Plural mindfulness / mindful plurality

Plural mindfulness / mindful plurality

In this post two of my selves, Ara and Max, discuss how plurality can unlock features of mindfulness which can otherwise be difficult to access such as self compassion, mindful observation, and embracing uncertainty. This post draws from Janina Fisher’s excellent book Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors

We’ve already recently posted conversations between two other parts – Beastie and James – reviewing what this book has to say about trauma and plurality, and how we can work with them if you want to read more on this topic. For background on plurality, check out the plural work page on our website.

CN: Brief mentions of difficult childhood experiences and self-harm, no detailed descriptions. Brief mention of a tarot card as a metaphor, not as a tool of divination.


Ara: Hey Max-y, are you up for doing this one with me?

Max: I’d like that. It seems a good fit given that I was the part of us who struggled to practice mindfulness our whole life – when I thought we were just me – and you are the part of us who mindfulness seems to come most easily to.

Ara: It’s fascinating to me that we moved away from these practices, then returned to them, from a slightly different angle, and suddenly they made way more sense. Like before we understood them intellectually, but only rarely did we feel what others described feeling from them. Now they have become our go-to practices. I notice that we even turn away from things that would have been welcome distractions, or imperatives, in the past, in order to return to our version of these practices.

Max: Like turning off a TV show halfway through if we start to feel troubled, or remaining still rather than going to the next task if it feels like there’s more that we need to stay with.

Ara: That’s what I mean. Beastie and I discussed the way we’re practising ‘the gap’ rather than any kind of formal sitting in our blog post. Here I’d love to talk with you about how understanding and treating ourselves as plural unlocks various aspects of mindfulness. We can draw on the Janina Fisher book which we hadn’t read when we wrote the gap blog posts.

Max: Okay.

Ara: Before we start, how’re you doing right now? I’m aware it’s been a rough ride for you lately.

Max: It has. This trauma process, it ebbs and flows rather than being some kind of steady progress towards feeling less traumatised. It’s hard when the feelings are intense again to believe in the path we’re on.

Ara: That reminds me of the poem we’ve had up in our room from the start, by Ijeoma Umebinyuo. I often read it to you when you’re finding things tough.

“Healing comes in waves

and maybe today

the wave hits the rocks

and that’s ok,

that’s ok, darling

you are still healing

you are still healing.”

Max: That poem has helped me through some very hard times. It’s still helping me through now.

Ara: You particularly I think – of all of our parts – because being to the fore all our lives means that the traumatic experiences we’ve been through have often hit you the hardest.

Max: Mm, and I’m also the part of us who perhaps has to change the most. It’s so hard to see that the strategies I employed in order for us to survive have hurt us so much, and other people too. It’s so hard to confront that without collapsing into shame, and so hard to have any sense of who I might be on the other side of this. Oh I’m crying as I write this.

Ara: Your tears are very welcome Max. When you feel this way we remind you how very grateful we all are to you. As Janina points out, without disowning the sides of us that we learnt were ‘bad’ growing up, and foregrounding only the ‘good’ in you, we would never have survived. Without repressing the feelings associated with trauma and developing a side of ourselves who could get on with everyday life, we could never have made it through. 

And what’s more, as you were surviving by becoming what the world told you you had to be, you were also learning – all the time – psychology, sociology, psychotherapy, philosophy. You learnt all the things that we needed to finally make sense of our own suffering, and the suffering that it came from: the systems and structures around us, the intergenerational trauma playing out through us, the patterns we’d developed that were hurting us. You enabled us to survive, and you kept learning. It’s a huge feat, gentle warrior. You got us here.

Max: I did. 

Ara: At great cost too. So much pain each time you tried to find safety and belonging for us in ways you’d been taught, but which didn’t really work. So hard when your learnings took you in directions which resulted in you being dismissed and ridiculed, even attacked publicly.

Max: So many times Ara. Each time I find the way of seeing things that helps us the most, it always seems to push right at the edges of what people are up for. Like ‘I know you were with me about the relationship rules being questionable, and about gender being fluid and on multiple spectrums, and about the erotic being way bigger than the sexual, but now I need you to believe that I am multiple people sharing a body – and you very well might be too!’

Ara: Thankfully we’re finding some validation for our experiences in others’ writings, and in the way many people respond to our writing. It seems that there’s much agreement, from social justice and intersectional feminism through to the physical and mental health literature – that a huge problem in our current culture is children learning that they have to cover over themselves, and repress their authentic feelings, and pretend to be okay as you did: people being alienated from themselves, from others, from their work, and from nature, as Gabor Maté puts it. 

