July 21, 2003
Inner Conflict - Part 4: Primal Need and Subpersonalities
All living things are motivated by need and the fulfillment of that need. As the day progresses, our cells need many elements, from proteins and carbohydrates to water and oxygen. These needs motivate us to eat, drink, and breathe. If these needs are not met, we strive harder to meet them. If we continue to be unsuccessful, frustration (anger) and anxiety (fear) arise and elevate the physical drive to get the needs met quickly.
If the needs are still not met after considerable time and effort, the absence of the needed elements can result in physical damage and pain. The organism is then motivated to do whatever it can do - desperate measures - to fill the need and/or alleviate the pain. If the pain becomes too much for the system to handle, an electrochemical shut-off mechanism comes into play to dull/repress the pain. The unfulfilled need and the pain remain in the system, but are blocked from upper-brain "working" consciousness. We carry on holding hidden pain, and we are a little more numb - and a little more disconnected from a part of ourselves.
That is "trauma" (German for "pain").
When we are children, like any young plant or animal, we are in a rapid growth period and need a great deal of nutrients, water, movement, stimulation, communication, protection, safe touch, and loving care. If any of these things are lacking, we call for them, yell for them, grab for them, cry for them - whatever it takes to get them. Plants stretch their stems for sunlight and children wail to be picked up. To not get these things is called neglect, and neglect is traumatizing.
If we are attacked verbally or physically, this violates our need to be protected in the process of getting our growth needs met. Our need to be protected, or our need not to be hurt, is a need in itself. When we are hurt in this way, we do whatever we can to avoid it or stop it.
We can repress the pain and create a classic trauma, but we can also do something else. We can adjust our behaviour to try to get what we need. Instead of following our natural needs to run and play, we can make ourselves listen to our self-centered father (be "The Loyal Subject") in order to avoid his beatings. Instead of feeling sad about something, we can pretend to be funny (be "The Joker") to cheer up our depressed mother. At times when we want to be out with friends, we make ourselves study instead (be "The Smart One") so that the teacher will smile and "love" us. When we really just want to be part of a loving family, we can make ourselves break the rules (be "The Bad Boy") so that our busy, neglectful parents will pay some attention to us.
Sometimes these acts help, but since our caregivers are generally too neurotic to respond correctly, we end up getting emotional crumbs - instead of the love and nourishment we really need. On top of that, we end up with patterns of behaviour - subpersonalities - that run contrary to our natures.
Every one of our emotional problems has an unmet need at its root. It is a need that wasn't met, and a need that wasn't fully expressed. In primal we work toward expressing the need, meeting some of it, and then grieving the large portion that was not met - and now can never be met. In primal sessions, I can finally call out to my mother to hold me - the way I never could as a child. I can fill some of the need to be held by allowing my therapist (and others I trust) to hold me. But I will probably also have to cry about the fact that my therapist can not give me the days, weeks, and years of love that I needed from my mother and no one else. That is a tragedy that no one can replace.
Unmet needs are the original cause - the genesis - of our subpersonalities. Each one was created to try to get at least one need met that our caregivers were not fulfilling. Unfortunately, subpersonalities, by their nature, run contrary to our child nature, which is simply to be our growing, animal, child selves.
The whole problem starts with conflict. You are what you are and have a legitimate need. If it doesn't get met, you act against your nature to try to get it met. Your body needs to jump and run, but your "will" forces your body to sit still so Dad won't hit you. This "will" is the first emergence of a subpersonality - the "Inner Parent." The Inner Parent arises to control the body ("The Inner Child") so it won't get "in trouble." In a sense, the Inner Parent is attempting to help by keeping you from getting hit. The problem is, the child body is a force of nature, and cannot be fully controlled without tension and damage of some kind. The body rebels in many ways, by "disobeying," "goofing off," and if necessary, by getting sick. The Inner Parent, modelled from the behaviour of one's actual parents or caregivers, becomes a nagging inner tyrant who berates and struggles with the Inner Child.
Every other subpersonality that arises will be in conflict with the child body and will often be in conflict with other subpersonalities as well. The Good Girl is probably never good enough for the Inner Parent; the Bad Girl will despise the Good Girl; the Perfectionist will be too slow and picky for the Good Girl; the Magical Child will be too dreamy for all the others. The complexities and inner tension that result from the creation of subpersonalities are enormous.
In primal, we usually follow an uncomfortable feeling to an unmet need and express it. In normal sessions, as we regress to childhood consciousness, we are working with one subpersonality and the need that created it.
There are times, however, when inner conflict is forefront in the process, and multiple feelings or needs are very apparent. This indicates the active presence of more than one subpersonality. At these times, it can be very effective to "bring out" the subpersonalities at the root of the conflict, rather than try to focus on one feeling at the exclusion of others.
This may seem very complex, even disintegrative, but experience has shown those of us practicing Primal Integration that taking this route can be very effective. When the "house" is disturbed by "fighting children," attending to the needs of one child may not be enough. They all need to be heard, and we need to let them speak.
Next week's Thought will continue with "Inner Conflict - Part 5: Working with Subpersonalities."