States, sub-personalities and the self

This is an extract from my book “Developmental Coaching”

So to clarify and recap, the levels of consciousness can be seen as relatively stable ‘structures’ that tend to endure over time and then, if all goes well, evolve into higher order structures or levels. At each of these levels exists a series of ways for adapting to life. These adaptations are ways for the individual to manage themselves when they have a certain structure of consciousness. But what has not been considered are the states, emotions and feelings that may be present, and from that, what a person actually feels. These states are different to emotions, but it is from them that emotional states come. Some states can be described as background states such as an aching back, or a general pleasant state of the body. These can be exhilarated states as much as they could be depressed ones; bu if we enter into a more depressed state that lasts, we are going to find that our performance is reduced. Often, we don’t return ‘that important call’, we don’t persist at moving towards our goals, and we are generally not consistent in our efforts. On the other hand, it is when we enter states that are well motivated and focused that people have the most optimal states – there is a higher level of commitment and enthusiasm for the direction that the person has chosen. As the self is complex, there is not just one state that we reside in – the state can change dependent on circumstance. So, in this session we work with the coachee to make them more aware of the states they tend to be accessing day to day.

Interestingly, the personality often has many states within it that are at different levels of consciousness, and many are included within ‘as if’, ‘what if?’ and ‘what what if?’ In the same way that adaptations are related to levels of consciousness, states also have an intimate developmental relationship. This is important for the Developmental Coach, as the support offered to the coachee is more appropriately directed if the state of the coachee is understood – in other words, you need to know where they are coming from. Even though it is a temporary state rather than a level of consciousness/stage of development, the coach can help the individual move into a better state. So in the short term the coach can support the coachee and aid their movement within a level. In the longer term the coach will help the individual move between levels through the methods we have already discussed- “holding” them over time and using the techniques from earlier sessions. In the session itself it can be so powerful and so effective to get them to shift state. This is common throughout many coaching methodologies – the coach gets into a positive emotional state themselves and “drives” the state of the coachee. This can be done by accident as well. As it happens, when I am coaching (or generally chatting with people) I get highly energised. This tends to be infectious.

There are also particular states called “sub personalities” that can often hijack the self and reduce our competencies and abilities. This concept is something else for you to add into your coaching toolbox, especially when you relate it to this stage in Developmental Coaching. The coachee may well be ready to start looking at this principle even though it could be a little odd! These sub-personalities are states appearing as bits of the self at different levels and arise when the move through the developmental spiral is uneven, i.e. aspects of the self may be at a lower stage of development. If these are relatively cohesive states they will show up as sub personalities – facets of the person, but at a lower developmental stage. Makes sense? For instance, if a person falls into a ‘miserable child state’ that lasts for ten minutes, this is likely to be a sub personality. These lesser personalities can be from any level of consciousness and Wilber says they can be known as “parent ego state, child ego state, adult ego state, topdog, underdog, conscience, ego ideal, idealised ego, false self, authentic self, real self, harsh critic, superego, libidinous self, and so on.” Assuming that there is no serious mental health problem (such as multiple personality disorder), then the movement into any of these states is quite natural. They come, hang around for a while and then go again. These sub personalities show up as “different vocal or subvocal voices in one’s inner dialogue” and may also appear with certain associated feelings. For the coachee, however, they may find this gives them a feeling of being ‘all over the place’. For them, the hijacking by one of these states may not make it easy for them to have the life they choose. As these mini-selves are at lower levels of consciousness, they also have the lower level adaptations as well. This can lead the coachee to behave in less than optimal ways when they are ‘under the influence’, i.e. instead of acting at their normal level of adaptation, they drift downwards, utilising the more primitive ways to cope. A person may have the ability to access ‘what if?’ thinking but actually be collapsing into states that are at the ‘as if’ or ‘pre as if’ level.

In the Developmental Coaching context, the idea of states can be seen a) a way of “jollying someone along, as I mentioned and b) more comprehensively as bringing together these parts of the self so the higher order (in this case the self at the ‘what if?’ level) is more consistent. Author and trainer Michael Hall’s work on states and meta-states is a lovely guide to this realm and deals specifically with how changing the way we relate to our states can improve our lives. Check it out for his views as well.


Working with states

If there is something we consider to be a normal ‘self’, then the sub personalities are pilots that take over at the wheel temporarily – it may be a temper tantrum, a patch of low self-esteem or a feeling of superiority that invades into consciousness for a time before falling back into the depths once more. From the outside, this may seem strange as the person could move through quite an array of states with relative fluidity. From the inside, and without an appreciation of what is happening, this fluidity may make the individual feel like this is perfectly normal – it’s ‘just how they are’.