This is the individualism of neoliberal capitalism which disconnects us from ourselves and others, makes us feel we’re never enough and can never have enough, makes us police ourselves and others – literally and metaphorically, and puts a huge toll on the ecosystems we inhabit.

Max: Sitting alone in our room during lockdown trying to befriend every part of us seems a far cry from addressing systemic violence, the epidemic of addiction, or climate change, but it does seem that they’re all connected.

Ara: The process can be very painful at times though, I know Max. It’s like Janina says: our inner systems develop in ways that reflect the outer systems we grew up in. Schools, families, communities, cultures, where our feelings weren’t welcome, our needs weren’t heard, we weren’t protected from danger, and/or our boundaries weren’t respected.

Max: We keep coming back to that image of the tower, from the tarot deck, again this month.

Ara: We do, although James and Beastie continue to regard my openness to such things in a highly skeptical manner. 

The Tower, from the Wild Unknown Tarot deck

The tower is about a structure collapsing to the ground. It’s perhaps the most frightening card in the deck. But it’s only when systems and structures are dismantled that we can see that the foundations were rotten: that we need to create stronger foundations before we can start to rebuild on top of them. 

That’s true for each individual’s inner system. It’s true for the family systems built on unaddressed intergenerational trauma. It’s true of organisations built on unjust principles like valuing different forms of labour unequally. It’s true of education systems built on the non-consensual ownership of children by adults, and the desire to create conforming citizens. It’s true of criminal justice systems built to protect the owners of property, which included humans when they were first developed. It’s true of economic systems built to make rich people ever richer, and to encourage consumption far beyond what the planet can sustain, by making people believe that they are lacking.

Max: You may be open to the spooky stuff, but you can bring the politics too it seems Ara.

Ara: It does seem that way. Maybe I know that it helps you to open to these painful, vulnerable, processes when you remember how it’s connected to our wider work, and to our politics and values, Max.

Max: That’s true. Holding so much shame and responsibility, it helps me to always return to that question of how I can be most helpful for others and for the wider world. The answer right now is to prioritize this inner work. Shall we talk about mindfulness?

Ara: I think we may have already given some sense of what we’re about to say, and of our process *smiles*

Buddhism and plurality

Max: We were happy when we got to chapter 3 of Janina’s book and saw a quote from our favourite teacher, Pema Chödrön.

Ara: It suggests that the Buddhist perspectives that help us so much are very much in alignment with this neurobiologically and psychotherapeutically informed plural/trauma perspective that Janina is presenting. The quote she uses from from Pema is: 

“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears and to caring only for the people nearest to us. Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.” – Pema Chödrön

Max: That speaks to me so much. We have the image of me, for much of my life, as an armoured up warrior: presenting masks to the world that would gain me some degree of acceptance. I was battling and battling to get love and respect, and covering over my vulnerability, my shame, and my conviction that if anyone saw the ‘real’ me – beneath the masks – they would be disgusted.

Ara: The image of you now is the spiritual warrior that Pema describes in her writing. Prepared for this final act of bravery: removing the armour and the masks and standing there naked, ready to face what comes. But you’re not alone any more.

Max: I have all of you standing with me. 

So Janina understands the disconnection and separateness from the self, that Pema describes, as developing because we disowned vital parts of ourselves: leaving them behind in the past at the times we were taught they were unacceptable.

“By disowning the trauma, or the anger, or the need for contact with others, we lose or deny important aspects of ourselves. By over-identifying with the trauma-related shame, hopelessness, and fear of being seen, we constrict our lives and make ourselves smaller than we need to be. Both strategies, adaptive in a time of danger, become liabilities when the individual is ready to live a ‘life after trauma’, free of the constrictions and restrictions needed for living in a traumatogenic environment.” – Janina Fisher

Ara: And this sounds very similar to Buddhism doesn’t it? Buddhism is all about finding the middle way between hurling things away from us that we don’t want, and grasping hold of things that we do: between aggression and craving. We always use this quote from Martine Batchelor to describe it.

“Let’s imagine that I am holding an object made of gold. It is so precious and it is mine – I feel I must hold onto it. I grasp it, curling my fingers so as not to drop it, so that nobody can take it away from me. What happens after a while? Not only do my hand and arm get cramp but I cannot use my hand for anything else. When you grip something, you create tension and you limit yourself.

Dropping the gold object is not the solution. Non-attachment means learning to relax, to uncurl the fingers and gently open the hand. When my hand is wide open and there is no tension, the precious object can rest lightly on my palm. I can still value the object and take care of it; I can put it down and pick it up; I can use my hand for doing something else.”

