NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

How Your Shifting Self States Can Affect You For Better or Worse

I have discussed self states in prior articles (see my articles: Understanding the Different Aspects of Yourself That Make You Who You AreParts Work in Therapy: Is a Split Off Part of Yourself Running Your Life?Learning to Nurture Your Inner Child, and Experiencing Your Future Self: The Self You Want to Become.  In this article, I'm focusing on how your self states shift in various ways and how you can use these shifting self states to feel more confident and resilient.

How Shifting Self States Can Affect You For Better or Worse

What Are Shifting Self States?
As I discussed in a prior article, even though people tend to think of themselves as unitary beings, in fact, everyone has a multiplicity of selves or self states.

Self states are on a continuum.  For the purposes of this article, when I refer to self states, I'm not referring to multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder, which is a diagnosis on the far end of the spectrum of self states.  I'm referring to everyone's common experience of different aspects of themselves.

The reason why people aren't usually conscious of these self states is because a particular self state usually predominates at any given time and the other self states tend to recede.

So, the self states tend to shift in a barely perceptible way, and this is a common phenomenon for everyone.

An Example of a Shifting Self State
Andy was feeling confident in himself as he approached the theatre where he was about to audition.  He had practiced his lines with his acting coach, and he really felt he understood the role and how to approach it.  His acting coach told him that this part was made for Andy, and he encouraged Andy to go to the audition.

How Shifting Self States Can Affect You For Better or Worse

But just before he went on stage to recite the lines from the play, Andy remembered the first time that his mother came to see him in a play and how critical she was afterwards.  She told him that his performance was the worst thing she had ever seen and she advised him against an acting career.

Whereas Andy had been walking with his head up, chest out, and whistling a tune before he got to the theatre, when he remembered what his mother said, his demeanor changed to reflect the shift in his self state:  He looked down at the ground, his posture was slightly hunched and all he could think about was that he wasn't going to pass the audition.

Discussion About the Example of a Shifting Self State
In the fictional example above, Andy was feeling confident in himself initially.  He received positive feedback from his acting coach and he felt and projected his confidence.  At that point, Andy was in a particular self state where he felt sure of himself.

But when he thought about the negative comments that his mother made to him, his self state shifted without Andy realizing it.  He no longer felt confident and this was reflected in his inner sense of self as well as in his body language and outer presentation.  This switch in self states was unconscious--it happened outside of Andy's awareness.

How to Use Shifting Self States to Enhance Your Sense of Self
As a trauma therapist, I assist clients with internal and external resourcing as part of the preparation for doing trauma work.

One way to do internal resourcing, which I often use, is called imaginal interweaves as developed by Laurel Parnell, Ph.D. (see my article: Developing a More Resilient Self in Therapy).

Imaginal interweaves are a tool to help clients to feel confident, lovable and other positive aspects by imagining powerful, nurturing and wise figures.  These figures can be people that clients know or they can be from books, movies, TV programs or other fictional characters.  They can also be superheroes if this feels meaningful to the client.

The kind of imaginal interweaves that clients choose depend upon the negative beliefs that they have about themselves.  For example, if they have a particular self state that predominates that makes them feel they're "unlovable," they will choose imaginal interweaves that will help them to feel the opposite--that they're lovable (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

If I'm using EMDR Therapy, I would use this particular modality's bilateral stimulation (eye movements or tapping) to reinforce these imaginal interweaves so that they are amplified for the client (i.e., the client can feel these interweaves as self states within themselves).

Another therapeutic resourcing tool I use before processing psychological trauma is asking clients to remember times when they felt confident (as in the fictional example above where Andy remembered his experience with his acting coach).

Usually, I recommend that clients bring in at least 10 or so positive memories when they felt good about themselves and I use bilateral stimulation to reinforce these self states.

Then, when we're processing the traumatic experience, if the client needs these internal resources because s/he is having difficulty in the processing, we can call upon these imaginal interweaves or positive memories to help the client to shift self states so we can resume processing.

For the person who isn't in therapy, s/he can also become aware of shifting self states.  Admittedly, this isn't easy because the shifts usually happen so imperceptibly.  It will take some time and effort to recall experiences where it happened in the past (as in the fictional example above) and making an effort to recognize it when it occurs in the present.

How Your Shifting Self States Can Affect You For Better or Worse

In his book, Awakening the Dreamer, Philip Bromberg gives an examples of shifting self states. According to Bromberg, researchers did a study using the game "Trivial Pursuit" where they told one group to imagine themselves as professors, and they told the other group to imagine themselves as "soccer hooligans" (the term used in the book) before they answered questions from "Trivial Pursuit."  The group that imagined themselves as professors did far better than the group that imagined themselves as "soccer hooligans."

The participants who imagined themselves to be professors and took on that self state are similar to my fictional example of Andy who initially was confident when his self state was connected to the memory of the encouragement he received from his acting coach.  This self state was reflected in his confident internal sense of self as well as in his overall demeanor.  Similar to the group who thought of themselves as professors, this was Andy's confident self state in that moment.

As I mentioned earlier, this is only the preparation stage of working through trauma in psychotherapy, but it is a powerful part of the work that can help to overcome obstacles when the trauma is being processed in therapy.

Unfortunately, most people tend to unconsciously concentrate on negative images and memories of themselves which shifts them into a negative self state.  But, with practice, you can also learn to focus on positive images and memories.

Self states are usually unconscious and difficult to perceive in the moment.  They're easier to detect retrospectively.

Shifting self states are even more difficult to detect.  However, once you become aware that everyone has shifting self states, you can begin to focus on become sensitized to the particular self state that you're in and how your self states switch.

When you become aware of the shifting self states and realize that you can use your imagination with positive memories from your life or imaginal figures, you can try to switch your self state.

Getting Help in Therapy
There are people who have experienced serious traumatic events in their lives where it has become too difficult to overcome a predominant negative self state.

When this occurs, this is not about a "weakness" or any other type of deficit.  It just means that the traumatic experiences were so overwhelming that they dominate the individual's life and they need to be processed in therapy.

If you are struggling with unresolved trauma, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from working with a trauma-informed psychotherapist who can help you to overcome the trauma (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Working through unresolved trauma can free you from your traumatic history so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.  

I tend to integrate various forms of therapy depending upon the particular needs of each client (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I have helped many clients to overcome psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.