Despite saying that this is a normal phenomenon, it may be that it causes concern to the coachee. If so, and seeing Developmental Coaching as a vehicle to doing so, the coachee can “bring awareness to bear on these sub personalities, thus objectifying them, and thus including them in a more compassionate embrace” (Wilber).  In the same way as dealing with releasing the grip of certain neurotic adaptations, the coachee can see through the sub personality and in this process can ‘have it’ instead of ‘being had by it’. This way, and over time, the sub personality will be integrated into a more complete sense of self, and the personality come from a more stable centre rather than shifting from state to state. As this requires the coachee to ‘see through’, it is a degree of self-reflective consciousness that is likely to need at least ‘what if?’ thinking, but more likely ‘full what if?’ thinking. In other words, they need to make the leap to self-authoring their world. This is when the individual can objectify their internal world of feelings and emotions. Through the process of integrating the sub personalities, the person is encouraging this move into ‘full what if?’ thinking. In this way, the coach can aid the coachee transform their level of consciousness. This has been my own experience with many clients and has usually made a significant difference to their lives.

The process one undergoes to integrate these ‘bits of the self’ is relatively straightforward for the coachee. By noticing that they have drifted into a sub personality, they have already taken awareness beyond the act of being in that sub personality state. This means that the person is no longer just in the state, but aware that they are in the state. This is a ‘meta’ position to that state whereby the person has gone beyond the state and made it into an object. The self that then sees the state as something other than him or herself is freed from acting as if in that state. It is this observation and non acting that allows the integration process to occur. The energy of the sub personality is dissipated as the individual notices and remains noticing instead of acting them out. You will find early stages of many meditative techniques will encourage this process, especially those focused on concentration practices whereby the individual dis-embeds themselves and “sits back” as an observer to those mental objects. Once they can sit with a degree of comfort without getting “caught up in it all” then they can begin to simply be aware of what is happening.

As coach you may choose to encourage this reflection process. As the coachee observes without action, they will see, hear and feel what is occurring in their mind. This witnessing process greatly aids everything being ‘bought together’. It might, however, be a challenge to witness in this way as it requires the ability to disembed from the workings of one’s mind (a ‘full what if?’ function). If so, the coachee might find that a form of formal concentration practice to steady their ability to concentrate (this could be focus on the breath, or counting without losing the thread) will help focus the mind. I hasten to add that this is not really meditation (but has similarities with very early stages of meditation practice), but is just a way for the coachee to ‘see through’ more easily. The ability to concentrate without being absorbed into these states is an indication that they are being integrated. It is even likely that it will become a game for the coachee who is able to spot the sub personalities in themselves as there is considerable freedom associated with the process of integration. Over time this non-action will lead to them being greatly freed; and it will also lead to a more integral feeling. However, if a person continues to find they drift into the states, i.e. the states hijack them, then more concentration practice is needed.


Feelings and emotions

Emotions, in contrast to feelings, are ‘displayed’. This means that from the outside a person can see that they are in a certain emotional state. This is done as both a voluntary and involuntary response, and includes the emotional states of happiness, joy, frustration, confusion, indifference, excitement, anger, boredom, curiosity, bliss etc.

In coaching we often look at supporting someone through a certain challenge and this support is actually a support for the way the person is feeling. When there is trust in a relationship, a person will open up ‘how they feel’. This opening up about their feelings is quite different to the emotional response and outward display of that emotion. The feeling may describe a bodily state, such as ‘I feel a discomfort in my leg’ or ‘I feel an ache in my head’ or a mental representation ‘I feel light’. This is much more an indication of what is happening internally for the coachee, i.e. they have a location in the body (in the chest, abdomen etc) and will vary in intensity. Sometimes, when these feelings have been pushed away, it will be necessary to reconnect to these feelings and bring the mind and body together once more (as mentioned in healing the mind-body split).

If the coachee can describe feelings of pleasure and pain to you, the relationship takes on new meaning – they are sharing the intimacy of their subjective experience, not just showing an outward sign. You can choose to share how you feel too; and it is this reciprocation that aids the deepening of the relationship. Further, when the coachee is able to know the feeling, they can create space around it. This creation of space (as we have mentioned) leads to the feelings being made objects, or putting it simply, they become something other than ‘I’. When a person can talk about their inner experience and how they ‘feel’ about, let’s say, a goal, it will help determine whether they are likely to achieve, or stop themselves achieving it.


In terms of application areas, you will have experienced asking someone ‘How are you?’ and had them give the polite response of ‘I am fine.’ But this is often not the case. This default response can be hiding away feelings that would be better recognised. ‘How do you feel?’ will point a coachee in the direction of their internal experience. And it is through the acknowledgement and working through of feelings that they can best integrate their experiences.

An example of a health problem is when the coachee does not look at their feelings but represses them instead. If these feelings are left unaccepted, they can turn against the body’s immune system and in time cause ill health.

Furthermore, by understanding that sub-personalities may well ‘run the show’ for short periods, we can see that rash judgements may well be taken during these periods. In a business context, a sub personality that is determined to be the underdog may well mean the business ‘will never work’, merely in order to satisfy that sub personality. If a coach can notice that even when the business is going well, a member of the team is determined to satisfy the needs of this sub personality, then appropriate action can be taken. Helping the coachee see through their sub personality (and maybe the coachee catching themselves just about to enter into this state) and focus on satisfying the more inclusive and greater encompassing needs of the rest of the personality may help them abate the sub personality’s affect.