Max: So this sense of not disowning any part of us, or identifying with any part of us, is much like that idea: holding it lightly.

Ara: Pema talks about not repressing thoughts, feelings, sensations, but equally not reacting out of them or focusing on them at the expense of everything else that is going on in our bodies and surroundings. The mindful practice involves being with every feature of our experience in a way that is both welcoming and spacious: not too tight, not too loose. 

Max: And we could see our lives as having been a process of disowning some parts of ourselves – and some experiences – and over-identifying with others. So this here-and-now practice of not disowning and not identifying is a way of counterbalancing that.

Ara: Right, we are up for being with the parts we disowned as ‘not me’, and for loosening the grip around those we over-identified with: saw as ‘me’. In our case disowned were our fight, attach, and freeze capacities. Over-identified with was you and your flight tendency to avoid feelings and stay busy, motivated by a strong fawn desire to please others at all costs, because the disappointment, disapproval and disgust of others was what had been so dangerous to us as a child.

This is the ‘no part gets left behind’ ethos that James and Beastie spoke about. Interestingly I found that echoed in a Pema audio I listened to this morning. She says that the aim of Buddhist practice is never to cultivate one part of ourselves and to to try to get rid of another. Splitting ourselves into good, virtuous and bad, irredeemable parts is a form of biased, fixated thinking. Instead the idea is to train in staying open to the whole thing.


Max: That brings us on to self-compassion right? Self-compassion is a key feature of mindfulness and something that we always struggled to find through mindful practices, until we added plurality to the picture.

Ara: Mm and Janina explains why self compassion, and loving yourself, are so hard – if not impossible. It’s because we had to hate ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, in order to survive. Any form of self compassion would actually have been dangerous. 

Janina says that, as vulnerable children, we have to believe that we can get love by being what we’ve learnt is ‘good’ and never what we’ve learnt is ‘bad’. This is far safer for a child than believing that they are out of our control and have no-one to turn to: that they’re alone in a dangerous world. 

So we disconnect from anything in us that we’ve learnt is ‘bad’ – because it was disapproved of or rejected by others. Those things are ‘not me’. We also disconnect from the victim child that the bad things happened to as ‘not me’. We hold onto the good child who can be acceptable and therefore safer in an unsafe world. And we minimise any sense that we’ve been a victim of traumatic situations. The good child might be precociously mature, perfectionistic, and/or invested in being helpful to others, for example.

Max: Sounds strangely familiar!

Ara: So we use dissociation, denial and self hatred to keep the ‘not me’ parts out, in order that the ‘good’ parts can keep developing. The ‘bad’ and vulnerable parts of us therefore stay stuck in the past, when they came into being. But we lose vital parts of ourselves in the process.

Max: Janina says that the bargain we make when we disown parts of ourselves as a kid in order to survive – as ‘not me’ – is that we have to hate the self. We have to keep out the parts we’re intimidated by and ashamed of. Again this links to Gabor Maté who says that disconnection from the self means not being able to connect with others authentically, not being in touch with our feelings, being unable to have boundaries, and being unable to treat ourselves kindly.

Ara: Think about that Max, that’s our Tony, Jonathan, Beastie and Fox right there. In order for us to survive, you had to disown the part of us who can confidently be himself and assumes that others can love him. You had to disown the part who is sensitive and vulnerable and feels things deeply. You had to disown the part who feels enraged when people treat us non-consensually and can let them know it’s not okay. And you had to disown the part who is a genius at gentleness and playfulness.

Max: I’d never quite seen it this way before though, that self-compassion would have been actively dangerous to us, that it would put us at such risk of being ‘not-me’. I always struggled to understand why I was so incapable of loving myself when people spoke about that.

Ara: Gabor says that when we disown those parts of us we end up prioritising attachment over authenticity, looking outside of ourselves for things we’ve disowned in ourselves, often in unboundaried relationships with work and with other people, and in addictive patterns more widely.

Max: But none of those things could really fulfill us, because we are like a mask with nothing behind it until we can reclaim those parts of ourselves, their capacities, feelings, and experiences.

Ara: I was interested in our reading on shame to hear shame described as ‘soul-murder’. That is literally what kids are encouraged to do in our culture: to murder their soul. They operate on shame logic: always pretending that they are better than human, because they are terrified that they are ‘really’ far worse than human. 

Max: But when you live like that you know that it is a pretence, and you are convinced that you really are worse, perhaps because you can sense that emptiness within you, that sense that you’ve murdered your soul. That’s precisely how I felt much of the time.

