In this post my two most studious parts – James and Beastie – return to revisit the question of plurality and what we have learnt about it since they last got together on the topic. Particularly they discuss our learnings from Janina Fisher’s excellent book Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. You can read their earlier Plural FAQ post, and the Plural Zine that preceded it for more background on the topic, or just start here.
It turns out these two have a lot to say so we’ve divided the post into two: The first post deals with understanding plurality from this trauma-informed perspective. The second post deals with working with plurality and trauma in practice. A further post to follow covers how these ideas and practices link to mindfulness.
Beastie: Ready to shoot the breeze with me again James?
James: Always Beastie.
Beastie: I’m glad we finally got around to this post.
James: Worth waiting for this moment I think. Janina’s book filled in so many of the missing pieces for us.
Beastie: And affirmed much of where we’d already got to ourselves, drawing together our learning on trauma with our experience of plurality. I felt quite smug reading parts of the book. Like ‘we got there all by ourselves, nice going.’
James: Should we explain what we’re intending to do in this blog post?
Beastie: Right, well we considered doing another book review post like we did on the books by Pete Walker, Pat de Young, and to some extent David Treleaven. But that would’ve been a lot because we basically highlighted something on every page of Janina’s book. Also we’re more interested in digging into some of the key ideas and practices, and how we’ve been applying them, rather than just summarising it.
James: Yep. We’d certainly recommend the entire book to anybody who this blog post resonates with.
I’d also like to start with my usual point that this stuff is relevant to everybody, no matter how extreme or mild their experience of trauma, or how muted or vivid their experience of plurality. We all get reactive and experience overwhelming feelings at times. And it’s valuable for everybody to locate that reactivity and emotion in parts of themselves rather than in the whole of themselves, in order to work through it rather than becoming stuck in it.
Beastie: I mean who isn’t traumatised during a pandemic? And who doesn’t disown parts of themselves growing up under the shaming self-policing system of neoliberal capitalism. Am I right?
James: As you are about so many things Beastiegirl.
Beastie: I sense you’re a bit looser than last time we had one of these conversations old man. This is going to be fun.
Plurality and trauma: An Overview
James: So we were excited about this book because Janina brings together somatic work around the neurobiology of trauma together with a multiconsciousness model of how people work. These are the two areas we’ve been bringing together in our work of late, although we also like to mix it up with Buddhist and social justice / intersectional feminist understandings.
Specifically Janina weaves together Sensorimotor Psychotherapy with Internal Family Systems Theory, but she also draws more broadly on the literatures on trauma, attachment, mindfulness, and plurality.
Beastie: Right. So what that looks like in practice is that she assumes that all distressing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are communications from traumatised parts of us, who are still stuck in the past when the traumatic things happened to them. What needs to happen is for all parts to be befriended, heard, held, and brought into the present, where they can finally feel safe enough.
James: What we were smug about is that Janina suggests that our parts often map onto those trauma survival strategies of fight, flight, freeze, etc. The way these have become encoded over time as learned patterns of behaviour.
James: But Janina throws a further F into the mix, which isn’t an F at all: Attach.
Beastie: And that finally helped us to make sense of our wild card, Tony. Tony is totally the 5th F.
James: He also had a different idea about what that 5th F might stand for in his case, which I won’t repeat here because it’d only encourage him.
Beastie: Well I guess that is one way of attaching to people.
James: We’ll get more into the Fs in a moment. Anything else we need to say up front about this way of understanding – and working with – ourselves?
Beastie: A key sense is that what people tend to do when traumatised parts show up is either to disown them – which is probably what they did in order to survive growing up – or to completely identify with them: feeling like the flood of emotions are theirs and worrying that they’re broken because of how overwhelming that feels. The alternative to this is to cultivate a dual awareness so that you can hold and hear the traumatised part, but not become them.
James: Right. We’ll say a lot more about how that works in the second half of this post.
Beastie: As a therapist Janina is mostly describing how she works with clients in this way, but here we’ll emphasise how we’ve used this approach ourselves. There’s important stuff in the book about how the therapist’s task is to help the client to develop the parts of themselves who can meet and hold their traumatised parts, not to do it for them. That’s very much how we’ve experienced our own therapist.
