Who Is the Me in This Argument?

Arguments between parts of the self.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

Most of us think of ourselves as a single, unitary personality. Yet there are plenty of times when we experience divisions that make us feel torn. It is as if there are separate and distinct personalities warring within us. We even describe it that way: “One part of me says I should go ahead and do it, but another part of me cautions me against it.”

Some years ago I had lunch with an acquaintance, a psychotherapist. After I’d shared some feelings about a situation his question was: “Which member of the committee feels that way?”

His penetrating question, while not exactly the stuff of a casual lunch conversation, raises a fundamental and important question for couples wrestling with differing emotional realities. It is not unusual for conflicts rooted in different perceptions of reality to trigger parts of your personality that dominate during the argument and even take fixed positions that would make other parts of your personality uncomfortable.

Whenever Randy and Julia get into conflicts that involve different emotional realities, it is almost as if their personalities change. Randy becomes very judgmental. Even though he thinks of himself as a fairly open-minded person, he suddenly becomes very dogmatic. His beliefs are absolutes. Julia, on the other hand, seems to become very rebellious, much like an upset 8-year-old child, driving Randy crazy. It almost seems as if they become different people.

In one sense, that’s true. They have become different subpersonalities, or as some describe it, they are now in different “ego-states,” and seem locked in predictable behavior that will ensure nothing changes.

When a conflict occurs, any one of these different selves might take the lead. We may respond with a relatively realistic or objective appraisal of conditions. But we might as well respond from the perspective of the child who totally believes that what he/she experiences is the absolute truth.

The reality is that part of resolving disputes over differing emotional realities will involve soul-searching on our part to understand who is speaking for our personal committee, and why. That’s why in this post we are exploring the dynamics of personality that may be the basis for why we have the particular emotional reality we have, and why we feel the need to defend it the way we do.

Ego States or Parts of Self

Modern consciousness researchers tell us that the human personality is composed of different "ego-states," “parts,” or “selves.” "Ego-states" are sets of feelings, accompanied by related sets of behavior patterns. Other therapists go further, describing these “parts” of the personality as “distinct personalities, each with a full range of emotion and desire, and of different ages, temperaments, talents, and even genders.”[1]                                                      

Psychologists’ understanding of these subpersonalities has evolved with time. Sigmund Freud saw the psyche as structured into three parts, the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, we come in as babies with the id intact. The id is the impulsive (and unconscious) part of our psyche which contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. The id contains all of our most basic animal and primitive impulses. The ego develops early in childhood to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality, mediating between the desires of the id and the moral constraints of the super-ego.

Freud’s theory is just that, a theory. Except in psychoanalytic circles, Freud’s theory is no longer considered central to psychology. However, many of the underlying concepts in Freudian thinking play an important role in subsequent psychological thought. Among the important ideas that continue to have influence are:

  • The psyche is made up of parts or sub-personalities which compete or attempt to control each other
  • These parts are shaped by childhood experiences
  • Our behavior is controlled by conceptions of our ideal self and by constraints we learn in childhood (and thereafter)
  • Portions of our psyche are unconscious mental processes, available by indirect means such as dreams, hypnosis, mental imagery, “Freudian slips”, etc.,

Probably the best-known theory about the composition of the psyche is “transactional analysis,” which was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Transactional analysis was a theory (and a movement) based on the work of Dr. Eric Berne. Berne. Berne was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis and was a practicing psychotherapist for many years. He was the author of the best-selling books: Games People Play and What Do You Say After You Say Hello. Other authors popularized transactional analysis concepts in books such as I’m OK, You’re OK (Thomas A. Harris), and Scripts People Live (Claude Steiner). Transactional Analysis concepts were so popular that they showed up in songs, movies, and cartoons.