Ara: Janina describes plural work as ‘soul retrieval’: practising self-compassion one part at a time. Of course this is made more difficult by our cultural insistence that we are singular selves, or unified souls, but there are many cultures around the world who recognise multiple souls sharing a body. One even has seven as the norm, you’ll be glad to hear.

Max: I think this soul retrieval, and selves-compassion, was the main feature of our inner work for a long time actually.

Ara: The way Pema puts it is that you have to create a ‘cradle of kindness’ before you can do any of the other work of mindfulness: observing your thoughts and feelings, cultivating compassion for others, becoming comfortable with uncertainty, and so on.

Max: I always balked at that idea and tried to crack on with all the various mindful practices without that cradle of kindness. But now I think it’s right. In many ways we’ve only been able to get to our version of mindfulness now that we have selves-compassion. So interesting that the very first time we felt your presence, Ara, it was as a sense of cradling.

Ara: Jonathan felt me cradling him: our body as both cradled and cradler. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t able to give you all that sooner Max-y. I so wish that I could have cradled you through the hard times.

Max: We got to something like that occasionally I think. Janina helped to explain that experience too. Self-harm can be a way of regulating intolerable emotions. I guess the times I self-harmed were when disowned parts of us threatened to be revealed, or when I felt that they had already been seen. I felt totally overwhelmed by them, with their massive feelings of repressed rage, fear, yearning, or grief. The only way to calm them was to hit myself. After that I do remember feeling that cradling feeling: being able to put myself to bed and soothe myself, almost as if somebody else was doing it. You.

Ara: Babygirl.

Max: I know. I’m so glad that we’ve found another way now. However painful it can be at times to feel all these feelings, it’s so much better than that.

Ara: I guess the self-compassion piece of mindfulness, done in a plural way, involves welcoming all parts of yourself that you previously disowned. In our case it involves cultivating parts who are capable of deep compassion for all of you – the inner carer and protector that Beastie and James described.

Max: And what’s shifted for us in recent months is that you’ve both felt way more available to us, as we have brought you forward more and more. Like we can wake up with you to the fore, draw on you to do everyday tasks, and easily access you whenever we’re struggling. 

Ara: So cultivating a cradle of kindness, for people, could involve an act of self-excavation/self-creation to develop such inner parents. For us it began with journaling with an imagined voice – of how a kind nurturer or solid protector might speak with you if you had one.

Max: Patchworked together, in your case from memories of the kind moments we did have with caregivers and partners over the year, from Pema herself, and from a few wise, compassionate mentors we had recently: Sophia, Lokhadi, and now our current therapist. Do you include any fictional characters, the way James does, Ara?

Ara: Interestingly I think I’m more built from the real encounters we’ve had, whereas James is more built from fictional folk.

Max: I’m sure Beastie would have some theory there about the patriarchy.

Mindful observation

Ara: Okay so as well as helping us to achieve self-compassion, plurality has been a way to unlock the kind of mindful observation which has been so hard for us to date, despite you writing an entire book about it, our beautiful overachiever!

Max: I was trying to get here I guess! 

In mindfulness you’re meant to observe all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations which bubble up, by continually returning to a point of focus in the present: often the breath going in and out. But, for me, mindfulness generally involved being swept away by memories and plans, by fears and doubts, for fifteen minutes until the alarm on my phone went off and reminded me that I was rubbish at mindfulness as well as at everything else! It wasn’t always quite that bad, but not far off. 

Ara: Fortunately Pema is very open that that was her experience for a long, long time too, and still often is.

Max: So how is plurality helping us with this?

Ara: Again Beastie and James described Janina’s concept of ‘dual awareness’ at some length in their posts, including the neurobiological understanding of how it works, and some of how we’re practising it. Basically dual awareness involves one part – who is in ‘everyday life’ mode – holding whichever part is struggling, or having the tough thoughts, feelings or sensations.

Max: And that’s mindful observation unlocked right there! As soon as we can experience it as one part of us holding another, it becomes way more possible for us to do this. Can you describe a few of the times you’ve done it lately?

Ara: Mm yes, well this last week or so we’ve had the amusing image of James and myself in our tiny studio caring for five fractious kids. First we got sick, then this heatwave hit, and perhaps because you’re all finally feeling safe enough, there have been a whole lot of feelings around for everyone. The minute one of you starts crying it sets the others off, and it’s often hard to tell who is actually struggling, and what the problem is.

Max: Nice image. I’m not sure what I think of myself as a screaming child!