James: Yeah she was stoked when our most compassionate self – Ara – showed up in therapy, clearly well capable of holding the rest of us through the tough feelings. At that point our therapist spoke of stepping back and her trust in our own capacity to do this work.
Beastie: It helps to keep seeing her for now though. The way she talks us through these practices teaches us how to do it for ourselves in a space that feels very held and safe, particularly when going to the really hard, vulnerable places.
James: I’d certainly recommend that people access a trauma-informed therapist with a non-pathologising affirmative understanding of plurality to facilitate this kind of work. We’ve had plenty of past experience of therapy as both therapist and client, but we still really needed that kind of guidance and holding through this process.
Beastie: Just make sure the therapist is all about empowering you to find this wisdom and capacity in you, rather than being invested in doing it for you. We’ll come back to that in the second post.
James: Mm. Janina suggests that a lot of therapy in the past hasn’t worked for clients – and might even have damaged them – because it has assumed them to be singular rather than plural, and because it has focused on replaying past traumatic memories, rather than helping traumatised parts to find safety in the present.
Beastie: Right, if you assume you’re working with a singular self who has all these overwhelming feelings and experiences, even to the point of self-destruction, then you’ll easily reinforce the belief that they are ‘crazy, damaged or inadequate’ because of their bewildering reactions and contradictions.
It can be incredibly reassuring for a client – or for anyone – to learn that those feelings, experiences and behaviours only reside in a part of them, and that that part can be heard and brought into a much safer relationship to the rest of the self. Also it helps hugely to learn that we all have parts who are strong survivors and who can function well. That’s a much more empowering message.
James: In that way this book is more optimistic than the book on shame that we reviewed, which suggested that those with chronic shame would never fully recover.
Beastie: We’re still sceptical of linear recovery narratives, but we like the sense here that people may be fragmented, but that doesn’t mean that we’re forever broken. Fragmenting, compartmentalision, or dissociative splitting, was actually a normal and smart strategy which enabled us to survive the past rather than remaining trapped in trauma. And it can give us superpower in the present if we can master how to bring each part forward when needed.
James: Comparing this to other books we’ve read, we also prefer some of the message here to Pete Walker’s.
Beastie: Yeah Pete is very down on the inner critic, he’s all about fighting and dismissing the critical voices. Janina rightly points out that angry critical parts are trying to protect us and it;s just as vital to listen to and befriend them as any other part, even if they seem to be destructive or blocking progress.
James: I can see why you might prefer that message Beastie.
Beastie: Reformed inner critics can be the best allies in our experience.
James: Some of them turn out to be pretty keen bloggers too.
Beastie: D’you know what makes me angry James?
James: Um, you’re our fight part. Do you want me to give you the full list?
Beastie: Hilarious. What angers me is that when we first learnt about plurality, and about trauma, as a trainee psychologist, both were dismissed and ridiculed. I remember us learning that ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ was made up, just some attention-grabbing behaviour whipped up between crazy patients and their gullible therapists. And I remember hearing all the backlash against the idea that developmental trauma was very common. Again a sense that most people were probably making it up, or making too much of it.
James: I share your anger Beastie: these understandings that are so helpful to us now – and potentially to so many people – have a legacy of gaslighting around them, by wider culture and by the so-called experts. There’s denial that these things are real, or that they really happened. There’s a good deal of the blaming of survivors in order to defend perpetrators and the systems that allowed damage to happen. And there’s a sense that people should be easily able to ‘fix’ their struggles, rather than recognising the huge challenges of living with a traumatised nervous system.
Beastie: Again we’d emphasise that both trauma and plurality are on a spectrum. But the things that have happened to us definitely ‘count’ as trauma, and our plurality is certainly a genuine embodied experience which takes us in the direction of healing. We could have been saved a lot of pain on this journey if people hadn’t attempted to minimise and question these experiences. We wasted far too much time and energy wondering whether what happened to us was ‘bad enough’ and whether our plurality was ‘real’. That kind of internalised gaslighting just kept fetching us back in shame and retraumatising memories.
James: So I guess we’d want to convey to the reader that whatever happened to them, and however they experience themselves, is legit. And whatever they can do to embrace it, assume that it is sensible, and befriend themselves around it, is for the good.