The core concept of transactional analysis is that there are three ego states: The Parent, The Adult, and The Child. Berne defined an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior.” As we interact with others, our ego states invite different responses from those around us. If we engage in behaviors while in the Parent ego-state we will evoke entirely different reactions than if we communicated in the Adult or Child ego state. The other person’s response, in turn, evokes different behaviors from us, depending on both their and our ego states.

Over time, Berne discovered that both the Parent and Child ego states had positive and negative sides. In fact, they were essentially separate ego states. There was a Nurturing Parent (NP), conveying acceptance, nurturing, caring. There was a Controlling Parent, who was primarily involved in promoting rules, should and musts. There was a Free Child, full of energy and fun, and there was an Adapted Child, who was rebellious and eager to undermine authority.

One of Berne’s key ideas was that ego states interacted to produce a “transaction” that might be productive or might be negative depending on the mix of the ego states. One of the key goals of Transaction Analysis was to identify the ego states involved, and why they produced the positive or negative results. Thus the name “Transactional Analysis.”

The simplest transaction would be between two people in Adult ego states. For example, one person might ask: “Have you seen my watch. I must have put it down somewhere.” The other person might respond with: “Yes, I think I saw it on the kitchen counter.” Both people are satisfied with the exchange.

But it doesn’t always go like that, as any married couple can tell you. It could go like this:

“Have you seen my watch. I must have put it down somewhere.”

“Why can’t you keep track of your own things. I’m tired of picking up after you.”

Or it might go like this:

“Have you seen my watch. I must have put it down somewhere.”

“You always blame me for everything.”

In both cases the initial request (depending on voice tone) was a simple Adult request for information. In the first case, the second person responded from Controlling Parent. In the second case the response was from Adapted Child. Neither response produced a satisfactory transaction.

In Transactional Analysis therapy, a major goal is to identify and learn the behaviors associated with each ego state. The behaviors associated with one person’s Parent may be significantly different than the behaviors from another person’s Parent. After all, the Parent is an internalized version of actual parents (and other significant adults around the child). Since each parent provided a different model, each individual has a unique Parent. In addition, the Parent is not necessarily how the parent actually was, but how the parent was perceived by the child.

Therapy for the Entire Family

Traditional therapy happened between a therapist and an individual patient, to ensure that patients were not inhibited in sharing their feelings. But in the 1960s, therapists began working with entire families, sometimes even including grandparents, aunts, or uncles.

Family therapy is based on the premise that the dominant forces in our life are located in the family. In effect, the family provides the context in which the individual operates. To understand the individual, you need to understand the context. People are the products of their context. Change the organization of the family, and you can change the lives of every member of the family.

Some of the fundamental premises of family therapy are:

·   The family is a system. A system is more than the sum of its parts. It is an organic whole whose members operate in a way that transcends their separate characteristics. The primary issue is the pattern of the interaction within the system.

·   Individuals can get locked in rigid roles by family expectations. Roles tend to be reciprocal and complementary. You can’t have a domineering partner, for example, without a submissive mate. Parents may get locked into complementary roles of strictness and leniency. These roles reinforce each other. Each person waits for the other to change, or they “lock” each other into their roles.

·   Problems are sustained by an ongoing series of actions and reactions. Each action one member of the family takes influences the actions of the other. It becomes circular. Everybody’s behavior influences the behavior of the others in the system. Soon it is not even clear who started the circle. Nor does it matter.

·   The biggest shift is to think about how people talk with each other, the process, rather than the content.

·   Family members construct a narrative of their lives that makes sense of their experience. While they make sense of their experience, these narratives also limit the range of “permissible” behavior.

·   Families must undergo change to accommodate the changing maturity and life demands of its members

One of the key concepts of family therapy is the concept of “burdens.” If someone experiences a major trauma, they are likely to carry around a burden of emotional pain for many years. Burdens can also come from a family dynamic. You may have seen couples that achieve a balance only because one partner compensates for the other. Charlie spends money so freely that he could almost be called a spendthrift. Gloria, his wife, is seemingly the only thing that keeps him in check. She watches every nickel and dime. Both carry a burden. Gloria carries the burden of protecting the family from financial ruin. Charlie carries the burden of compensating for her tight-fistedness. Neither one is in balance. Charlie is irresponsible, and Gloria is overly-responsible.

