Table of content
- 1 Roberto Assagioli was the first to coin the term subpersonalities, however, he was inspired by William James’s concept of various selves and sees subpersonalities primary as normal psychological formations based on our social roles and functions.
- 1.1 Subpersonalities are identity patterns derived from important relationships that take the form of self-images and social role
- 1.2 Subpersonalities are composed of psychological functions, tendencies and qualities that are organised around a central drive and connected to the ‘I’.
- 1.3 How to work with subpersonalities
By Kenneth Sørensen, 2022, the following text is my introduction to the free e-book Subpersonalities, which is a collection of 10 articles by Roberto Assagioli.
Reading Eugene Smith’s 2019 biography Assagioli in his Own Words (based on a conversation between Assagioli and Eugene Smith just prior to Assagioli’s death in 1974), I took notice of the following statement by Assagioli:
‘In 1911, in April, the Fourth International Conference of Philosophy took place in Bologna.
There I gave a talk on what I called “the subconscious”. This paper for me was somewhat historical because in it there are the roots and partly the stem of my present conception of the subpersonalities, which is one of the chief points of psychosynthesis.’
There are two striking pieces of information in this statement. First that, as early as 1911, Assagioli had formed an understanding of subpersonalities, and secondly that he considered subpersonalities to be ‘one of the chief points of psychosynthesis’.
Assagioli’s early conception of the subpersonalities was partly inspired by one of the great pioneers of psychology, William James, who, in his monumental work Principles of Psychology (1890), defines the various social selves – i.e. the roles we play in society – which, in Assagioli’s terminology, are one aspect of the subpersonalities.
I was initially surprised to learn that Assagioli considered subpersonalities to be a key aspect of psychosynthesis, but, on reflection, I realised they must be because they are a part of the process of synthesis one of the seven core concepts of psychosynthesis. Indeed, subpersonalities are among the various psychological elements that are integrated into and harmonised within the personality as part of the developmental process that Assagioli termed personal psychosynthesis, which is a concept similar to Abraham Maslow’s self-actualisation.
However, I reflected, if subpersonalities were so important to Assagioli, why did he not write more about them? I knew his book Psychosynthesis (1965) contained a short introduction to the concept, and was aware of an article by Assagioli published by The Psychosynthesis and Research Foundation called Life as a Game and Stage Performance (1973), plus some scattered notes in the books and articles he wrote in English. It was only when I started researching the articles written by Assagioli in Italian (held in the Assagioli Archive and published on Vittorio’s website) that I discovered a lot more material on the topic of subpersonalities – and this book contains English translations of those articles, made with the help of Gordon Symons, a regular translator for the Italian Journal of Psychosynthesis.
Readers of the following essays and lectures by Roberto Assagioli will note some redundancy and repetition of some ideas and practices in these essays. The reason for this is that we felt it was important to present Assagioli’s original essays and lectures unedited, so that the authenticity of the material is assured. However these essays and lectures were presented at different times and locations to different types of audiences: some were public lectures, some were published articles, and some were recorded conversations or interviews.
That being the case, the reader may feel free to skip over sections where previously discussed material is discussed — however, it is also true that Assagioli sometimes added nuances and details to previously presented material, so the reader may take care before skipping “too lightly!”
When reading through this collection, we gain a fuller and more complex picture concerning how Assagioli conceived and worked with subpersonalities, which I am confident will give English-speaking readers a fresh understanding that will properly expand this key concept of psychosynthesis. We learn that subpersonalities are not only to be understood as pathological patterns – meaning parts of the personality that have been repressed, rejected or neglected during childhood due to non-empathic caregivers.
Rather, according to Assagioli, the subpersonalities are naturally-occurring identity patterns that develop throughout our lives – some develop due to wounding, but mostly they are the social roles that we learn to play in life. This theory will become clear when reading through this book. In Appendix 1, I have compiled a range of quotes according to themes to offer a quick overview of Assagioli’s most important insights – and, in addition, I share here some of the essential findings.
1. Subpersonalities are natural identity patterns that emerge throughout a person’s life.
Some of these subpersonalities relate to pathological complexes, but most are self-identifications or self-images that develop consciously or unconsciously in the course of life. This means we have subpersonalities that relate to all the psychological ages we pass through – child, adolescent, young adult, etc. In other words, we have healthy subpersonalities as well as trauma-related subpersonalities.
2. Subpersonalities emerge in response to important relationships and social roles.
Subpersonalities form around our roles in the family – father, mother, son, daughter, etc. – as well as around social roles, professional roles and group affiliations. This perspective – based on the thinking of William James – is Assagioli’s most frequently offered explanation for the emergence of subpersonalities, and is the dominant view in his book Psychosynthesis.
We have different types of relationships throughout life – for example, at each new psychological age – and we correspondingly develop a new self-image, which is often experienced as a conflict between established subpersonalities and new roles. So Assagioli links these different emergent self-images, or self-perceptions, to the formation of new subpersonalities.
3. Self-images have latent powers that manifest as subpersonalities. Assagioli listed the following various types of self-images:
a. What we believe ourselves to be: some images are based on inferiority or superiority (and others are based on a more or less realistic understanding of our development ).
b. What we would like to be: these images are often of a compensating nature, propping us up due to a lack we perceive in ourselves.
c. What others believe that we are: these are projected images that have been internalised as part of our relationships with prominent others.
d. What we want to appear to be: these are the roles we play in different relationships and circumstances, the masks we put on for the purposes of vanity, success, and so on.
e. What we can become: these are known as the ideal models we create based on a thorough analysis of our personality, or based upon our intuition.
4. In a 1973 conference address, Assagioli suggested giving humorous names to the informal roles we adopt in life (p.67 ).
