Story Characters as Aspects of the Self

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players… And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It, Shakespeare)

Many of us have experienced ourselves, at times, as not just one self but as different selves each wanting different things and sometimes competing for attention.  Subpersonality is a term that can be used to refer to these different aspects of the self which come to the fore in different situations and with which we may then become identified in the moment.

One particular subpersonality may come into play when we are at work, another when we are with our parent and yet another with a close friend. Sometimes the parts of ourselves that take over can seem to be outside our control leading us to make comments such as ‘I don’t know what came over me’ or ‘I just wasn’t myself’.  The subpersonalities that take over at these times are generally the ones of which we are least conscious. It can be interesting to try and name them- the Perfectionist, the Couch Potato, the Mischievous Child, the Heroine, the Mystic, the Materialist are some common ones that come to mind for myself.

Children also have a range of subpersonalities which come to the fore in different situations. They can behave and feel one way with their class-teacher, another with a supply teacher, another with their friends in the playground and yet another with their parents.  Anyone who has taught children with social, emotional, and mental health issues will also be familiar with how these children can change persona quite dramatically even without any obvious change of outer circumstances.  ‘They kicked off for no reason’ is a phrase I have often heard. However, there is always a reason for a child’s behaviour. It maybe that there is a stressful situation at home, they have fallen out with a friend or an unconscious memory/ association has been triggered.

One way for children to express the different aspects of themselves is through story: the angry dragon, the shy rabbit, the powerful warrior etc can allow them to play safely with aspects of their personality – not by stating them directly but through the oblique language of metaphor.

Supporting Pupils in Therapeutic Storywriting Groups

One of the particular skills that a Therapeutic Storywriting teacher needs to develop is to identify which characters in the child’s story are particularly pertinent to the child’s core sense of self and hence represent a significant subpersonality.  This will generally be the subpersonality that is causing difficulties in everyday life – either for the child or those around them. For examples of such stories see the case studies on our website.

Dr Trisha Waters   March 2024

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