There’s a lot of new terms to learn when you’re engaging the wonderful world of multiplicity, because in some ways multiples function very differently. Some of these terms are clinical, which basically means invented by shrinks and doctors, and some have come into use through books and autobiographies written by multiples. One of the trickiest aspects of language is that it is not fixed – shades of meaning evolve over time. With a fairly ‘new’ lexicon like that around multiplicity, this is even more the case, and as admin of a large online group, I’m constantly surprised by the new terms or new meanings ascribed to terms I come across. Most people have a fairly idiosyncratic take on language and it’s often helpful to double check what they mean when they use a certain word. Having said that, there’s also value in having dictionaries of definitions to help us communicate with each other, particularly for those who are new to the topic and can feel bewildered by the terms being thrown around. For more common terms and discussion about language see Language, definitions, and common terms over at the DI.
Co-fronting or co-hosting refers to a process where more than one part is out, inhabiting the body at the same time. I’ve personally experienced this, the first time I was aware of it, it was a very strange moment. A sense of shared space slowly dawned on me, and with the awareness came a sense of something precariously balanced that would quickly collapse if I thought about it too much or had too strong a reaction to it. “I” was talking to someone who was struggling with a difficult situation. That tends to be my area, I have the counselling/listening skills and inclination. So the face, the voice, the mouth, the eye contact were all mine as I interacted with this person. However, we were also making dinner at the time. Someone else was doing that – moving hands to chop vegetables, borrowing eyes to read the recipe and use a knife and stove safely. We coexisted for about 20 minutes and then one of us went inside and the other took over completely. It was startling and surprisingly graceful.
I’ve had other experiences such as having an adult out while a distressed child takes over the hands to scratch at raw skin, or being able to soothe that child by asking Rose to gently stroke our hands.
There’s a similar term that means something a little different – co-consciousness. That refers to more than one part being aware of what’s going on in the body/the outside world at the same time. The opposite process of co-consciousness is amnesia, where only the part who is out is creating memories of what they are doing. Everyone else in a system may be sleeping/unconscious, talking with each other, or doing other things in an internal world. They may or may not be aware time is passing. They may be fighting for control of the body, but they are not sharing it. Awareness without any control of the body can be helpful or frankly traumatising, depending on the circumstances. For more about this see What is co-consciousness?
Systems vary widely in their experiences of multiplicity, something I can never seem to say enough. For some parts, when they are not ‘out’ in the body they may have no awareness, or total co-consciousness. Some systems have never experienced co-fronting, while others do it all the time. It can be as simple as one part running the body and cleaning the house and another part quickly reaching out with a hand to snatch to safety an item of value that would otherwise wind up in the trash. To some extent, we all do things with our bodies that are outside of our awareness at times – body language is full of examples of this where our feelings or impulses are expressed through escape movements, muscle tension, micro-expressions, and subtle cues we are frightened, aroused, bored, or resentful. Consciousness, identity, and awareness are all complicated and interesting aspects of the human experience, and it’s certainly not just multiples who have experiences outside of their perception of control and volition – although the scale of those experiences can be much more confronting and intense.
To discuss co-fronting we are also getting into the territory of how switching between parts works for various systems. For some, switching is instantaneous as blinking, while others take a long time. (for more about switching, see Rapid switching) Some don’t so much co-front with two separate selves as blend between selves in ‘switches’ that can take hours or days to resolve to a single part. Some systems experience ‘blending’ or ‘merging’ where two or more parts come together for periods of time and function in a unified way before separating out again. This can be highly productive or sometimes totally the reverse – periods of blending or temporary integration can be times of chaos, dysfunction, confusion, and exhaustion. (for more about this, see What’s the deal with integration?) I know people with multiplicity at both ends of that spectrum – some for whom they are never stronger and clearer than when their A Team has got together, and others who are foggy to the point of barely coherent and shut down for days when their system gets stuck with more than one part blended. For some systems both outcomes are possible at different times or under different circumstances.
The topic of co-fronting raises interesting questions about how parts relate to the body. The multiplicity lingo tends to be borrowed from the old ideas of a ‘brain/body’ split where there is a difference between existing in the mind and inhabiting the body. It gets very interesting when you start to wonder about things like – where do parts come from, and where do they go when they are not ‘out’? How is conscious awareness different from bodily awareness? What are parts, exactly? I’m fascinated by the way we explore these ideas so little in the literature and make such sweeping declarations about how this all works. The reason these questions are so difficult to answer is that we don’t have the answers for non-multiples either. We don’t know how consciousness works, how self awareness and identity interact. How a single sense of self is created from a multitude of brain processes occurring simultaneously. How memory, emotion, and perception overlap and impact decision making processes. We have theories and observations and big gaps in our knowledge base. Every year we learn more and more about our brains, and every new bit of information challenges an existing idea in some way. As nice as certainty can be, it’s not really how science and knowledge work. In the meantime however, finding language to describe experiences and exploring how we are all similar and different is a powerful aspect of learning, connecting, growing, and living deeply.