In Bridges this week we talked about how to start the process of working out what was going on if you are a multiple. This can be a challenging process for a number of reasons. The biggest is simply that most people coming to grips with this situation find the discovery they are sharing their life with other parts very confronting. Denial can slow down the process of learning more about yourself, and so can the emotional shock of making these kinds of discoveries. Multiplicity is a very individual construct, it develops out of an intersection of two entirely unique factors – the environment the person was in as a child, with the specific challenges that posed, and the unique personality and skill sets the child possessed. The result is rather like the formation of a snowflake – no two are alike!
In all the literature I’ve read, I’ve come across three basic ways that multiples tend to learn more about themselves, more specific than the general ideas for building self awareness. ‘System mapping’ refers to learning what parts are in your system. (please translate to your preferred language – inner family, tribe etc.) Method one is to gather information internally. You might ask inside for parts to identify themselves. This is a great approach if your system tends to talk internally and you hear their voices. You may not even need to ask, you may have known for years that there’s an older male voice and a little girls’ voice and a harsh angry voice. You can start to note down the details you have and add in information as you collect it. I do recommend finding a safe place to note down your system map, considering that the information is very emotionally charged and you are prone to dissociation, it’s likely you’ll have difficulty remembering it.
You might start off with only a tiny bit of information and then add to it as your dialogue grows – the older male voice may tell you he hates reading, he’s close to your brother, and his favourite food is hot Indian curry. You can start to build more complete profiles of who’s in your system and what skills they have. Skill sets can be useful to identify as it’s common to have them broken up and distributed among a system. Someone may have financial skills, another is very nurturing and parental, someone else loves boats… Identifying the roles parts have played can also help in understanding how you all work. Sometimes there’s parts who don’t seem to have any skills, or who seem really depressed and overwhelmed. These parts are often still playing vital roles within the system (although they may not feel that way), they may be preserving characteristics such as hope or innocence, or they may be containing distress, feeling shame, misery, or despair to protect the other members of the system from those experiences. Some people find their parts communicate through dreams, so listening to your dreams can also be a way of learning about them.
A second way of starting a system map is to gather information externally. I’ve read of people starting a journal and inviting all their parts to introduce themselves in it. I’ve also come across people tacking a piece of paper to their door or having a whiteboard on which is written ‘Who are you?’ so that as different parts come out, they add whatever details they know and are comfortable with sharing to the list. Some systems have parts who already have names for themselves. Some have parts where 7 all thought they were ‘Kylie’ and are all startled to discover the other 6. Some choose to name themselves once they understand they are multiple. Some identify themselves by a role such as ‘the driver’ or a title, such as ‘the sad one’. Some, especially younger parts, get confused or play games and use more than one name. Some refuse to use names at all. It can take a while to work everything out!
Different parts in a system may have different levels of awareness, or co-consciousness, of each other. So, for example, imagine a system with three parts, Mary, Sally and Greg. Mary may not be aware of either of the others, Sally may only be aware of Mary, and Greg may be aware of them both. Sometimes a useful strategy is to ask everyone in the system to write down who they are aware of and what they know about the system, and then start combining all the individual maps to create a master map. Sometimes there’s one member of a system who keeps track of everyone and once they are happy to share their knowledge, you have a good idea of what is going on for you. Another way to try and start the process of system mapping externally is to construct a timeline and try to identify who turned up at what age. It’s not uncommon for new parts to turn up to manage a new challenge or environment, such as starting school, and that can be a useful way to track the development of a system. Sometimes you can chart your system using photographs or handwriting – you might not yet know which part does that really small neat handwriting, but you can pin down that they first turned up in high school, that they’re not very good academically but love to write creative stories, and that they disappeared for several years in the mid nineties. This can be a good start!
A third way to learn more about your system is from feedback from other people. Sometimes parts are unable or unwilling to engage internally or to identify themselves through the written word. You may be able to map your system by tracking responses from other people. Some people find their parts refuse to talk with them but chat with their therapist or a friend, and the therapist can start the system map or you can catch up on what’s going on for other parts with your friend. Others can deduce based on what they don’t know or remember – you never remember catching up with Holly and her friends but she thinks you’re great – sounds like you might have a hippie part. You never remember turning up to work but you get a paycheck every week and no complaints – sounds like you might have a part who’s good at sales. You bust up every relationship just after starting to get physically close to the other person but never remember doing that – sounds like you have a part who doesn’t cope well with sex. You lose hours every time you have to go past a toy store. Welcome to child parts!
Multiple systems are often geared to hide information. Multiplicity can be a great survival strategy, but if detected can actually leave someone more vulnerable to exploitation. Also, as you learn about the parts in your system, you can’t help but learn about the roles they’ve played, the memories they carry, and other information you may find painful at times. Your system may have been set up precisely to compartmentalise this material so you’re not overwhelmed by it. So try to be patient if your system is blocking all your efforts to learn about it! You might have to do a lot of coaxing and encouraging that it’s safe and you’re trustworthy.
Systems are not always static either. Some systems are highly fluid and in flux, with parts appearing and disappearing all the time. This tends to suggest a person under high stress who feels in chronic danger. System mapping in such a situation is fairly pointless, the highest need is settle the distress and restore some sense of safety and control. Some parts may move between different ages from day to day, which can make them difficult to identify at first. Some may have very strange ideas about who they are, which is often rooted in childhood beliefs about what would keep them safe, profoundly negative self concepts, or reflect spiritual beliefs. Multiplicity becomes a lot less strange seeming when you remember it was ‘built’ by a child. Try not to panic about what you discover, just like anyone else, multiples can change, grow, and adapt. It’s also not uncommon for some parts to hide away, deeply buried, and remain undetected for a long time, so try not to be too surprised or discouraged if you think you’ve worked out your whole system map and later discover an addition to the family.
Don’t feel like you have to choose just one approach to mapping your system, cobble together any information from whatever sources you have available to you. Take your time, be gentle with yourself, and good luck. 🙂
Edit: Mapping your system isn’t always a helpful approach – please see the comments for a great alternative perspective!