Beastie: Okay enough preamble. Let’s dig into some of the specifics of this way of understanding – and working with – plurality.
Plurality and the 5Fs
James: So a big ‘aha’ moment for us reading this book, as we’ve said, was realising that our parts mapped onto the major trauma survival strategies: flight, freeze, fight, fawn, and – the new one on us – attach.
Beastie: We have heard another idea that the fifth F is ‘fragment’, but our sense is that fragmenting or splitting is what happened to separate us into these parts in the first place. And it doesn’t seem to map onto a separate part of us in the way the other Fs (and A) do.
James: We can still ‘fragment’ when something really overwhelming hits. But that, for us, is a sense of being scattered: unable to find each other and to look after each other through whatever is happening.
Beastie: That’s the sense of being abandoned internally rather than accompanied that Max and I wrote about.
James: Another piece that Janina wrote about, which helped us to make sense of our internal system, was the idea of different survival strategies as located at different ages. So she says that attach and freeze are very early infant strategies. The infant is so helpless that they trust and reach out to caregivers even if they aren’t always met or emotionally regulated by those caregivers: that’s attach. The kinds of startle responses and frightened disappearing that we associate with Fox’s freeze response are also very young.
Beastie: We always thought of Fox as a very young part of us, but it’s new to locate Tony as an infant. He always had such strong adolescent energy that we didn’t see that. But it makes a lot of sense as he’s driven by a yearning for intimacy, and he’s also… how shall I put this?
James: Very full of himself.
Beastie: Right, and narcissism is associated with infancy too: you really believe that you are the centre of the universe at that age. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hella useful to have a part of us who actually thinks he’s pretty awesome, given how many parts are convinced that they’re terrible.
James: But recognising that Tony is driven by yearning for intimacy, and can be overly sure of himself, has helped us to understand him better and to help him think about how he can channel those energies in ways that are safe-enough for the rest of us.
Beastie: We generally let him take our public-facing roles, which means him taking credit for all kinds of work that isn’t really his. We help him to understand that there are many ways of getting intimacy needs met to temper his hot love and fastlove tendencies. Given his narcissism, we put him in charge of our ‘look’.
James: Which is why we dress like a teenaged boy.
Beastie: Don’t worry prof, some day we’ll indulge your fetish for elbow patches and tweed.
James: Ahem. Going back to Tony, when his energy gets too hyper…
Beastie: We make him do the vacuuming. It is very helpful to have one hyper inner boy…
James: And another who wants to please us all by making us delicious meals.
Beastie: This has been a real theme since our last post James: finding the everyday tasks that each of us excel at and enjoy, so that we all get some time ‘fronting’ each day.
James: And the tasks that work well for each dyad, so that we nurture each relationship too.
Beastie: Like reading and blogging together in our case.
There’s definitely that sense in this book too that it’s important to keep checking in on all parts and giving them space. Janina suggests making sure that you ask inner children how they’re doing regularly, buying them soft toys, whatever it takes to let them know that they are held safe and heard.
James: The other aspect of locating our parts in the five Fs that we found useful is that it helps us to know which part a difficult feeling is coming from. Because we have one part who tends to feel all the feelings for everybody – out in the world and in here – we have often assumed that it is him who is feeling every tough feeling that we experience. But now we can remember that Fox’s fear and Tony’s yearning often lie underneath Jonathan’s struggles.
Beastie: Janina also points out that fight and flight are generally more teen parts, because those strategies develop in adolescence. That certainly makes sense of how we experience me and Max, and the period of our life that we associate with Max coming forward and me being cast out – because it wasn’t safe to be angry.
James: So now we can trace tough feelings back through you all. Recognising that the noise of fight or flight is often a response to the frantic hypervigilance of fawn, and that that may be triggered by those younger freeze or attach parts feeling frightened or desperately yearning for closeness.
5 parts, 7 parts, or more?
Beastie: So that’s five parts James, but what about you and Ara? You don’t get a mention here. And what about people who don’t experience their parts as five Fs?
James: So Janina refers to parts beyond the five Fs in several places. There can be further traumatised parts whose job it is to block progress, for example, or who carry the urge to self destruct or to give up. She also refers to a ‘getting on with normal life’ part who is the adult who can be brought into communication with all these parts. We’ll come back to them shortly.
