At the relative level of our everyday embodied lives the Voice Dialogue model of the psyche can be very useful. It can help us make sense of why we feel and behave the way we do.
Over the years I have written several essays explaining the application of Voice Dialogue to different areas of our lives:
Many more examples can be found in my book: Selves in Action
When we are in a relationship an interesting question arises: which parts of us are involved with which parts of our partner? Perhaps we have some parts that want to be in the relationship while others are trying to sabotage it. As a result it can sometimes be very difficult to maintain the connection between us. This article will explore why opposites often attract and why we tend to repeat the same patterns of interaction with different partners. It will also address judgement and the roots of conflict and set out a blueprint for healthy partnering.
Life would be so easy if we were always of one mind. The reality is that we are all made up of many minds or selves. We can recognise this in such statements as: “A part of me really feels very attracted to him/her. Another part of me thinks I should be careful not to get too involved.” These selves develop as we grow up in our particular family and society. They have us behave in ways that keep us safe and get our needs met. For example we might develop a part of us that has us be nice to other people, always putting their needs first (a Pleaser self); or one that has us work hard and be successful (a Pusher self). These protecting selves become our default ways of behaving in life - who we think “we are”.
Why opposites often attract
In order to be identified with these protector selves we have to hide away or disown their opposites. To be nice to other people all the time we have to bury the part of us that would put our needs first (an Entitled self); or to be a hard working, successful person we have to bury the part of us that would kick back and do nothing (an Easy Going self). Although these selves are buried they have not gone away. When we fall in love we see some of them on display in the other person and find them very attractive. Our partner complements us and together we feel whole and complete.
Judgement and the roots of conflict
Relationship is in fact a dance of these different selves between two people. This dance can be exciting, mesmerising and exhilarating when everything is going well. We are swept off our feet, high as a kite, on cloud nine. The Child selves in us feel nourished and nurtured by our partner as if by a caring parent. We can be silly, cuddly, sweet and adoring. Our partner is there for us and we can rest trustingly into each other’s arms.
This idyllic state can last for some time, but sooner or later the stresses and strains of life will intervene. Sickness, financial problems, the arrival of a baby, work issues, tiredness and other every day events can cause us to feel vulnerable. The Child selves in us don’t feel so safe. If we are unaware of this or don’t feel comfortable sharing our vulnerabilities with our partner, things can turn sour.
In this situation, the selves that protect us come strongly back into play. Through the eyes of these selves we look at our partner and find them lacking. Those aspects of their personality that so attracted us don’t seem so cute and endearing after all. Instead of admiring their sense of entitlement we judge them as “selfish!” Instead of marvelling at their ability to chill and relax they now appear “lazy!” Whether spoken or silent, these judgements and counter judgements from our partner’s protecting selves - “You just let people walk all over you!”, “You are a workaholic!” - are very painful and can leave the Child selves feeling bruised, battered and wanting out. The caring, loving parent our partner represented has turned into a withdrawn or judgemental one and the promise of someone who will love, care and honour us seems broken.
Recurring patterns in relationships
Maybe we make up or maybe we walk out and end the relationship. One thing is sure: if we don’t learn the lessons inherent in such conflicts we are doomed to repeat them again and again - either with the same partner or with a new one.
So what are the lessons?
First is to acknowledge that the selves that we end up judging in our partner are in fact our own buried selves. An old Chinese proverb says that when we point the finger of judgement, blame or condemnation at another person there are three fingers pointing back to us. We have to learn how to embrace these buried aspects of our personality and find the gift they can bring us.
The questions to ask are, “What is it that I am judging in my partner that is actually a buried part of myself? What benefit would it be to me if I could bring a little bit of this buried self into my life?” For example, if we can embrace our buried Entitled self we will be able to set boundaries clearly and say no to the demands of others when appropriate. If we can embrace our own buried Easy Going self, then we will find time to relax and not be so driven.
Second is to acknowledge when we are feeling vulnerable and take more conscious care of our vulnerable Child selves instead of expecting our partner to do it for us. No one can take care of us all the time. Such an unrealistic expectation, abdicating our own responsibility for ourselves, will inevitably end in tears.
The questions here are, “Where and why am I feeling vulnerable? What can I do to take care of my vulnerability?” This might mean sharing with our partner how we are really feeling, or maybe taking time out to be quiet and on our own. Getting conscious about this is a big part of creating a successful relationship.