Ara: It fits with the tower idea too, like we’re finally safe enough to go back to our foundations, to rebuild them in a way where all of you are welcome, and all of each of your feelings are welcome too. No wonder there’s a lot of feeling there when you’ve been keeping them crushed down all this time.

Max: But we’re still not adept – shall we say – at locating the source of the feeling or what needs to be done about it.

Ara: It’s a wonderful process for me, coming to each of you in turn, exploring where you’re at, helping you to finally feel held and heard.

Max: I’m not sure whether James agrees with you about the ‘wonderful process’. He compared it to the time when our electrics went off, and he just had to turn all the fuse switches off and then flip them back on in turn, to determine which one was tripping the circuit breaker. He wishes he could just switch us all off and then back on again in turn to find out where the trouble is and fix it.

Ara: A very James response. And you know sometimes his approach reaches one of you when mine doesn’t. He’s more skilled at finding the humour in the situation, for example, which can often cut through the struggle. With Beastie that sense of the deep respect he has for her is a big deal.

Max: But you are badass with patience. I have no idea how you do it. 

Ara: I’m so glad that I can. It seems like I just know… you know that this is part of the process, that we will find our way through it, and I can help you to slow down and put a big space around it.

Max: The other night with Fox, you were looking out of the window together. It was one of those times where the trauma feelings kept flickering up in our body like lightning strikes. Each time we felt calmer, it would flash again. We were all so sick of it: just so tired, so desperate for some rest.

Ara: I held Fox under the big sky, and we just watched it happen, like watching a real thunderstorm – something we all love. Each time the trauma flashed: a moment of fear or shame, attached to a distressing thought or sensation, we named it and noticed it go away. And we remained watching the sky till the next one happened. It was like the lightning was the thought or sensation, the feeling the thunder.

Max: Which is mindful observation precisely isn’t it? To notice the thoughts, feelings, and sensations without following them or attaching to them, and without resisting them or trying to get rid of them.

Ara: James did it a different way with Jonathan later. We tried to enjoy a novel but the flashes started up again. They lay in bed together and James got curious about the feeling. What is this emotion we’re so terrified of when it flashes up? He helped Jonathan to get curious too, to feel safe enough to go towards it instead of closing his eyes, backing away, and putting the duvet over his head every time the feeling flashed. The image was of James holding Jonathan by the hand and helping him look under the bed or in the closet to check for monsters.

Max: That time when they tried to go towards the feeling there was nothing really there.

Ara: Other times there is something, and we’ll talk you through practices like focusing, or imagining it as a cell in front of us, in order to explore the feeling at a distance. Other times working through Janina’s befriending questions have helped you to feel held and heard when you’re struggling. The creative part – which I really love – is shifting the container: finding out what’s needed this time. And then that attunement feeling when you hit on just the right approach for this part on this occasion.

Max: If it was me I’d grasp hold of that – the goal of attunement – wanting to get it right. But that would fetch us right back where we started wouldn’t it?

Ara: I fear so. The beauty is in the process, not just the endpoint, as Meg-John and Justin would say about sex of course! Also, Janina points out how moments of rupture and repair are vital for building trust. So times when James or I ‘get it wrong’ but are able to realise that – or you are able to tell us – then we can acknowledge that and apologise and get curious with you about what would work better. Those times are perhaps more helpful than the times we ‘get it right’ first time, in building that sense of ‘earned secure attachment’ that he and Beastie discussed.

Max: Like when he joked that he wished we’d all calm down a bit, and Fox got the grumps with him, because they’re trying really hard to bring their difficult feelings to him now and not just be this easy, delightful kid.

Ara: The fact that Fox could express that and he could hear it and reassure them was so valuable. It’s like in therapy: rupture and repair are often the most helpful moments in building trust and showing us where our struggles are and how they manifest in our relationships.

Max: I’m thinking that too, how such moments in our inner system reflect struggles we have ‘out there’.

Ara: Always so helpful to see how things play out in here, and how that relates to how they’ve played out in the past, and how they play out in the rest of our life.

Max: So here we’re saying that dual awareness unlocks mindful observation for us. If we conceptualise it – and feel it – as a containing part of us holding another part. Then it becomes possible to sit still and observe the thoughts, feelings, and sensations with open curiosity, rather than getting caught up in them or trying to get rid of them.

Ara: Back to holding the golden object, yes. Sometimes we can just feel that sense of holder and held in silent sitting, often we use slow, gentle self talk to guide ourselves through it: like a guided meditation you might listen to. 

And I think again that the compassion piece drives the mindful observation. Because we love you so much, James and I are genuinely curious about you all and how you work. We really want to learn you better, to earn your trust, to improve our bonds with you. 