Beastie: For us the way it works is that there’s a vivid experience of the five of us, and the two of you – James and Ara – who feel like parental parts. We used to think of it as two kids (Fox and Jonathan), three teens (me, Max, and Tony), and two ‘grownups’ (you and Ara). I guess Tony has shifted down to a kid, but the rest of that feels pretty accurate.
James: Mm but we did cling rather tightly to the idea of being seven for a while in ways that weren’t helpful. It meant that we didn’t want to engage with any experience or feeling that couldn’t clearly be located in one of the seven of us.
Beastie: The way we’ve loosened that is to recognise that each of us can manifest in multiple ways. Like sometimes we can be the aspects of us that we are now: like an adult aspect of each of us. But sometimes we can still feel the child aspect of each of us: who they were when things were hard. And sometimes we can feel a kind of pure form of each of our energies: like when I really connect with my rage.
James: We could say that each of us has an everyday aspect, a stuck/traumatised child aspect, perhaps also a shadow aspect and a sacred aspect: representing our worst and best potentials.
Beastie: So we might be seven, or twenty eight, depending on how you look at it.
James: For us it works best to mostly function as seven, but to be up for welcoming and listening to each of our aspects when they’re around.
Beastie: It all reminds us that it’s wise not to hold too tightly to any one model. Like the sense of us as the five Fs is very helpful, but it can equally be helpful to see us as more like the emotions in Inside Out (anger, fear, sadness, joy, shame, with peacefulness and powerfulness as the parents), or more like the five Buddha families when Ara’s getting our spiritual on.
James: We’re mostly hopeless geeks so we can spend a lot of time going down those rabbit-holes until we’re reminded that we’re meant to be following the feelings rather than spending all our time intellectualising.
Beastie: I don’t mind enabling your geeky habits every now and then prof.
Dual awareness rather than merging
James: Thank you. So another pivotal idea in Janina’s book is that when people feel swept into the trauma vortex they are merging, or blending, with their traumatised parts.
Beastie: This has helped us so much. Even though we understand ourselves as plural, when triggered we often experienced ourselves as purely whichever part was activated.
James: Most people do. You are just enraged, or terrified, or swamped with shame. It feels like the only possible reaction to what has happened. It feels like all that you are, and even all that you will ever be. And you are desperate to react out of that place: to lash out, to do something, or to disappear, for example.
Beastie: So what Janina is suggesting is that we cultivate the capacity to detach at such moments. Detaching is also helpful at the less intense moments when there are just flickers of such feelings rather than full on trauma responses. She calls this cultivating ‘dual awareness’ or ‘parallel processing’.
James: It’s a lot like the mindfulness idea that we can have an observing mind who is not caught up in the emotions, thoughts, or sensations. We’ve always struggled with actually doing that, but the plural piece made it all fall into place. If we see everything as messages from traumatised parts, we can absolutely experience ourselves as one part – who is calm and clear – holding another part – who is caught up or activated.
Beastie: Janina suggests that the ‘getting on with normal life’ part learns to hold the traumatised child parts. We do it a bit differently to that, as we’ll explain in a moment.
James: But this way of seeing things – that people have a tendency to merge or blend with their traumatised parts – is extremely useful in making sense of our hugely confusing experience of feeling simultaneously like a competent adult and a fragile child.
Beastie: I know right? In the midst of our post-traumatic stress time it could be extremely disorienting that we’d manage to go and facilitate a training for fifty people, and later that same day we’d meltdown over not having a safe-enough TV show to watch that evening. It was absolutely terrifying that sometime it might flip and a traumatised child part might show up when we were doing something ‘grownup’. A few times we had to get ourselves home fast when that happened.
James: Janina also explains imposter syndrome helpfully in this way. Our five F parts can feel so intense that we can come to mistrust the ‘reality’ of more bland ‘getting on with life’ parts: like they are the ones who must be unreal or fake, because we know that really we are this impossibly fragile person who can hardly function day-to-day.
Beastie: Mm, so when people accept their plurality they don’t have to get caught up worrying about which parts are real or fake. What a relief.
