whereas before I was identified with the cowboy protagonist, anxiously steeling myself for a Mexican standoff, now I want to have a shoot-out with my friend for interrupting my enjoyment of the movie. The introduction of a critical commentary has collapsed what is called my ‘suspension of disbelief’, the quality of perception required for imaginal awareness. I am now thinking about rather than being absorbed within the movie.

A client or therapist with a ‘jam-jar imagination’ will inhibit or interrupt suspension of disbelief in a similar manner. One of the ways this is frequently and unwittingly done is through the language of ‘parts’. A subpersonality (an imaginal character in psychosynthesis) with the appearance of a scary witch becomes our ‘bitchy part’, or a provocative siren becomes our ‘sexy part’, or simply, ‘that part of me’. Just as my friend made me self-consciously aware of the cowboy character as a ‘part’ played by an actor, so too when I meet a fire-breathing dragon in a guided imagery exercise and get asked, ‘what does this angry part of you need?’, I am taken out of my suspension of disbelief. The dragon as an edgy presence, as a character with a certain autonomy, has become a part of me. What before was a dragon is now an idea of a dragon, a representation of my anger, implying that I have some control over it or have perhaps just made it up. As an introductory experience this might have a usefulness. After all, a captured specimen is much easier to study than a wild one. But for those more familiar with imaginative ways, talking about a dragon as a ‘part’ is an unnecessary undermining of imaginal perception. Instead we can move closer to the phenomenological richness of our imaginative worlds by calling a spade a spade and a dragon a dragon, using jargon-free descriptive language that fills out the details of our encounters, rather than distancing ourselves from imagination with abstract or analytical language.

My friend at the cinema also mentioned the film director and this made it hard not to become self-conscious of the movie as a construct, borne from a host of B-movie influences soaked up by the young Quentin Tarantino in his video-store-attendant days. The cowboy protagonist became not just a ‘part’ in a movie, but a ‘part’ with a history. My immersion within the story became coloured by my thinking about which other movies had similar cowboys.

In therapy a similar disruption to our suspension of disbelief happens during image-based work when we ask questions such as, ‘who does this character remind you of?’ or ‘when did this subpersonality form in your life?’ The ‘jam-jar imagination’ assumption behind such questions is that the meaning of imagination is found, not in imagination itself, but in how it corresponds to the objective world. This comes from psychoanalytic theory, in which imaginal persons are understood as internalisations of historical persons and relationships. Hence a child of imagination does not really exist in and of itself, but only in relation to history, and so it becomes an ‘inner-child’ , which in turn becomes a cipher for the actual historical child.

Not that I want to deny the obvious importance of history. The point I am making is that a search for causes can easily become a historical reductionism of imagination, an abstraction that interrupts the unfolding of the imagery, or even blocks it altogether.

One common block caused by a ‘jam-jar imagination’ is what I call ‘the silence of the subpersonalities’. This happens when we ask a question of a subpersonality such as, ‘What is your name?’ or ‘What is it that you need from me?’ and nothing happens. The subpersonality does not reply and the attempt at dialogue seems to be over before it has even started. We can understand this silence by switching around our perspective to the inside of the ‘jam-jar imagination’. Would you want to talk to someone who doubted your very reality, who thought you were a mental representation of a historical person, or who thought you were a sort of psychological limb, a sub-part of them? If we made such life-denying judgements of our clients they wouldn’t say much. If it was me I don’t think I’d even show up. And it is no different with subpersonalities, who have feelings and needs, the most basic of which I would argue is their need to exist.

Ideas about imagination are important. This blog is a whole set of ideas about imagination. The multiplicity of a mind that has parts and the internalisation of historical persons are both useful concepts. What I am suggesting is that the distortion of a ‘jam-jar imagination’ occurs when we mix up our thinking about imagination with our experience of imagination. To best inhabit imagination we need to keep our ideas and interpretations well away from our imaginative experience. One can still do both, but trying to do them at the same time collapses our suspension of disbelief and traps us within a ‘jam-jar imagination’.

Don’t take my word for it. Next time you find the chance, try resisting the temptation to talk about ‘parts’ and / or relating an imaginal character to history…and see where it leads you.

Allan Frater

Allan is a trainer and tutor at the Trust

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