Table of content
As mentioned in Chapter I, the aim of disidentification is to stop ourselves from identifying with social roles or certain limiting aspects of our personality. Psychosynthesis is a therapy as well as an individual practice. Our most important tool as therapists is our personality, so we need to look carefully at both these aspects.
Disidentification creates a neutral distance in us from whatever we identify with. For Ken Wilber it is “converting hidden subjects to conscious objects”. The observer is not the observed, so whenever we disidentify from false self-images it help us to discover our real self – the observer. Identifying with certain psychological states, social roles and identities allows them to become a distal object or “me”. Disidentifying is to let go of the attachment to this “me” by observing it and integrating it in its proper way. It then becomes an object of consciousness. We then discover ourselves as the observer – a point of pure self-awareness and will. This provides more access to our multifaceted nature and potentialities. Disidentification is a way to freedom, because the observer is gradually liberated from the content of consciousness. One of the major goals of psychosynthesis is to train us in this technique, so we can learn to identify with self-awareness rather than thoughts, feelings and the body.
Practicing disidentification we observe the content of our consciousness; our sensations, feelings and thoughts. It can be done anywhere, with eyes closed or open. It is based on introspection and the loving and firm aﬃrmation that we are not the objects of our consciousness. We are the observer and explore how we can contain whatever arises in consciousness without identifying with it. The process ends with an examination of our pure self-awareness. We become conscious about being conscious and from there we can identify with self-awareness itself.
Recognizing ourselves as the observer, we are free to choose how to express ourselves. Yet understanding this is not enough. Jettisoning old roles and unconscious conditioning requires discipline and work. The practice is similar to Mindfulness, but in contrast to Buddhism, Psychosynthesis retains the self as a central concept and a reality.
Let us look at how Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy uses disidentification. For Assagioli the purpose of Psychosynthesis is to “release, or let us say, help to release, the energies of the Self. Prior to this, the purpose is to help integrate, to synthesize, the individual around the personal self, and then later to effect the synthesis between the personal ego and the Self.” (1975, p. 65)
Here Assagioli describes Psychosynthesis’ two central goals, personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis. One integrates the Lower and Middle Unconscious around the self as the observer and will, i.e. “self-actualization.” Next step is to liberate the energies from the Superconscious and put them into service for humanity, this will prepare the personality for Self-realization, the fusion of self and soul.
As mentioned, we can access superconscious energies while lacking an integrated personality, i.e. the creative artist whose personal life is a mess. The stages of development serve as a general map helping therapists orient themselves, when guiding a client toward progress.
We must always plan therapy according to the needs of the client. ”The emphasis is put on a holistic or integral conception of the treatment” (Assagioli, 1975, p. 66). We must, that is, base our therapeutic interventions on a holistic view of our clients.
Techniques must not be overused. According to Assagioli the ”human factor, of the living interpersonal relation between the therapist and the patient” is central (1975, p. 67). But as the will is essential in Psychosynthesis, techniques to self-help are important. Clients’ must participate in their psychosynthesis by applying the many active techniques the therapy offers. ”The conscious and purposeful use of self-identification or disidentification,” Assagioli writes, “is basic in Psychosynthesis.” (1975, p. 111)
Assagioli saw certain stages in therapy. These shouldn’t be confused with the overall stages of development, reviewed in Chapter III. It is not unusual to see such a confusion in the Psychosynthesis literature. The therapeutic stages are applied in accordance with a therapeutic process and they needn’t be followed in strict succession; they can be adjusted to suit the client’s current developmental stage. (1975, p. 29)
But the therapeutic stages are applied as part of the overall personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis, and they contain natural unfolding stages according to Maslow’s and Dante’s suggestions. Assagioli clearly confirms this in the chapter where he describes the therapeutic process.
Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy should help the client to:
- Experience herself as a loving witness who can observe, hold and transform the content of consciousness.
- Experience herself as a dynamic observer aware of the will-to-be-self and through this awareness, actualising chosen needs, resources and values of the observer.
Assagioli describes the therapeutic stages (1975, p. 21) leading to psychosynthesis:
- Thorough knowledge of one’s personality
- Control of its various elements
- Realization of one’s true Selfthe discovery or creation of a unifying centre
- Psychosynthesis: the formation or reconstruction of the personality around the new centre.