It makes sense that it’s a slow process though. As Janina says, it was adaptive in your early life to avoid comfort and self compassion, and to shame yourself and self judge before caregivers or others could find you lacking. It was also adaptive to distrust others as potentially unsafe and uncaring: to assume they will likely disappear or let you down.

Max: So hard for us now to trust even inner parts to really be able to hold us and hear us.

Ara: Such trust has to be slowly earned and built. Janina says that child selves need a palpable sense of someone very glad to see them, tender when they are wounded, unafraid when they are hostile. They need the same experience to be repeated many time over in order to trust it.

Max: That is the sense we’re developing, slowly.

Ara: I know you prefer to go fast, my little fleer.

Max: Janina says ‘slower is faster’.

Ara: She does indeed.

Embracing uncertainty

Max: So the final aspect of mindfulness that plurality seems to help us is with embracing uncertainty. This is what we talk about in Life Isn’t Binary with Alex. People – particularly in the west – tend towards binary thinking, polarising into us and them, right and wrong, good and bad… and me and not-me, I guess.

Ara: Exactly, and as Alex said in that book and elsewhere, trauma makes us polarise even more. In Life Isn’t Binary we explored various alternatives for non-binary thinking: the in-between or middle way; both/and instead of either/or; and holding multiple stories simultaneousy: embracing the paradox and uncertainty of the situation.

We’ve already explained how Janina’s plural perspective helps us to find a middle way between rejecting or disowning parts of ourselves – on the one hand – and overly identifying or merging with them – on the other. Instead of repressing emotions or reacting out of them, we can see all feelings as communication from traumatised parts and move towards them.

Max: Dual awareness is a both/and approach right? We are both the part holding and hearing the traumatised part, and we are the part being held and heard.

Ara: Yes. A misunderstanding about plurality that we’re always keen to challenge is that the aim should be to ‘integrate’ our fragmented selves into a singular self. Janina sites trauma scientist Daniel Siegel as making a strong case against defining integration as fusion. Instead he says that integration required differentiation and linkage. Before we can integrate any two phenomena we have to differentiate them as separate entities, then we can link them up. So instead of either rejecting them or merging with them, we can both discern the separate parts and (re)connect them together.

Janina also talks of holding the bothness of ourselves as one physical individual – in terms of our body and brain – and the fact that that body/brain is fragmented and holds many parts of different ages, stages, attachment styles and defensive responses. That way we get to a sense of ‘we together’ not each part ‘abandoned alone’

Max: That helps us to tolerate and understand the unnerving sense that we contain such radically opposing capacities. For example for the last year or so we’ve felt impossibly fragile, as well as knowing that we can be pretty robust. And now simultaneously we can feel that vivid sense of being cradled and of cradling.

Ara: Yes. For quite a long time we felt each one of us come to the fore separately, never together. It’s been under two years that we’ve come to sense two of us together simultaneously: initially mostly when we wrote dialogue in our journal, then increasingly in verbal conversation between our parts, and now much of the time there is a vivid sense of two of us present at once.

Max: What about embracing paradox and uncertainty.

Ara: I have a few thoughts about this. One relates to the cradle of kindness. While we were building that cradle together – bringing each of us forward and nurturing the bonds between us – we were terribly polite to each other, in a way.

Max: Yes, there was a weird sense that we agreed on most things, even though we knew that we were radically different characters, driven by very different motivations.

Ara: That loving kindness between us that we so desperately needed perhaps required us to all pull in the same direction for a while.

Max: And there’s a sense of our inner system replicating early outer ones, where it didn’t feel safe enough to ‘rock the boat’, and we were all very scared of hurting each other, or of ‘ruining the day’ for other parts. Each of us tried to remain in our most palatable forms: Fox being delightful and pretending not to be scared, Beastie being forthright but never letting herself fly off the handle, and so on.

Ara: This last month we’ve noticed less politeness, and much more sense of the inner conflicts being available to us.

Max: As soon as it began you took that as a good sign.

Ara: I’m sure it is. Because Pema and Janina agree that embracing uncertainty, being comfortable with not-knowing, and holding paradox are vital life skills. We’ve written before about the Buddhist teachings on accepting praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disgrace as part of life, in fact questioning which counts as which.

Max: Who knows what’s good or bad?

Ara: Janina talks about how all of us contain the seeming opposites of vulnerability and control, shame and pride, longing to be seen and to be invisible, preferring closeness and distance, clinging to others and pushing them away. Understanding our plurality enables us to contain all of that within this system, and work with it to ensure everyone is heard and has their needs respected, rather than pretending that everybody wants the same thing.