Having become clear about which parts of us are reacting to our partner, the next step is to communicate this clearly. For example: “A part of me is happy to take care of everything around the house. Another part of me is angry and thinks it’s unfair and that you should pull your weight.” Or, “A young, vulnerable part of me feels unnoticed when I get home tired from work and you are on the phone to your friends for so long.” When we can talk with awareness of the different selves like this we avoid the trap of making each other all good or all bad.
It is important to set time aside in our busy schedules to have these conversations, a time where we can step back from the demands of daily life, sit down and really connect with each other. This is the time to share what the different parts of us think and feel about such things as finances, who does what around the house, home projects, major purchases, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, the laundry, etc. If they are not addressed, these mundane things can easily become the ammunition we fire at our partner when we get into conflicts: “And another thing! You always leave your clothes lying around and never put the top back on the toothpaste!!”
Margaret and Jeremy had both been married before. Margaret had three children from her first marriage and Jeremy was finding his role as stepfather very stressful - especially with her eldest son, 12 year old Nigel. He was missing his birth father had become very rebellious. He confronted Jeremy at every turn and took every opportunity to be contradictory and disobedient.
Jeremy was an easy going, path-of-least-resistance kind of guy, liberal in his attitude and non-confrontational. Margaret, on the other hand, was organised and structured. She set clear rules for the household and made sure that they were followed. When Jeremy and Margaret first met and fell in love these opposite ways of being weren’t a problem for them. Margaret adored the way Jeremy could just kick back and roll with whatever life threw at him. And Jeremy admired the way Margaret could plan and get things done.
This was fine until Nigel’s behaviour began to impact their relationship. The more Nigel goaded and taunted him, the more inadequate and vulnerable Jeremy felt. Margaret was also feeling vulnerable. She worried that her son was spiralling out of control and accused Jeremy of letting Nigel “walk all over him”. This stung Jeremy and he hit back, branding her a “control freak”. They decided to do a Voice Dialogue session around this increasingly aggravating issue to try and understand which parts of them were engaging with each other.
The facilitator first spoke to Margaret’s Controller self. This energy that had developed when Margaret was young to help her take care of her five younger siblings. Her father had been a high-ranking naval officer and her mother had found it difficult to cope when he was away at sea for long periods. The Controller said it took its values from her father – discipline, structure and obedience. It had developed to bring order to a family that would otherwise have been scarily chaotic for Margaret. Jeremy’s relaxed attitude to life was anathema to this part of Margaret.
Next Jeremy’s Non-Confrontational self was invited to speak. It explained that Jeremy was the youngest in his family. It had developed to shield Jeremy from his father who repeatedly told him he was not good enough and would never amount to anything. It helped him handle this negativity by having him switch off, zone out and just go with the flow. “Whatever!” was its mantra. Margaret’s organised and disciplined self was threatening to its way of protecting Jeremy. This part definitely did not think it was Jeremy’s responsibility to control Margaret’s son!
Having heard from these powerful, protecting selves the facilitator then helped Margaret and Jeremy access their more buried selves - her disowned Non-Confrontational self and his disowned Controller self. They were each encouraged to take a little of their disowned energy on board and see how this might influence the dynamic between themselves and with Nigel.
As they acknowledged and embraced the different selves, they became less judgemental and were able to co-create new approaches. Margaret decided to be less controlling of Nigel’s behaviour and Jeremy was able to set and enforce clearer boundaries. As a consequence, Nigel calmed down and the family became more harmonious.
Relationships are the context in which we can learn about our selves, grow and develop as individuals. Conflicts in relationships will never go away. There will always be lessons to be learned about our buried selves and about our vulnerabilities.
Awareness of the many selves involved in the dance of relationship is the bedrock of healthy partnering. The more we are able to acknowledge and embrace the different selves that emerge within relationships, the richer and more fulfilling life becomes.
A Pusher, Pleaser, Romantic, Perfectionist….. we are all made up of many different parts or selves each with their particular rules about how we should live our lives. The dominant ones try their best to keep us safe and protect our vulnerability. Among them, the Inner Critic has an important role. It acts to enforce the rules of our dominant selves by sounding in our head whenever we act or think in ways that would contravene them. Although the voice of our Inner Critic can often feel painful, it is in fact trying to help us by making sure we behave in ways that will get the appropriate attention, approval and affection of others. If we can understand its motivation and listen to it objectively, our Inner Critic can become our friend and an intelligent, perceptive and supportive partner in our lives.
It never stops, that voice in our heads. It has our ear when we stand on the bathroom scales or look in the mirror: “You should lose weight!” it says, “You need to do something about those wrinkles; your hair is a mess!” There are times when nothing we do seems good enough for it: “You should work harder!” “You don’t rest enough!” “You will never be perfect!!” Meet your Inner Critic!