Let’s look at these stages and the important part disidentification plays in it.
1.Thorough knowledge of one’s personality
Here we explore the unconscious region of the oval diagram, how its resources and limitations relate to the client’s current need for healing. Assagioli recommends that we first form an overview of the client’s life, how its themes may be linked to family and cultural influences. At this stage we look at what the client is already conscious of.
Investigating the Lower Unconscious too soon can be dangerous. Trauma and repressed material may overwhelm an unprepared client. Assagioli recommends getting an overview of the client, through autobiography, diary and interviews. (1975, p. 101) Personality tests may be useful. The consolidation of a trusting relationship between client and therapist is important at this stage.
We begin the exploration of the unconscious by examining the themes the client
brings to therapy, focusing on areas the client has chosen or which seem particularly important to us at this stage. The depth of the exploration depends on the client’s wishes, the time and economic means available.
The client should have some experience of the inner observer before proceeding to this stage. At first aided by the therapist but “later, in the course of therapy the attitude can and should be assumed more and more consciously, deliberately and fully.” (Assagioli, 1975, p. 69) I will in the next chapter discuss Awareness Based Psychotherapy, which concerns the development of the observer in therapy.
The client is now trained to disidentify from the roles, beliefs and inner voices that emerge in therapy. He sees that he is not his body-states, feelings, desires, thoughts, or fantasies, but a loving observer who contains these and slowly learns to master them. At the beginning of treatment Assagioli suggests that the therapist gives the client instructions on the oval diagram. (1975, p. 85) This should be introduced as an hypothesis clients can verify through their own experiences and insights. The goal is for the client to become a loving witness to his everyday psychological processes, and disidentification is the primary method.
2. Control of the Various Elements of the Personality
This stage deals with the repressed material that has now emerged. The four stages are not absolutely separate processes in time, and can often be addressed in the same session.
Here the client learns mastery of the limiting and painful influences coming from the unconscious, and which prevent him from being an authentic self, a liberated being actualising its resources, needs and values. If the first step towards freedom is to disidentify; the next is to liberate the self from the inner prison.
Assagioli uses strong language to describe this stage, which may give us pause. He speaks of “dominating” and “controlling” the Lower Unconscious. (1975, p. 22) His description of mastering unconscious inhibitions, taboos and complexes, sounds like a kind of psychological warfare. Let me give a few examples.
“There are certain strong trends, certain vital elements which, however much we may disparage and condemn them, obstinately persist. This is true especially concerning sexual and aggressive drives “. (1975, p. 24) In the chapter proceeding this he does emphasise why we should not repress or judge the many impulses. (1975, p. 51, 56)
He also talks about how we should observe unconscious forces and drives with ”cold, impersonal observation”, in order for us to create a ”psychological distance”. (1975, p. 23)
His rhetoric is forceful: ”It is well known that too much criticism and analysis are apt to paralyze and even kill our emotions and feelings. This critical faculty, which we often employ indiscriminately and harmfully against our higher feelings and creative potentialities, should instead be used to free ourselves from undesirable impulses and tendencies.” (1975, p. 23) In my opinion this is not a very useful approach, and seems to differ from Assagioli’s general attitude.
Assagioli told Sam Keen: “Self-consciousness involves our being a witness – a pure, objective, loving witness – to what is happening within and without.” (Keen, 1974) I chose to start with the wisdom of the loving witness, which relates more to my own experiences and with what I feel was Assagioli’s basic approach to psychotherapy.
Assagioli says this about Stage two:
”We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.” (1975, p. 22)
Assagioli defines what he means by control: “suppression tends to push the drive back again into the unconscious, whereas control implies neither fear nor condemnation but mastery and regulation. In other words, control allows for expression, but expression in some harmless or useful way. Control ensures a “lull” or the time necessary to proceed with the further task of utilizing the energy of the drive or emotion.” (1975, p. 108)
I agree with Assagioli, but in my own work I avoid words like “dominance” and “control.” They have unhelpful connotations not useful when working toward the “loving witness”. Nevertheless we can be dominated by unconscious forces. I propose this paraphrase:
”We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can master and direct everything from which we disidentify.” Assagioli, we know, spoke of mastering and directing our inner energies. What is said here is in keeping with this. (1975, p. 6, 56)
Disidentification leads to mastery of the unconscious, yet it may be necessary for the client to temporarily identify with a traumatic experience before this is achieved. Purifying and releasing emotional intensity makes disidentifying easier. (1975, p. 102) Other techniques are also helpful during this stage: catharsis, bodily discharge, critical analysis.