James: Janina says she likes the language of ‘parts’ because it’s what people already use in everyday language. It’s commonplace to say ‘a part of me feels… ‘ And putting it like that helps to create that distance – that dual awareness. ‘A part of me is scared to go out, and I can listen to his fears without imagining that he is all of me.’ Rather than ‘I feel a rush of terror, it must mean that I’m incapable of anything, and when I do seem capable that’s all a facade.’
The neurobiology of parts
Beastie: Let’s not get too much into the neurobiology of trauma here because you have already done a whole post about that, but we can understand all of this on that level: having parts associated with the 5 Fs, and dual awareness.
James: We can. And in fact that helps us to understand just how different each of us feels on an embodied level. We have wondered at that, as have those who we’ve been brave enough to allow to meet separately in person. We really do feel like different beings: bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker, tighter or looser: like our whole body seems to alter as we shift between parts.
Beastie: We always knew we were a shapeshifter! But that makes sense if we consider the way the nervous system is so different in those different trauma responses right? When we locate our parts in those responses then it makes complete sense that we’d experience our embodiment in very different ways.
James: Right, and the idea of dual awareness also makes sense on a neurobiological level. We are able to locate part of us – in Janina’s way of seeing things, the ‘getting on with normal life’ part – in the ‘rational’ brain, and whichever other part we’re dealing with in the ‘emotional brain’.
Beastie: I would still like us to read more about the neuroscience aspect of this, because some authors like Janina and Pat de Young talk about the left (rational) brain and the right (emotional) brain, while others like David Treleaven talk about the prefrontal cortex (rational) and the more mammalian/reptilian parts (emotional). And even then the rational/emotional binary is an oversimplified shorthand for more nuanced distinctions. But whatever the science, it fits our lived experience.
James: It does seem that attuning to traumatic emotional survival responses, and connecting them up to more analytic, task-oriented, modes is a key part of trauma recovery. And it is helpful that this whole way of seeing things lends legitimacy to experiences of plurality.
Beastie: Not that something should need a biological basis in order to be treated as legit of course James, I’m sure you’d never suggest that.
James: Fair criticism Beastie, of course it is all always biopsychosocial. I like when Janina says:
‘I can sense my medial prefrontal cortex is curious about the negative mood state connected to the right subcortical area of the brain’ doesn’t evoke the same emotional connection or self compassion as ‘I can sense in myself some curiosity about the depressed part’s sadness.’
Beastie: All of us – including you and me – could be seen as simply a shorthand for these physiological states, but that shorthand is extremely helpful when it comes to bringing compassion and understanding to what’s happening.
James: My physiological state is up for hanging out with your physiological state any time Beastie.
The ‘getting on with normal life’ part
Beastie: Heh what’s next? Oh yes, Janina’s idea of the ‘getting on with normal life’ part was a challenge for us, because we really don’t have a sense of such a part any more: a ‘Meg-John Barker’ who is separate from the rest of us. Our sense is that the part that ‘got on with normal life’ for most of our adulthood was Max, who is totally identified with flight. She’s the workaholic, overachiever who has been sent to the hammock while the rest of us figure out how to relate more kindly and consensually to our work!
James: Yes quite the challenge to read that we need a ‘getting on with normal life’ part, when we were so proud of ourselves for getting rid of any sense of having a leader, and working as a collective.
Beastie: I am also extreme side-eye to the word ‘normal’ in there.
James: Yes, and that would be one of our few criticisms of the book right? The lack of critical engagement with this concept of ‘normal life’ which people should be aspiring too, which looks suspiciously like that of the good neoliberal capitalist citizen.
Beastie: Going after a nice normal romantic partnership, a nine-to-five job, and all the goals that make a good successful singular self.
James: I don’t think that is quite what Janina is saying to be fair. The valid – and vital – point is that everybody, even the most traumatised people, have access to a part that can sometimes function in everyday life. Or at least that they could imagine what that might be like. And that is hugely helpful to access when you’re feeling utterly overwhelmed by trauma.
Beastie: Absolutely, no question. But I would like to challenge the sense that the best thing for that part to pursue is ‘normality’ in a world where ‘normality’ is leading us over the edge of a cliff. I would also challenge the sense that the ideal outcome is to appear in the world as a singular ‘getting on with normal life’ part, albeit one who is holding their much-loved inner children close and safe inside, having rescued them from their traumatised pasts.