It’s not unusual for families to assign burdens to family members. It happens a lot in real life. One family member must take on supporting the family financially. Another may have to take care of an elderly parent.

But it also happens in the emotional life of the family. Father is a perfectionist. One child may become a perfectionist, another may rebel against perfectionism. Both are burdened by the father’s perfectionism. If parents communicate to a child that she s/he is unworthy, the child often will strive for parental approval. Not getting approval from the parent, s/he is likely to reenact this search for approval on into adult life. That’s the burden s/he carries. Others may carry the burden of having to be a great success, caring for the emotional needs of another family member, compensating for a family member’s behavior (e.g. alcoholism).

Getting Parts of The Psyche to Talk to Each Other

Dr. Richard Schwartz is a leading light in a field known as Internal Family Systems Therapy. This approach combines principles of family therapy with the concept that the Self is made up of many different “parts.” We all, according to Schwartz, “contain many different beings.”[2] The challenge is to get all these parts of the self to talk to each other, learning to draw on the strengths of each of the parts to meet life’s inevitable tests.

Schwartz, and the others in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) field, believe that the techniques of Family Therapy can be used to conduct this conversation.

“…People are viewed as having all the resources they need, rather than having a disease or deficit. Instead of lacking resources, people are seen as being constrained from using innate strengths by polarized relationships both within themselves and with the people around them.”[3]

Parts of the self take on carrying burdens. Other parts protect us from being overwhelmed by our burdens. There are no “bad” parts, but rather parts stuck in extreme roles in an attempt to cope with difficult life circumstances and traumatic experiences.

One of the goals of Internal Family Systems Therapy is to help people understand these burdens and release them. It accomplishes this by getting the parts of the personality to talk with each other, releasing each other from burdens that have immobilized or twisted things out of balance.

Internal Family Systems does not start with a pre-determined cast of characters, such as Adult, Parent, Child. Instead, each of us may have numerous internal “parts,” each of them named by us. As psychotherapist Jay Earley puts it:

“The human mind isn’t a unitary thing that sometimes has irrational feelings. It is a complex system of interacting parts, each with a mind of its own. It’s like an internal family — with wounded children, impulsive teenagers, rigid adults, hypercritical parents, caring friends, nurturing relatives, and so on.“[4]

Earley adds:

“Each part has a role in your life; it brings a quality to your psyche and your actions in the world. Each tries to advance your interests in some way (even if sometimes it has the opposite effect). Some parts govern the way you handle practical tasks in your life. Some protect against external threats or internal pain. Some are open and friendly with people. Others hold unresolved fear or shame from your childhood. Some are performers; others solitary thinkers. Some care for people, while others affect the way you feel about yourself. And so on.”[5]

Implications for Arguments Over Differing Emotional Realities

So why does this matter for couples having trouble resolving disputes over different realities? Simply put, the impasse you are experiencing between you may have less to do with deep philosophical differences than with parts of yourselves being engaged in a power struggle. As Richard Schwartz puts it: “The critical or hurtful things that loved ones say about us in arguments may not represent their “real” feelings, but may be the opinion of only one or two angry personalities within them, while a silent majority of other personalities may remain loving.”[6].

Most of the time when an internal controlling parent and an internal rebellious child try to communicate, the way they communicate sets off an argument no matter what positions they take. So long as they are reacting to each other’s ego state, it’s very hard to judge whether their disagreement is based in deeply held beliefs or dug-in defensiveness. If they were able to communicate adult > adult, we might discover that they are not as far apart as it originally appears.