Where does it come from?
Our Inner Critic develops early on in our lives. Its job is to act as a kind of internal policeman. It enforces the rules of the dominant or “primary” parts of our personality that are responsible for running our lives and keeping us safe in the world.
These primary selves help us adapt to the particular family and social system we are born into. We learn very quickly which behaviours are acceptable to the adults around us and which will incur their disapproval and judgement. For example, if we grow up in a family where we are expected to be good little boys or girls all the time and put the needs of other people first, the chances are that we will develop a strong Pleaser self. Its rule is “always be nice to others.” It will try its hardest to make sure we behave appropriately. It knows that if we do not, our parents or teachers will be upset with us and may even punish us. This will make us feel very vulnerable.
The underlying anxiety of our Inner Critic
Our Inner Critic remembers the pain and shame of having the adults around us withdraw their approval and affection. Its underlying anxiety is that we will be judged and rejected. It fears we will be alone, disliked and unloved and so it tries everything in its power to have us follow the rules of our primary selves and tow the line. Its aim is to ensure that our core vulnerability is protected.
If we even think about defying the rules of our Pleaser and putting our own needs first it will shout in our heads that we are being “selfish!” If we have a strong Pusher self that wants us to work hard and pass our exams to please our parents, it will tell us that we are “lazy!” when we kick back and relax too much. The negatives of our Inner Critic very often mirror those of our actual parents and teachers when they judge us for not following their rules. “You should be more tidy”, “You should be on time”, “You should show more respect.” It is easy to see why “should” is one of our Inner Critic’s favourite words - sometimes whispered sotto voce, sometimes bellowed full force.
As we grow older, more and more pressures are brought to bear on us about how we “should” behave. Adverts set the standard for how we should look, what we should wear, how we should smell, what we should eat, how we should relax. Films show us the perfect male and female physiques, the perfect way to kiss and make love, the perfect romantic relationship we should have. Personal development programmes exhort us to be more sensitive, more assertive, more sensual, more aware. The standards are set so high and there are so many rules to follow, it’s little wonder that our Inner Critics are in a constant state of anxiety and becoming ever more powerful.
At its most powerful, the voice of the Inner Critic can seem like the voice of God. When out of control it can wreak havoc with our feelings of self-confidence. It can make us feel inferior, incapable and inadequate. In the worst case its nagging voice can lead to despair, depression and even suicide.
How our Inner Critic tries to protect us
The voice of our Inner Critic can sometimes feel like a continual hammering in our heads. At other times, it can be so quiet - like a background hum - that we hardly notice it. One technique it often uses is to have us obsess about a perceived mistake we have made. It will run and rerun a video in our heads of the actions that we have or haven’t done, or words that we have or haven’t said, and make us squirm internally with embarrassment. Our mistakes will be put under the microscope and magnified out of all proportion. Remember, the purpose of this is to make sure we always behave in ways that will keep us safe. Our Inner Critic will do whatever is necessary to get us to follow the rules of our primary protecting selves, no matter how painful that might seem to us.
To be self-critical is felt to be less painful than being criticised by someone else. It is a form of self-defence, a kind of pre-emptive strike. If we can say “I’m so stupid!” or, “Oh I know how bad I was,” or, “I am hopeless at doing that,” it helps to shield us against the external slings and arrows of those who would judge us.
Building a working relationship with our Inner Critic
Since we can never get rid of our Inner Critic (drinking, drugs or other distracting behaviours only offer temporarily respite) the best way to proceed is to build a working relationship with it. There are four steps:
For example, our Inner Critic might be telling us that we are too fat and that we should go on a diet, join a gym and lose weight. In this case it is attempting to enforce the rules of the part of us that thinks we should always look slim and fit - the Physical Perfectionist. The anxiety behind this is that if we get too fat, people won’t like us and might even ignore or ridicule us. This would touch those parts of us that feel inadequate and insecure - something our Inner Critic wants to avoid at all costs!
It is impossible to love ourselves until we can unhook from our Inner Critic. Separating from our Inner Critic enables us to listen to it objectively, understand its concerns and choose whether or not to act on its imperatives. The more we can embrace and care for the vulnerable parts of our personality that our Inner Critic is trying its best to help protect, the less it will be driven to do this for us.
As we take more conscious charge of our vulnerability we can begin to view our Inner Critic with compassion, respect the job it has been trying to do, and even be thankful for the light it has shone on aspects of our personalities that hitherto we might have been unaware of.