The Fs and the Cs
James: I think that your comment right there demonstrates exactly what we’re about to say next. All of our ‘traumatised’ parts also hold potentials that are extremely helpful to us. It serves us better to regard each of the seven of us as holding both useful capacities, and particular struggles, rather than the ‘getting on with normal life’ part – whoever that may be – holding all the good stuff, and the other parts just holding trauma. The rage that you have brought to a couple of places in this conversation – and which you bring to our life more broadly – is immensely helpful in enabling us to see clearly when situations are not okay, and in setting boundaries and challenging harmful messages.
Beastie: Thanks, I try to bring the thunder in useful ways.
James: You do Beastie. It is very much appreciated. Again to be fair I don’t think that Janina is suggesting that there is no value in the traumatised parts. There’s a definite sense in there that once the traumatised parts have been befriended and brought home, we can draw on their energies in helpful ways: like encouraging confident parts to give the presentations, and the gentle parts to care for plants and animals. There’s a sense that the ‘getting on with normal life’ part might bring those parts forward for experiences they enjoy and excel at, and encourage them to stay away somewhere safe for things they find scary and triggering.
Beastie: But Janina does suggest that it is only the ‘getting on with normal life’ part who can access all of the ‘C’s.
James: Yes, this book is all about F words and C words, I am so very glad that Tony isn’t part of this conversation.
Beastie: Quite. The Cs are things like curiosity, creativity, compassion, confidence, connection, courage, clarity, commitment, calm. Janina locates those in the ‘rational’ brain of the ‘getting on with normal life’ part, but we have a different experience right?
James: Right. You made a table of it.
James: Oh I like that you found a more decent F for Tony.
Beastie: The main point is that we experience each of those Cs as being a capacity that one of us has more than the others. There’s a sense of each of us having a place where we get stuck, and a capacity which is our most helpful potential.
James: I like that you’ve found Fs for me and Ara. Even the parent parts have places they can get stuck.
Beastie: In our experience Ara’s main difficulty has been actually being available. She’s been the most elusive, hence ‘fade’. And you’ve struggled at those times when you haven’t been able to access your rational competence because a situation is beyond your comprehension or capacity.
James: Which feels like getting lost in the fog. Nicely put.
Beastie: So my alternative to Janina’s ‘getting on with normal life’ part vs. traumatised parts model would be to suggest that all parts have patterns they get stuck in (Fs), and potentials (Cs). Dual awareness, for us, involves finding a part – any part – who is in their C place, and bringing them in to listen to – and hold – the part who is their F place. Often it helps to go to a parental part as you are more consistently in your Cs, but it’s also helpful to mix it up so that all parts can experience their potentials when they have them.
James: It’s good Beastie. And I think there’s also a further layer where the Fs can have a cascade effect: one of us stuck in F can mean others go into their Fs too. But similarly, the more some of us access our Cs the more others can as well.
Beastie: Right. I’m just getting this. Like if Fox is frightened and we don’t notice, or try to ignore the flicker of fear, we often end up with Jonathan going into his hypervigilent fawn mode and trying to figure it all out, and me or Max getting caught up in noisy busy, shameful, or angry, thoughts about whatever-it-is. The whole system goes back to it’s old trauma mode, and it can feel harder to access you and Ara as you go into Fog and Fade.
James: But as we find our way through this trauma time, and Max relaxes, you feel clearer, we notice that suddenly Tony’s confidence is back, Fox’s creativity returns.
Beastie: Right now Fox is planning to write a whole plural graphic memoir so I’m guessing that’s a good sign.
James: I don’t want to say that Janina is definitely wrong about a ‘getting on with normal life’ part. It may well work for other people, and it may even be a better model for us someday. Certainly we find that remembering that we are capable of daily tasks – by moving into them for a while – can be a relief when the trauma is up but not overpowering. However I personally like the idea that each part of us can do that. And I like the empowering and equalising sense that we each have capacities as well as foibles.
Beastie: I thought ‘foible’ was a bit more friendly than ‘flaw’ or ‘fault’.
Check out the second blog post in this series to find out more about how you can work with plurality in this way in practice.
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Plural tag: This post was written by Beastie and James.