Let’s look at how our clients can master different psychological influences so they can identify with and freely express their authentic self.
Disidentification helps us understand who we are and how to let go of unconscious assumptions limiting our identity. As mentioned, our identity is largely constructed from aspects of our personality which represent only some of our inner resources. Our identity can be formed by: (1975, p. 112-113)
- An identification with the psychological functions and social roles
- The Self as pure self-awareness and will
- The soul as pure self-awareness and will
Regarding the first type, we can be identified with one or more psychological functions:
Our Body, if we are identified with our looks, skills, or talents related to the body.
Our Feelings, if we are identified with our temperament, i.e. sweet, lively, tough.
Our Intellect, if we are identified with our knowledge, education or attitudes.
Our Social roles as mother, father, woman, man, our career as well as unconscious roles such as victim, clown, good girl, rebel, etc.
These identifications present challenges. They are limited and therefore unstable, and they may have little bearing on reality. Someone identified with his strength often represses the parts of his nature contrary to this. A woman identified as a mother faces an identity crisis when the children leave home. These types of identities can create inner tension when conflicting elements of the personality emerges, something I discuss this further on, when I explore the art of synthesis.
Disidentification involves the letting go of limiting identifications, allowing us to make use of all our personality. If a client says: “I’m not good with relationships,” we ask, “what part of you is talking now? “By pointing out that a particular “belief” is speaking, the client can observe this “voice” as something quite different from herself. She becomes the loving observer. Through this we are free to look at our self-perceptions so that we can reevaluate our identity and consciously choose new and more suitable identifications.
When we identify with the loving witness disidentification uncovers the self as the observer and will. The loving witness is consciousness itself and not the content of consciousness. Eventually we can identify with the soul, which we will discuss in Chapter X.
When we discover “that which we are not”, we can choose new authentic roles and expressions. Yes, we are fathers or mothers, but we must create this role in our own authentic, unique way, just as we must create the other roles we play in life. Finding what is authentic is what the next stage is about.
3. Realization of one’s true Self – the discovery or creation of a unifying centre
At this stage the client discovers what is authenticas we must do ourselves. The discoveries of the previous stages provide a new aim and direction for the therapy. We may want to strengthen the experience of the self and its contact with the soul, or to develop specific sides of ourselves i.e. a talent, a social role, an inner quality. We may want to bolster our courage, confidence, authority, or improve one of the psychological functions.
The aim here is to define our true identity in relation to our life and current stage of development. Above we defined three types of identity. One of them was based on the authentic roles we play in life, and we could call them the actual self. Assagioli proposed we can add two more types of identity, what we can call the false and the future self. Let’s look at them:
The False self is formed of unconscious or conscious self-perceptions that do not correspond to who we are. Assagioli defines six types of false self-images; (1975, p.167) they are different types of self-perceptions: when we underestimate or overestimate ourselves; when we wish we were something we’re not; self-perceptions based on projective identification, and others. These appear as subpersonalities– inner “voices” – that direct our behaviour and we will explore them further in Chapter VII.
The Future self is what Assagioli calls The Ideal Model: ”a realistic image of what you may be, when you focus your will and enthusiasm to becoming it.” We will speak of this in Chapter VI.
The Actual self, let us repeat, represents realistic self-perceptions based on our present level of development. Identifications depending on the roles we play in life. They are temporary and change as we develop. Ideally, we should know that our social or professional roles do not define us, and here the role as psychotherapist and teacher should be a good example. Actual selves are authentic because we are conscious of them. We freely choose these roles and fulfil them in ways that truly express who we experience ourselves to be. This also applies to the more informal or archetypal roles, such as “diplomat”, “helper” or “organizer”. Ken Wilber calls this the actual self (the “authentic” or healthily-integrated self at any particular stage of development). It is a stage-self, because it derives its motivation from the different layers of the oval diagram.