As this happens, its voice becomes less strident and absolute. Instead of our foe, our Inner Critic can transform into a trusted adviser and friend - an intelligent, perceptive and supportive partner in our lives.
Meeting an Inner Critic using the Voice Dialogue prcess
One way of getting to know and understand our Inner Critic is to allow it to speak directly. In the late 1970’s groundbreaking therapists Drs Hal and Sidra Stone, developed a process that enables us to give voice to the different parts of our personality, or selves. Called Voice Dialogue, it provides an effective tool for developing a healthy relationship with selves like our Pusher, Pleaser, Perfectionist - or Inner Critic.
The form is quite simple. The facilitator sits opposite the client and asks them to move their chair to a place in the room where a particular self - in this case the Inner Critic - feels most comfortable to speak. The facilitator then interviews this part in a totally accepting and non-judgemental way. Here is an example with a client called Mary.
Facilitator (Fac): “Hello, do you have a sense of who you are?”
Mary: “Yes, I’m the Critic. My job is to criticise her.”
Fac: “I’m pleased to meet you. Have you been doing this job for a long time?”
Mary: “Ever since she was a very little girl. I took over from her parents.”
Fac: “Really? Were they critical of her?”
Mary: “Yes, especially her mother. There are lots of rules to follow and I make sure she follows them!”
Fac: “It sounds like a very important job. What kind of things do you criticise her for?”
Mary: “The list is very long!”
Fac: “I’d be interested to hear the top five.”
Mary: “Only five when there are so many? OK. She is basically ugly. She’s too short, her nose is too long and her ears too big. She should pay more attention to her appearance and the clothes she wears - they are old and unfashionable. She looks ridiculous. She’s getting old. She’s lazy and should work harder. She says stupid things and should think before opening her mouth. She’s forgetful. She’s selfish and should care more for others. She’s really a fake and someday everyone will see it…..”
Fac: “Wow, you have a big job to do! Does it take a lot of energy?”
Mary: “Lots. I’m on her case 24/7.”
Fac: “That’s amazing. What would happen if you weren’t around doing this great job of criticising her?”
Mary: “She’d be a basket case and she’d be laughed at. No one would love her and she’d be alone in the world.”
Fac: “Does she appreciate what you do for her?”
Mary: “No. In fact, to be honest, I don’t do such a great job. I should be more critical of her and make sure she listens to me and acts on what I tell her.”
It becomes clear that Mary’s Critic is working overtime to try and have her look and behave in ways that will be acceptable to people around her. Her Critic’s ongoing anxiety is that she will be unloved and alone. The rules about how to do this have been inherited from her parents. In Mary’s case her Critic is trying to enforce the worldview of her Pusher, Physical Perfectionist, Pleaser and Rational Mind. The Critic’s intentions are honourable but its methods feel painful. Notice that it is even critical of its own performance!
The facilitator’s skill lies in helping the client experience fully and then separate from a self. After talking to her Critic the facilitator asked Mary to move her chair back to where she started the session. From there, with some space between her and her Critic, Mary could begin to objectify it and develop a relationship with it. She could then start to appreciate the job it was trying to do for her.
It must be stressed that Voice Dialogue is not a technique for getting rid of any part of us. Rather, it is a natural and inclusive process that enables us to respect and embrace all of our many selves without making any of them wrong. Each part has a gift to bring us - including our Inner Critic.
For thousands of years people have believed that dreams contain important messages from the unconscious sent to guide both the individual and the group. It is therefore no surprise that current scientific research shows dreaming to be as necessary to our psychological and physiological wellbeing as exercise and a healthy diet.
How to remember your dreams
Your attitude towards dreams affects your ability to remember them. “It was only a dream,” is a common expression used to dismiss dreams as being of no importance. If dreams hold no value for you why would you want to remember them? On the other hand, seeing dreams as friends or teachers - there to guide and inform you - encourages your unconscious mind to generate ever richer and more vivid imagery. The more positive attention you pay to your dreams the more you will be able to remember.
There are several practical things you can do to help you remember your dreams:
If you read books about dreams it lets your unconscious know that they are important to you. You are then more likely to recall them. Telling yourself before you go to sleep that you are going to dream that night can also help. The more you train yourself, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.
How to work with your dreams
Taking your dreams seriously allows you to work with them in a variety of ways. Here are a few suggestions:
Keep a dream diary. Write the dream out as fully as possible. As you do this other fragments may emerge. Give the dream a title. Write down any interpretations or associations you might have with the dream story, characters or imagery. Note down your feelings about the dream - feelings you had during the dream and feelings you have as you write and reflect on it. Reviewing past dreams from time to time allows new insights to appear.
