The Concept of Self-States in Psychotherapy

Many people struggling with life difficulties find themselves as stuck in a fixed pattern of existence. The concept of self-states, however, can help people widen their experience of themselves to allow for greater self-awareness, self-acceptance and flexibility. Rather than seeing themselves as having a personality set in stone, people can see themselves as experiencing different self-states or distinct “modes of being” in response to particular situations for specific periods of time. Using the concept of fluid, temporary self-states can give you immeasurable flexibility and power to alter difficult-to-change behaviors. 

Helps Lead to Greater Self-Acceptance

To be human means to develop less-than-ideal strategies to avoid feelings associated with uncomfortable aspects of one’s personality. The concept of self-states makes it easier for people to examine what they might consider “less desirable” aspects of themselves without letting these aspects define who they are. Unfortunately, people often don’t appreciate how complex they really are—that they have different selves appear in different situations or even within the course of a therapy hour. All of your self-states are welcome and deserve a seat at the table.

Helps to Stay Connected with Desire to Change

Philip Bromberg, the psychoanalyst most often associated with the concept of self-states, writes that “health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them—the capacity to feel like oneself while being many.” Learning more adaptive coping responses requires the ability to tolerate the conflicting parts of oneself that want different things. By increasing your capacity to live with this conflict without seeking to end it prematurely, you start to make better decisions, no matter how elusive that may seem in the moment.

Helps to Understand Triggers

An important component of psychotherapy is identifying, exploring and understanding the self-states, or triggers, that precede acting on an urge. Boredom, for example, is a very common self-state that people experience prior to using drugs or engaging in out-of-control sexual behavior. It’s important to unpack the meaning of this self-state in therapy, observe it outside of therapy and begin to be curious about why it arises. This way you can develop some familiarity with this part of yourself, learn to predict when it might occur and develop alternative ways to manage this momentary experience.

Helps to Manage Uncomfortable Feelings

There's a good reason the saying "this too shall pass" has survived over the years. A model of the mind that includes multiple self-states is useful because it reminds us that self-states are fluid and therefore will pass. I will often suggest that the next time someone has an urge to make an impulsive decision or take a rash action, to observe how long the urge state lasts without giving into their sudden emotional trigger. One of the simplest and hardest concepts to grasp in successfully changing fixed patterns of behavior is the idea that uncomfortable feelings will pass!