The self is the personal self, the observer, and is a reflection or emanation of the soul. Even if limited, it is a true self, and always the same – a centre of pure self-awareness and will. Self-aware but without content, it is permanent and stable. Even though our identification with the soul evolves and becomes individual-universal, the experience of the presence and the dynamic force of “I-amness” is the same through all the stages.
The Soul – The Transpersonal Self. This is the true Self, an eternal indestructible loving and wise witness. The soul guides, protects and strengthens us through its presence and inspiration. Although we have no direct conscious contact with it, the soul remains present in the background of our being.
Disidentification is crucial in our struggle for identity. We must release self-perceptions based on what we are not. Disidentification helps uncover false selves. We learn to step back and examine the needs and values of the false self. We question their motivation: are they based on authentic needs or are they based on how other people perceive us?
Disidentification minimizes a dominant role’s influence. Some women identify as mothers so much that they neglect themselves, their husband, their work etc., which may lead to conflict. Greater balance is needed so that she can be a mother less obsessively. She can find joy and inspiration in other roles, which will have a positive impact on her children.
There are many ways to disidentify and we will look into these below. With a clear image of what we want to achieve, we move to the next stage.
4. Psychosynthesis: the formation or reconstruction of the personality around the new centre.
Here we realize the Ideal Model, which serves as a centre around which the new personality develops. This can take time, depending on the goal, and usually we work at developing specific areas, such as self-esteem. Several techniques help realize the new identity, visualization, awareness meditation, goal oriented action. Different psychological types have individual needs and we should organise the therapy accordingly. Characteristic of this stage is the will and its power to motivate other psychological functions. An authentic goal stimulates joy and triggers higher needs which provide the energy and motivation to realize it. This brings energy to the will and it is primarily the will-to-be-self that controls this process.
Disidentification plays a large part here, particularly disidentifying from resistance to the process. It is a psychological law that the future awakens the past. As we realize a new identity, old ones surface, creating conflict. Manifesting a new identity can produce fatigue and fear due to the resistant false self and lower our energy levels.
Let’s look at disidentification in practice.
Assagioli’s Disidentification Exercise
As mentioned, disidentification is crucial for Assagioli. We should introduce it, he says, as early as possible, and because we live so much on our “outside” rather than our centre, Assagioli suggests we practice disidentification as a ”daily psycho-spiritual health measure”. (1975, p. 118)
Assagioli, we know, was inspired by the Eastern practices of Vipassana, Raja yoga, and perhaps by what is known as “the neti neti exercise.” This Sanskrit expression means “neither this, nor that.” Through it one comes to understand the nature of Brahman, by understanding what he is not. That is, the distinction between consciousness itself and its contents.
Assagioli’s version of the disidentification exercise is included in the appendix. Here I will comment on this, and offer my own. The exercise asks us to simply observe our senses, feelings and thoughts, and aﬃrm that while we have a body, but we are not it. We have emotions, but are not them. We have thoughts, but are not them either. We then observe consciousness itself as well as the subject who wills to meditate and aﬃrm that we are “a centre of pure self-awareness and will”.
When Assagioli suggests the aﬃrmation: ”I have a body, but I am not my body”, he does not mean a rejection of; he recommends us to say: ”I treat it well; I seek to keep it in good health, but it is not myself”. He knows this can meet resistance: ”Among some patients, particularly Americans , there is a great deal of resistance to the idea of disidentifying oneself from one’s body, feelings and thoughts; and a deep fear of becoming split into different parts by doing so.” (1975, p. 122)
Assagioli suggests that we are so identified – obsessed even – with some part of ourselves that it controls us entirely. We have to abandon this identification so we can experience our centre (the observer), which then collects, includes and synthesises all of what we are. (1975, p. 123) Assagioli was once asked the following question:
I: ”Some people do not like the idea of saying ”I have a body, but I am not my body” or other content of consciousness. They feel this is a rejection.”