Share your dreams with partners and friends. Describe the dream as it happened rather than trying to interpret it. Give your listener the flavour of it rather than the analysis of it. Just sharing your dreams with others in this way can deepen your personal connection with them. If you are asked to comment on someone’s dream, rather than making definitive or absolute statements about it, use a phrase like, “If this were my dream this is what I would think about.”
Elaborate on your dream. Draw or paint the characters and objects in your dream. Make a clay representation of some character or aspect of your dream. Go back into your dream and allow your imagination to take it forward. What might have happened next if you hadn’t woken up?
Dreams and the psychology of selves
The theory of the Psychology of Selves says that your psyche is made up of many different parts or selves. You can recognise this in such expressions as, “A part of me feels quite disturbed by the dream I had last night, but another part of me thinks I’m stupid for letting it bother me.”
As you grow up you are encouraged to embrace the selves that align with the norms of your particular family and culture. These are called Primary Selves. For example there is the self that might have you work hard to please your parents and teachers - a Pusher; or the self that has you be logical and reasonable - the Rational Mind. To identify with them you have to hide away the opposite selves - in this case the Easy Going and Emotional selves. These are called Disowned Selves.
When you sleep your selves show up in your dreams. All the characters and objects, the landscapes and actions that feature in your dreams represent different parts of your psyche - both Primary and Disowned. Understanding what they have to tell you can greatly impact your waking lives - helping you deal with issues and showing you a way forward in your personal development.
Voice Dialogue and dream work
The Voice Dialogue technique enables you to talk to your different dream selves directly, hear their concerns, and find out what they want and need from you. Let’s say in a dream you are being chased by a lion. You feel terrified and run away, climbing up a tree to escape. On a branch of the tree you see a monkey laughing.
All the characters in the dream - the “you”, the lion, the monkey and even the tree have information for you. In a Voice Dialogue session you can find out what each of the dream characters have to say. The facilitator will first ask to talk to the “you” in the dream - this will usually be a Primary Self. When speaking as that voice, you may find out that it is, for example, your Pusher self that has you work hard. You discover that it is a very powerful force in your life and keeps you safe by ensuring that you earn enough money to live and get approval from your family and friends.
Next, if it feels appropriate, the facilitator could ask to speak to the lion. As a general rule, whatever it is that is chasing us in our dreams represents a disowned self. Here the lion may be the part of you that is easy going, doesn’t like to work all the time and wants to kick back and chill out. It never gets a look in and is a bit angry and frustrated by this - that’s why it is chasing you. It just wants you to notice it and to listen when it tells you that if you don’t ease up and relax you will get sick.
The facilitator might also speak to the monkey and as a result you find out that this is a detached and playful part of you that thinks life shouldn’t be taken so seriously and is laughing at the drama of you being chased by the lion.
Speaking as your dream characters in this way gives you the awareness and the opportunity to embrace and consciously integrate different aspects of your personality and find the gifts that they bring.
Themes and motifs
It can sometimes be helpful to generalise about the meaning of dream images. For example: cars can represent the way we move through life (fast, slow, in control, out of control); houses - our situation in life (big, small, things hidden in the attic, basement); water - our emotions (flowing freely, held back, deep, shallow); falling - we are too up in our heads or too spiritual (from high buildings, towers, mountain tops); cataclysms - very basic changes in our life (earthquakes, volcanoes, nuclear war).
However, dream images are very personal and often when you do a Voice Dialogue session the meaning of the dream turns out to be very different from what your rational, logical mind might analyse it to be. An interesting question to ask is “who is interpreting this dream?” Your Rational Mind will interpret it one way, your Spiritual self another and your Sceptic yet another! Speaking directly to each dream character circumvents these kinds of biased interpretations.
Recurring themes and motifs in dreams usually mean that you are ignoring something in your life that you should be addressing. Nightmares can indicate that some aspect of your psyche is being disowned or deeply buried. This is what is going on when children have nightmares about being chased by monsters, spiders, bad people, etc. These dream images are the aspects of their personalities that they are having to suppress in the socialisation process. So, for example, if their family wants them to be a pleasing, good little boy or girl, then the monster that chases them will represent the selfish, uncaring part of their personality which has to be buried in order for them fit in to their family and culture.
A treasure trove
Dreams give you accurate, non-judgmental feedback and impartial guidance about how you are living your life. They show you where you are stuck and how to get unstuck; where you are out of balance and how to get back into balance; what aspects of your personality you are disowning and how to embrace them. Once you learn how to decode your dreams, you have a treasure trove of information and wisdom relayed to you nightly.