Each of you may have a part of the personality that is speaking as if it represents the total personality. Other parts of you might feel very differently, but you’ll never know it because the part of the personality that is acting as spokesperson when you get in an argument is expressing the views of the sub-personality, not the entire psyche.

Another possibility is that the conflict is rooted in dynamics within your family systems. Perhaps — for reasons that will require some psychological work to discover — each person is responding to a burden or expectation put on them by their families. When they can put down the burdens assigned to them by the family, they may find that the differences are not as great as imagined.

What to Do About It

All three approaches discussed here — Transactional Analysis, Family Therapy, and Internal Family Systems Therapy — evolved in the context of therapist/client relationships. There’s little question that a knowledgeable third party, someone who is not part of the family system, can be invaluable in understanding family dynamics, both external or internal. So, if you think the issues we’ve been discussing could be clouding your family dynamics, I encourage you to consider the possibility of working with a therapist.

One word of caution, though. Not every psychologist is knowledgeable in Transactional Analysis, or Family Therapy, or particularly, Internal Family Systems Therapy. You’ll need to do a little homework to find a therapist who has the training and experience you seek.

Here are some techniques you can employ without a therapist:

·   Journaling: Keep a running journal of what’s going on in you during the day. Note in particular whether it seems like different characters are appearing in your psychological life. Write a question to those characters asking them to tell you more about themselves. Record what thoughts occur to you without a lot of screening or judgments. If you can, establish a kind of written conversation with these parts of self. It can all be imaginary — you’ll still be learning about your inner life.

·   Mental Imagery: If you are good at seeing mental images, you may find mental imagery a useful approach. Here’s a place to start:

o   Do some relaxation exercises, or something that helps you get very relaxed (no alcohol please)

o   Close your eyes

o   In your mind’s eye, see yourself some place where you are safe and secure.

o   In the distance see someone coming towards you.

o   As the person comes close they seem to be someone you know, someone with whom you are very familiar, someone very wise

o   Ask this person who they are, and ask him/her what he/she knows about the various parts in your psyche

o   You may even ask this person to introduce you to some of your other parts

o   Allow these parts to join you, and have a conversation about what role they play in your psyche

o   Some questions to ask include:

§  Name of part

§  What it feels

§  What it looks like

§  What it feels like in your body and where

§  How it makes you behave

§  What it wants

o   When you are ready to stop, thank your guest/s for helping you, and say goodbye

o   See yourself in your safe place.

o   Open your eyes

·   Empty chair: Sit facing an empty chair. Imagine the empty chair as occupied by someone else, or a part of yourself. Say what you need to see to that person or part. Listen inside yourself to see if there is any response from the imagined person or part. If so, have a conversation. You may want to ask some of the questions listed above.

The point is to try to establish communications with your inner parts. Once you’ve established a link, you may even want to discuss what role your various parts play in the conflict with your partner. In particular, find out whether all the parts are in agreement, or some parts are misrepresenting themselves as speaking for your entire psyche.

The goal is to learn from this dialogue. Our internal differences raise issues that need to be addressed, and can be a source of much learning.

So why does this matter for couples having trouble resolving disputes over different realities? Simply put, the impasse you are experiencing between you may have less to do with deep philosophical differences than with parts of your selves being engaged in a power struggle. Each of you may have a part of the personality that is speaking as if it represents the total personality. Other parts of you might feel very differently, but you’ll never know it because the part of the personality that is acting as spokesperson when you get in an argument is expressing the views of the sub-personality, not the entire psyche.


[1] Richard C. Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy, (New York, Guilford Press, 1995), 13.

[2] Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy, 9.

[3] Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy, pg. 9.

[4] Jay Earley, Self-Therapy, Patterns Systems Books, Larkspur, CA, 2009, page 3.

[5] Earley, op cit, page 21.

[6] Schwartz, Richard C., Internal Family Systems Therapy, The Guilford Press, New York, pg 16.

[7] See Jay Earley. Self Therapy, Pattern Systems Books, 2006.