‘Until you make the unconscious conscious,
it will direct your life and
you will call it fate.’
— C.G. Jung
What Are Ego-States?
Ego-states reference the compartmentalization of our personality. Although we tend to think of our personality and sense of self as this all-encompassing, cohesive structure of likes, dislikes, hobbies, quirks, and experiences, it’s actually a bit more complicated. Our personality and sense of self is more like a galaxy. The center of the galaxy is our Wise Self – the “us” we present to the world who is responsible for going on with normal life tasks. Orbiting around Wise Self are clusters of neural networks that either encompass our emotional experiences or work to protect the Wise Self from witnessing the emotional experiences.
Is This Based in Science?
When emotionally intolerable events occur, our brain naturally withholds this painful information from crossing over the neurological bridge (corpus callosum) from the right hemisphere of the brain to the left hemisphere of the brain. The right hemisphere of our brain holds our emotional experiences, whereas the left hemisphere of the brain provides a sense of context through a linear narrative. This compartmentalization within the right hemisphere leads to the creation of emotional memories. These memories are remembered through a feelings state, rather than a verbal or conscious recollection.
Have you ever met someone you immediately disliked without knowing why? Have you ever overreacted to something? Have you ever acted or felt like a child, despite being in a grown up’s body? Have you ever flown into a rage?
These are examples of when we recollect our emotional memories. They play an active role in our lives whether we dismiss or acknowledge our experience.
How Does This Look in Therapy?
Our painful, shameful, and traumatic experiences are the most likely to be exiled in the right hemisphere, particularly if these experiences happened prior to our development of language (roughly around age 3). Our brain pairs a body sensation with each emotional memory, and begins to associate these memories as being threatening. We can understand these memories as Exiles – ego-states that feel too overwhelming to be with.
To shield us from the threat of Exiles, we develop Protectors – neural networks of behavioral defenses with the primary goal of allowing the Wise Self to carry on with normal life tasks without being interrupted by Exiles. We have two types of Protectors: Managers and Firefighters.
The Manager ego-states establish proactive behaviors to insulate the Wise Self from the Exiles. Such behaviors of the Managers include:
Intellectualizing emotional experiences rather than feeling them
Avoiding situations or experiences that could activate an Exile
Perfectionism or controlling behavior, in an attempt to create predictability and stability
Being consumed in productivity, work, or achievements
Co-dependence on or rescuing of people/animals, which allows a false sense of being able to rescue an Exile
This is by no means an exhaustive list, however these are common defenses of Manager Protectors. Should the Managers ever fail, and an Exile begin to come into consciousness of the Wise Self, then the Firefighter Protectors come to action.
The Firefighters are reactive protectors. When the Wise Self begins to experience an Exile’s depression, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, abandonment, or other trauma, the Firefighters aim to extinguish the experience as quick as possible. The actions of a Firefighter may include:
Throwing a temper tantrum
Excessive drug or alcohol use
Binging and purging eating patterns
Risky sexual behavior
How Do I Get Rid of Them?
Ego-states aren’t bad. Trying to get rid of them is akin to cutting off your finger because there’s a hangnail. The goal of ego-state work is to create integration between parts of self so that Wise Self can be available to life without becoming hijacked by strong emotional states, reactive behavior, or negative thoughts.
The integration process involves parsing out these parts through a sense of curiosity, empathy, and teamwork. We need to know what their role in this system of self is so that we can begin the process of supporting them to adopt more effective means of fulfilling their role.
I’m Still Not Tracking….
A common example of this involves the infamous Inner Child. The Inner Child is an exile who holds the experience of neglect: not being seen or heard in a way that s/he needs to be seen or heard. Because neglect is a huge threat to survival, Protector Parts attempt to shield Wise Self from becoming overwhelmed with this threat. Most adults experience an Inner Critic as an attempt to manage this emotional input. The Inner Critic tells Wise Self all the ways in which s/he could make a mistake in an attempt to be prepared when bad things happen. However, in real time, we experience this as negative self-talk.
A chain reaction then ensues, wherein another ego-state is activated by the negative self-talk. To protect against the pain Inner Critic creates with this type of narrative, Peace Maker comes to the table to minimize the painful experience and pretend everything is okay. The slogan of Peace Maker is: “Just focus on the positive.”
This may smooth things over in the short term, but ultimately, it reenacts the original trauma of neglect by not seeing or hearing ego-states.
Integration would involve exploring what Inner Critic hopes to achieve with the negative self-talk, while finding a more conducive way to achieve it. An integrative process would also dig into the motive behind Peace Maker’s toxic positivity while also creatively meeting the underlying need. Once these Protector Parts feel safe, then the Exile does not feel as daunting.