Max: Going back to each part as a trauma response pattern, she suggests that attach wants help, love, and protection. Fawn wants to please. Fight wants control. Flight wants safe distance. And freeze wants to stay invisible.

Ara: Although in our case freeze did set up our Instagram account.

Max: To share pictures of animals, not of us though. Although we do occasionally allow Tony to get a selfie in!

Ara: The ability to tolerate paradox and to embrace uncertainty is so vital in the work we’re doing. For a start, as I said before, what we’re doing requires adaptability: an ever-shifting container to hold and hear parts in the way they need each time they are present. That’s much like how actual parents need to adapt how they respond to their different children, in different emotional states, and as they grow over time.

Also there is a huge paradox that learning to do things differently to how we’ve done them in the past can actually cause more tough feelings before we get to a point of feeling more able to deal with them. This makes sense because we’re letting go of our long-held habits and survival strategies, with only faith to go on that the newer ones we’re developing are really going to be more helpful.

Janina describes the paradox that as soon as we relax our anxiety escalates, because softening, letting our guard down, and trusting ourselves or others, have always felt dangerous.

Max: That’s one I experience a lot.

Ara: Pete Walker likens trying new habits to going to the dentist. You know that it will bring more pain in the short term, but less in the long term. 

Max: The area of life that happens in all the time at the moment is around boundaries. We’re trying so hard to honestly let people know what our boundaries are around the type and amount of contact we want. We know that such things should be consensual: that people in our life shouldn’t ask of us to have more contact, or contact of different kinds, than we actually want. That would be just as non-consensual as asking a partner to have more sex, or sex of different kinds, than they actually want.

But pretty much every time somebody assumes that we’ll want a kind – or amount – of contact that’s more than what we want, we go into a trauma response. It can take hours, even days, to process the fear/shame feelings and to formulate a reply to that person which feels both kind and honest.

Ara: I’ve held you through that one a few times haven’t I, using the befriending questions?

Max: Yep, I know where it comes from now: all the times my boundaries have been violated. I’m so scared the person will just push through, will annihilate me, if I hold my boundary. And I guess Jonathan – our fawn part – feels as though we need to give people what they want or they’ll abandon us.

Ara: Luckily we have Beastie now who can bring clarity and protection to those situations, and Tony who doesn’t mind being ‘a bit crap’, rather than feeling he always has to go the extra mile for people who aren’t treating us very well or respecting our boundaries.

Max: But we notice the paradox that doing the thing that’s better for us in the long run, can bring up more trauma and pain in the short term. So we can’t use the intensity of our trauma feelings as any measure of how well we’re doing at all this.

Ara: That can be really confusing love, no wonder you feel frightened and self-doubting at times. This work requires such a leap into the unknown.

Max: Now then, you know that you can always get me on board with a Frozen reference don’t you?

Ara: Just let it go Max-y *chuckles* You are so our Elsa

Plurality helps us to be with those paradoxes and uncertainties. Of course parts of us are soothed by us holding our boundaries, but other parts of us are scared by it because people have pushed, or rejected us, when we did that in the past. Parts of us long to trust me and James to hold them through this time, and other parts are very reluctant to trust. Parts of us would love to expand out into the world again, and other parts are terrified by the prospect. As Janina says, it’s about being up for engaging with all those parts, and about having a steady inner presence to hold the bothness. 

Coming home

Max: Nearly there Ara. D’you wanted to finish with coming home?

Ara: It seems appropriate. Just click your heels three times Max-y! Yes this was one final theme we saw in Janina’s plural/trauma writing that rang bells with our Buddhist reading. In fact the Wizard of Oz reference is apt.

Max: It’s one of many childhood tales where a person travels to a fantasy land and meets all these characters, but then has to come back to the ‘real world’ and ‘grow up’. 

Ara: Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland, the list goes on and on. An alternative plural reading of such fiction is that in childhood we have this capacity to be all these parts, with different characteristics. Our culture – for the last century or so – has forced us to kill off those capacities in order to be what we perceive as ‘adult’: a singular, consistent, rational, self. 

Max: Many of the so-called ‘adults’ are causing untold destruction at the moment in the name of keeping hold of that way of life.

Ara: It relates also to the ways that ‘the other’ has always been portrayed as more ‘childlike’ or ‘primitive’ in order to justify oppressing them: women, disabled people, people of different races or nationalities, the working classes.