He wrote: ‘Give your subpersonality a descriptive name, e.g. “The Guru”, “The Clinging Vine”, “Bitchy Bertha”, “The Doormat”, “Harry the Haggler”. A humorous name is helpful if it seems appropriate, as humour facilitates detachment and disidentification from the subpersonality, making it less overwhelming and more subject to your conscious direction.’
5. Subpersonalities may be based on aspects of past-life personalities, meaning from an earlier incarnation.
Some might find this a questionable statement. However, it is clear that Assagioli held a belief in
reincarnation that is in line with the oriental philosophy of skandhas, which are residual attachments to former identifications that incarnate in search of liberation.
Let us now look at the psychological elements of the subpersonalities and see how Assagioli understands their constitution.
Subpersonalities are composed of psychological functions, tendencies and qualities that are organised around a central drive and connected to the ‘I’.
In Assagioli’s words (p. 37): ‘All main tendencies, all main vital drives, tend to become personified, as Jung says, and to aggregate to themselves, in addition to the main instinctual or psychological drives, emotions, mental pictures and thought elements, all of which contribute to the realisation and self-assertion of that which we can really call a “subpersonality”. In ourselves we can find an aggregation of subpersonalities, each endowed with tendencies towards self-preservation and self-assertion, and which are, of course, necessarily in constant conflict with each other.’
It seems that the different energies and qualities of the seven psychological functions are found in each subpersonality, giving it ‘flesh and bones’ and a directing purpose. Hence, each subpersonality is a miniature personality with access to the same qualities as are found in the general personality. The directing purpose of each subpersonality will typically be a strong desire (e.g. love or ambition) which will dominate when one performs a particular role. In Assagioli’s words (p. 57): ‘A subpersonality is formed by the accumulation of traits organised around a role.’
In addition, Assagioli states that different ‘complexes’ can develop into subpersonalities, thereby supporting the pathological aetiology of some subpersonalities.
It is also interesting to note that Assagioli considered subpersonalities to be ‘entities’ – living beings – which can live a semi-autonomous life that affects the ‘I’ through patterns of behaviour that are outside of our conscious control. Assagioli (p.93) even suggests ‘each subpersonality has a kind of ego’ and that subpersonalities ‘without our awareness, independent of, or even against, our will – [find] the means of achieving their aims’ (p.84); and Assagioli states that subpersonalities can be co-conscious centres in our personality, meaning they know things about us that we are not aware of ourselves. However, the semi-autonomous nature of the subpersonalities is a condition we can change via personal psychosynthesis, which can bring the various subpersonalities under the wise leadership of the conscious ‘I’.
How to work with subpersonalities
Let us finally explore some of Assagioli’s insights when it comes to the integration and synthesis of our manifold and often conflicting nature. As we have learned, the subpersonalities are often in conflict, something we experience when we encounter ambivalence or inner conflict. The goal is to create a personality that can express its needs and visions in a harmonious way, and there are ways to achieve this – Assagioli calls this process synthesis. However, synthesis is the goal, not the starting point.
Assagioli is referring to the kind of synthesis we find in a healthy body, where the different parts – organs and cells of the body – co-operate intelligently to uphold the health of the whole body.
Synthesis is therefore a kind of unity in diversity, with each organ having its own individual nature and function, while also being aligned with the greater purpose of the whole. This type of synthesis does not occur naturally in the psychological world, but there are means to achieve it.
According to Assagioli (p. 19) ‘co-ordination of the various subpersonalities into a higher unity is possible’. To achieve this, we must first find a synthesising centre that is above all of the subpersonalities, and this is the ‘I’ in the personality and the Transpersonal Self in the superconscious realm. From these centres, we must become the observer of the content of consciousness (i.e. becoming awareness itself) and learn to direct and lead (i.e. by using the will) the various subpersonalities according to our needs. Assagioli suggests the following formula for achieving synthesis:
- Self-awareness: we must first learn to find our centre, which is the consciousness of the ‘I’, the observer.
- Co-existence and acceptance of each subpersonality. Initially, we must accept the subpersonalities as they are as we find them, and acknowledge the desires, needs, or other factors which motivate them.
- Alternation, alliances and co-operation. Next comes the phase where we let the subpersonalities experience ‘an alternation of expressions in accordance with internal impulses and external circumstances. Alternation leads to alliances, to co-operation. And from a progressive co-operation we arrive at an organic synthesis’ (Assagioli, p.53).
- Synthesis. This is a state of effortless co-operation in which the different subpersonalities are integrated and synthesised into a single whole, directed and loved by the
self/Self. Assagioli had much more to say about the process of synthesis – and his various insights can be found in this book. Let me add only one final important insight. Assagioli stated that when the subpersonalities are assimilated, their structure will change; in other words, as the energies and qualities of the subpersonalities are incorporated, their concrete self-images and roles will change into more authentic representations of our self-identity. In this way, harmful self-images can be discarded, according to Assagioli (p. 61), ‘the complex is dissolved, and the energy contained in the complex is used’.
This makes sense: we must not maintain false self-images as we undergo personal synthesis. For example, it is not helpful to keep speaking about a ‘raging subpersonality’ because such an identification will keep that raging energy alive just as we are seeking to transform it. Rather, we must own the sense of having rage but gradually learn to transform this energy through acceptance, and then give that energy a new positive function in the overall structure of our personality, perhaps through identification with the strong, powerful warrior archetype.
Well, this was a summary of some of the essential discoveries I made while reading Assagioli’s extensive writings on subpersonalities. I hope the articles in this book will prove as valuable to you and inspire you to keep diving into the wisdom of Assagioli.
Kenneth Sørensen, Oslo, 2022.