RA: “That is one of the many misunderstandings, which are consequences of the central misunderstanding. No rejection at all, but put things in their place. We need bodies here, and we ought to take care of them and appreciate them … At present to many people it is the body that has them. They are slaves of their body. So as a first reaction, perhaps a separating stage is needed psychologically. We may have to go to the other extreme for a little while in order to reach it. And that is true for every kind of possession.” (Undated 2)
We should not “separate” and dissociate ourselves from the body, the task is to be a loving witness who appreciates and embraces it with love. We live in the body, it is a temple, but we are not it. Much research into near death and out-of-body experiences suggests that consciousness can exist outside the body. The body changes, cells are replaced, it passes from fatigue to vitality to pain. So much is obvious. We cannot find a permanent centre of freedom, love and being when we identify with the body. My own experience of many years of daily meditation suggests that disidentifying from the body and the other psychological functions is crucial to achieving pure self-awareness.
Our body, feelings and thoughts are instruments for the self and soul (Assagioli, 1975, p. 117). It’s through them that we manifest the self and the soul in the world. Our aim is to develop a compassionate relationship to these functions, as a centre of loving and wise will, capable of mastering, directing and using them. (1975, p. 119)
To say as some have, ”I have a body but I am more than my body, ”seems, to me, to miss the point and obscures the experience of pure self-awareness. It suggests that my identity is both my body and any other content of my consciousness. This seems the opposite of Assagioli’s intention with disidentification.
Yet, Assagioli’s language can imply that we must maintain a cool distance from our body, emotions and thoughts:
”It is an attitude quite similar, even identical, to that of the natural scientist who objectively, patiently and persistently observes the natural phenomena occurring around him.” (1975, p. 114) We’ve seen that Assagioli suggested a “cold, impersonal observation” of our mental images and complexes. Associating disidentification with science and its cold analytical approach may not be attractive for many people and may seem in contrast with the attitude of “the loving witness”.
THE DISIDENTIFICATION PROCESS
We’ve said that the soul is never separated from the personality; it remains immanently present as a guiding and protective factor. The soul lives in the Superconscious, but like the sun its radiance flows throughout the psyche, although we may not be aware of it. The self has the same task at the level of the personality. All the personality’s functions and processes must be filled with loving awareness. Here we do not separate from the body, emotions and thoughts, but contain and develop them with a loving, wise consciousness. We can achieve this only from the centre or self, by recognizing that we are quite different from the body, emotions and mind. To love something requires duality and distance, a space between lover and beloved. We fill this space with loving awareness. In this way disidentification creates a centre as well as connectedness.
When I explain disidentification to my students I emphasize Psychosynthesis’ aim of becoming loving observers who can master their lives. This means to observe, contain and be creative with our psycho-spiritual energies. Disidentification prepares for a new self-identification, so it is important to:
Observe what happens in the body, emotions and mind, knowing that you are not what you are observing. It’s a dual awareness; you direct consciousness toward its source and at the objects of consciousness. Such observation illuminates our inner house, its different levels and rooms, which constitute the personality. Observing facilitates enlightenment through recognition.
To contain is to unconditionally accept all that we have in our inner house. This type of love comes from the Superconscious and manifest through the heart centre. It is an impersonal, unconditional love, beyond sympathy and antipathy, and it helps to embrace everything we experience, creating a harmonious “climate” in our inner house. To accept does not mean we agree with the feeling; we simply allow it to be until the transformation has changed the content.
Conscious Breathing. Being aware of our breath anchors our attention, preventing us from losing ourselves in different states of consciousness. By consciously breathing through the various states of consciousness – the body, feelings, and thoughts – we energize habits, and make them easier to release. The breath is always here and now, not in the past or future, and this helps us to be present.
Letting go of identifications is crucial, and only an act of will releases us from our habits. If we learn to let go of everything in the moment, rather than cling to the contents of consciousness, we create more space in our inner house. Consciousness will expand spontaneously, and we have more space to be with whatever arises. Gradually we awaken to consciousness itself, that which we are. This is the will-to-be-self, the intention behind the process. We can disidentify anywhere at any time, in an elevator, on the street, or in deep meditation. The result is the same: Loving detachment, which is the freedom to choose new perspectives and ways of being.
To disidentify is to observe, contain, breathe, and let go.