So perhaps we might want to flip the ‘home’ that Dorothy longs to return to as Oz, rather than Auntie Em’s. Whatever the case, welcoming home is a key theme in both plurality and Buddhism. Janina says:

“Resolution of past painful events cannot truly be achieved without reclaiming the lost children and disowned parts of ourselves, extending to them a helping hand, welcoming them ‘home’ at long last, creating safety for them, and making them feel wanted, needed, and valued.”

Max: In many of her case-studies Janina encourages clients who are holding traumatised child-parts to show them that they have a safe home which they live in now: like to literally to take them around that space.

Ara: We do that too. Looking around our room and telling the stories of various objects can be a soothing and grounding activity for our traumatised parts. We even bought an armchair which we felt was a good representation of me and James, as the chair we go to when we needed to be heard and held.

Max: That was the most money we’ve ever spent on ourselves, other than for our top surgery which brought Jonathan forward, and for the fox tattoo on our arm. How interesting.

Ara: Inner parents and children are worth a few quid it seems!

Imagining the fantasy home that we all live in together, and where each of us are in or around that home, can work in a similar way to looking around our actual home.

Max: Finding Jonathan a place in the kitchen – the heart of the house – has helped him a lot lately. He can nourish us all, and listen to all our feelings as he cooks without getting overwhelmed by them.

Ara: It’s such a good alternative to the chalkboard room where he was disconnected from us all, and stuck trying to figure out all that confusing emotional input. It’d be great to keep talking between us about our roles and spaces within that imaginary home.

Max: Recently a plural system tweeted about how many plurals imagine a house like this, some larger innerworlds or mindscapes.

Ara: Shaping our imaginary homes is a nice way of reshaping our inner system along different lines to those that originally shaped it, having gone all the way back down to our foundations. Moving between fantasy and reality in this way is something we’ve always found very helpful.

Max: Like tuning into what our fantasies tell us about where we’re at, what our fears and yearnings are. And also using fantasies as ways to deliberately try different ways of relating.

Ara: Recently we tried deliberately meeting all of our ‘shadow’ sides in fantasy. That was powerful. 

I also wanted to mention somatic elements to our work here: increasingly embodied touch is something we now bring into the holding and hearing time.

Max: Mm, like self-talk, nurturing self-touch is not something that people are encouraged to do. It’s seen as pretty weird.

Ara: We need a whole further post to cover how solo talking and solo touch are stigmatised, while talking and touching with others are encouraged. And if you are going to solo-touch, then erotic touch is allowable, but not nurturing touch: cuddles, strokes, and the like. That’s similar with fantasies too, few people try nurturing fantasies even though they might try erotic ones. Sari Van Anders’ theory would suggest that we should treat the solo and partnered, and the nurturing and erotic, aspects of our experience as equally valid.

Max: How does the welcoming home part relate to Buddhism Ara? 

Ara: I’m reminded of Manu Bazzano’s work on hospitality. In Buddhism the aim is to be able to welcome all sentient beings: the image of inviting them all into your home for a feast. That’s one that Jonathan would like. Islamic poet, Rumi, captures a similar idea in his poem The Guest House, which Zen Pencils did a great comic of here: very plural.

James and Beastie didn’t love Janina’s idea of the ‘getting on with normal life’ part. But towards the end of the book she suggests ‘host’ as an alternative word for this part: like they are hosting the other parts, and their body is literally a host for all. Janina says that you need a host, otherwise the kids feel ‘home alone’.

Max: This sounds like what Beastie and I were discussing in our accompany not abandon post. If we can welcome all of our parts home, then we’ll be better able to welcome all sentient beings, because there’s nothing ‘out there’ that we aren’t somewhat familiar with ‘in here’. Part of why the outer world has always been so frightening to me is that I was encountering things out there that I was terrified of in myself: particularly other people who criticised me, became angry with me, or demanded too much of me.

Ara: Recently we realised that the responses you fear when we hold our boundaries are other people becoming furious, or them feeling abandoned. Interestingly those relate very much to the ways in which our Beastie or Tony might respond: our two most disowned parts.

We can see plural work as a way of welcoming all parts of us home, and mindfulness as an act of hospitality towards ourselves, no matter what. Janina suggests that if we do this work it will have a knock on effect on our relationships with others as well. We’ll be better able to tolerate them not being there, and keep our hearts open when they are.

Check out the previous two blog posts in this series to find out more about the theory and practice of plurality and trauma. For much more on plurality, check out the plural work page on our website.

Patreon link: If you liked this, please feel free to support our Patreon.

Plural tag: This post was written by Ara and Max.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. D

    29 August

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, heartfelt, moving, complex, open-hearted dialogue Ara and Max. Much gratitude.