Psychology

The Sybil Syndrome: How to Identify Your Subpersonalities Before They Sabotage You

Lauretta Zuchetti
Written by Lauretta Zuchetti

For the millions of people who have read SYBIL, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s bestselling account of multiple personality disorder–or watched the film by the same ominous name–the story may have struck them as horrific and surreal, even incomprehensible.  But if we look carefully at the existence of Sybil, despite how wildly debated the analysis of her life might be, we’ll see that we all have a touch of her fable in our lives.

Subpersonalities are not a new phenomenon. In transpersonal psychology, a subpersonality is “a personality mode that kicks in, or appears on a temporary basis, to allow a person to cope with certain types of psychosocial situations.”  Sound familiar?

The majority of the significant decisions in my life were made when one of the stronger sides of me—my subpersonalities—took over.  Or, to be more precise, when one of them high jacked my character and obliterated all of the other voices in my head. From leaving jobs to leaving husbands, these decisions were based not on reason but on the needs of one of the many children inside of me.

Subpersonalities develop as a consequence to our environment. If, for example, we grew up with overly critical parents, we are bound to develop a fierce inner critic who will, in time, develop the voice of our mother or father or both—to the point that we are constantly being scolded by an unseen parent. If we didn’t receive much love or attention as a child or as an adult, we likely have a tendency to be accommodating to a fault in order to gain recognition from others, or go out of our way, sometimes dangerously, in search of warmth and acceptance. If we have a penchant for risk, a subpersonality within us is probably trying to outrun what’s happening in the present. The list is endless, really, but the problem is this: What happens when these parts manage to overwhelm our lives, derail us, and shoot us straight into trouble? What happens when these voices keep us from reaching our highest potential?

Within us all lives tender and sensitive energies—energies of the child within us who observes the world closely and gets hurt easily. This side of us is destroyed when a subpersonality determines to execute what seems to be the “safest” and most logical solution to a problem. Take the inner critic, for instance.  he, or he, becomes overtly cynical and suspicious, which squashes our ability to empathize and love unconditionally. In such a case, as well as others, we bury important, kinder sides of ourselves that are submerged so deeply that their concealment often becomes a detriment to our existence.

Many books have been written on the subject. Hal Stone’s EMBRACING YOUR INNER CRITIC, for one, is particularly memorable. Stone does a remarkable job of explaining the fragmentation we may encounter as we become adolescents and then adults. Many transpersonal psychologists and others stress the importance of practicing psychosynthesis, a psychological exercise between a therapist and patient that aims to integrate the various personalities into a calm, workable whole. But apart from reading up on the topic and engaging in therapy, how can we identify those subpersonalities that occasionally take over our lives?

First, we must analyze how we feel with bravery and candor. If we feel excesses of joy or sadness—if we tend to experience ups and downs with great frequency in the absence of a diagnosed mood disorder—we are likely at the mercy of the various children who reside within us. Just like the tantrums we threw when we didn’t get the ice cream cone when we wanted it only to smile two minutes later if handed a toy, now, as adults, we become unreasonably upset with someone for what they say or do, then find distractions in others or in external, sensory endeavors to escape the frustration and rage we feel towards the “offender.”

Case in point: an introverted person might feel inadequate and anxious in a large group, and yet dislikes those who feel at home at a bustling cocktail party. This person has more or less disowned some of his or her parts and allowed the inner critic to prevail—and that callous voice isn’t working towards this person’s forward progress but is satisfying the needs of another subpersonality (the child whose nose is out of joint). In this case, the introvert has temporarily lost their detached center by a stronger, or louder, voice.

Next, we must realize that underneath our chattering minds is a mesa of peace, abundance, and wellness. It transcends how we grew up, the personalities we were forced to develop in order to cope, and the challenges we face in our present lives. In this space of contentment, we connect to our higher self and are able to feel the power and vitality that is always present despite the chaos and darkness and crazed ecstasy we may feel internally. And it is in this space that we can also observe our parts at work and begin to make sensible, sensitive, and truly safe decisions.

To gain equilibrium when you feel you’re starting to veer off course, try the following:

•    Close your eyes and breathe.  That’s it.  Just breathe.
•    With your eyes closed, identify the voices that seem to be in conflict. Initially, you’ll notice that there is often a battle of opinions. You will also see that until you get centered, one of these parts will triumph, for better or for worse. Meaning: Catch them while you can.
•    Explore both the penalties and the pluses of taking one side over the other.
•    Now, imagine that you are watching this debate from above and that you have a bright yellow light shining upon you. In this space of clarity and reason, realize that you—the centered you—is the parent, and the only one in charge.
•    Make a decision from this role as the parent. Don’t spank your children—thank them for being there, but with compassion let them know that you need to go in a different direction. For all of you.

As it is with all practices, in time you’ll find it easier and easier to hear the voices of your subpersonalities for what they are—songs that you have the power to press pause or off on; songs that you can discard for good, if you, as the parent, should choose.

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Lauretta Zuchetti

Lauretta Zuchetti