Assagioli emphasised two layers of identification that obscure the inner observer. This is an important observation. (1975, p. 121) The first layer is our social roles. When I meditate, I often hear the voice of “the teacher.” I work as a teacher and when in meditation I have new experiences a voice begins as if it was standing in front of a group of students. I must release this voice before I can proceed. This is a subpersonality. The inner child and the inner critic are not the self. The next layer we go through is the inner commentator. This is our own inner voice, the one we associate with ourselves. Because we identify with the inner commentator this voice is diﬃcult to release. Assagioli writes: ”the last and perhaps most obstinate identification is with that which we consider to be our inner person, that which persists more or less during all the various roles we play” (1975, p. 121). In some versions of the Egg Diagram you often see a pair of glasses close to the observer to indicate this commentator. For the observer to appear as a clear, still and stable centre, this voice must quiet down.
Beginners do not often reach this place of silence, but can still be disidentified. There are different levels of disidentification. Here I will describe modes belonging to the personal self. The three levels I work with are:
Disidentification with strong attachment. You achieved a mental distance from the emotional state, but are not yet master of it, and perhaps even still under its control. The observer observes and prepares to break free. Disidentification can trigger a crisis, releasing identifications with a dominant role. Who are you, if you no longer need to be the self-effacing girl? Disidentification can leave an inner vacuum, a sense of emptiness until we find a new authentic centre for our identity. We can be disidentified and yet influenced by strong emotions.
Disidentification with moderate attachment. This is the most common form of observation. We are aware that we are affected by a psychological state. We cannot let go of it, although we are aware of its presence, but it cannot stop us from acting authentically. Here the personality is reasonably calm. We experience serenity and presence while thoughts, moods and sensations come and go. Our awareness is clear; we are connected to our self. We note fleeting inner and external impressions, while open to a self-awareness without content.
Disidentification without attachment. When we completely let go of everything in our consciousness, and the will is focused on presence and awareness, everything becomes quiet. The surface of consciousness is “free from ripples”; there is only the now, a sense of quiet and clear being. The sense of “I-amness” is strong but completely open. Strength (will) comes from the self’s intention to discover and experience itself. There is an open self-awareness that clings to nothing other than the experience of pure self-awareness. There is a sense of being free – free to choose and be an authentic self.
A number of techniques are useful when working with disidentification.
Disidentification Exercise. I often practice disidentification and self-identification with the client. They usually record the exercise on their phones in order to have it available. I ask them to practice this exercise as often as possible, at least once a day, usually for about 10-15 minutes. An awareness meditation in the appendix provides an example.
Mirroring the client’s loving witness. In the first session, I instruct my clients that I will train them in the ability to become a loving observer to their states of consciousness. I point out the distinction between them as observer and the states or material that emerges during therapy. I help them become conscious of identifications, emotional states or roles, (unless allowing the identification seems appropriate i.e. they need catharsis). When the client says, “I’m so angry with my mother,” I say, “There’s a side of you that is angry with your mother; you are the loving observer. Who is it in you that is angry? Can you embrace and accept the angry side?” This helps clients to adopt the attitude of disidentifying with the emotional state and identifying with the loving witness. There is more on this practice in the next chapter.
Externalisation of the content of consciousness: When the client is bound to a particular role with a strong attachment, for example, the victim, it may help to externalise this. This can be done several ways:
Chair work. We place a chair, representing the victim subpersonality, in front of the client. The clients’ chair represents the loving witness. The client then moves chairs and from this position identifies with the victim and then in the next position, identify with the loving witness disidentifying from the victim.
Working with the hands. The client puts both hands on her thighs, palms up. Now ask her to place the victim in one hand and a subpersonality that resents being a victim in the other. In the middle is the client as a lovingly witness, moving between the poles. A psychotherapist trained in disidentification can facilitate this process.
Free drawing. Let the client draw her emotional states on a piece of paper. The emotion becomes an object externalized on the paper; the colours and shapes can be analysed and “felt” by the loving witness.
With the above presentation, I hope it becomes clear why Assagioli emphasized disidentification as the central tool in Psychosynthesis. Disidentification leads to self-identification. We cannot practice Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy if we do not master this technique. Disidentification is the first step on the road to the freedom to be an authentic self. The next step is the ability to be present, to contact the power of the will-to-be-a self, and then set a goal for the personal or transpersonal psychosynthesis.
We will examine these steps in the coming chapters, focussing on the self and Awareness Based Psychotherapy, and the will and Will Based psychotherapy.