If a person can integrate their sub personalities, it can have a positive affect on relationships. Sub personalities are often triggered because they have associated circumstances, such as a dispute with a partner. If the coachee is unaware of the sub personality, the pattern of behaviour is likely to continue. If the coach brings the awareness of sub personalities to the coachee’s attention (maybe through reading), the coachee may begin to see how the sub personality plays a key part in the interaction going the way it does and in time, the coachee may choose to integrate this part of themselves, thereby freeing themselves from that old response.


The self

So far we have discussed Developmental Coaching in relation to many different areas, including lines of development, levels of development and adaptations, and states (including sub personalities). What has not fully been recognised is the thing that binds these all together. Who is actually going on this developmental journey? There is a ‘self’ that moves through the lines and levels and experiences the states. This self is very much what you call ‘you’. The self is responsible for taking the leaps and for releasing from earlier developmental stages; it is a determining factor in achieving a certain level of performance; it brings together experience so it can be integrated; it utilises its defences to stabilise a level. In other words, the self is a kind of navigator that keeps everything flowing, and it is this self that we focus on next. I find that this allows the coachee during this session to “grasp” a little more and regularly I see a light bulb appear at this point. I like to reassure them that, in terms of the main theory of Developmental Coaching we are well on the way there! That let’s them know much of the theory, at least, has been covered and now it is about the self putting it all to good use. There is still a little more, of course, we do have two more sessions to go through, but as I say, it is good to let them know how far we have come.

So now we will run through six characteristics of the self:



This is what a person considers to be ‘I’ as opposed to ‘me’.

Most people consider what they are in terms of their occupation or role, e.g. a manager, therapist, mother, father etc. These you would call ‘me’. But there is a sense of self that observes this called ‘I’. This ‘I’ is the subject, and the ‘me’ aspects are objects – there is a seer (I) and there is the seen (me).



Wilber says in Transformations of Consciousness that the self ‘gives (or attempts to give) unity to the mind’, in other words it ‘organises’.



The self has the ability to choose its options. However, these options are present only at the self’s current level of consciousness.

For instance, the self cannot choose to form hypotheses (what if? thinking) if is only operating at ‘as if?’. The individual’s choices, options and free will are limited by this.



The adaptations and defences are within the self. (Coachees often find this reassuring as they can fit the pieces together even more.)



Experiences are metabolised (or digested) by the self.

For instance, if experiences were food, then when a past experience is not fully metabolised and integrated, they will tend to give heartburn. This shows up as ‘bits of the self’ that exist at a lower level, and includes sub personalities. (Again, coachees often go…’Ahhh!’)



The self is responsible for ‘letting go’ or ‘holding on to’ the individual’s current level. It is through the letting go process that the self can move on.


As the self moves through the levels, it is dis-identifying with the previous level – what it considered to be ‘I’ at one level becomes ‘me’ at the next. So there is a ‘movement over’ from the subject (I) to it being an object (me). Understanding this helps us to identify how ‘seeing through’ what we once were, frees us from it. In relation to some of the adaptations and sub-personalities, this process of the ‘I’ subsequently being seen as the ‘me’ is the essence of human development. Relating it back to the levels of consciousness (‘as if’, ‘what if?’, ‘full what if’ and ‘what what if?’) at each stage this process is occurring – the self moves into an object position (i.e. it can be seen as ‘other’ than itself) what it previously identified with being itself. As coach, aiding this ‘seeing’ or ‘witnessing’ process of each stage, instead of the coachee acting within that stage, will help them move on. For instance, if a person can reflect on their thoughts, feelings and emotions, this is a movement towards a ‘full what if?’ level and away from the previous ‘what if?’ level where these thoughts and feelings made up the person’s self. If someone no longer just operates in several contexts, but begins to find a relationship between the contexts, there is a movement towards ‘what what if?’ thinking (i.e. dialectical). So, what we were previously identified with at the previous stage becomes seen as something other than ourselves.

The self-structure also gives rise to the self sense that determines our internal conceptions of competency. People that consider they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills are driven to perform accordingly. This relates back to the earlier session. I use this to remind people not to forget about competencies even though we are taking a lot of time to discuss development.

Overall, if experiences are metabolised well, it will help to increase the unity of mind – if the experiences are not metabolised and integrated, the personality can be fractious. From a coaching perspective, the aim is to bring together the personality into a more stable self that is capable of navigating life without being held back. This principle of a freedom to navigate is essential to grasp. If the coachee is burdened by less than optimal adaptations (such as Stage II’s immature defences) and less than healthy self-images, it is likely their life will be hugely challenging. This is because their defences are likely to override their ‘will’ element and as a result, the options realistically open to them will be limited, i.e. the intentional needs will be overridden by the adaptive needs, as discussed. For a coach, seeing the development of this picture of the coachee and of where they are at, you can decide how best to assist.


In the book so far, I have been laying the foundations of Developmental Coaching. It has been my intention to give an overview of the most essential aspects of the theory, but orienting it towards coaching as much as possible. The next sessions will have a strong focus on application, so if you are after tangible “skills” for your sessions then that should well do the trick. In real terms, with the coachee, I find this session will enable deeper conversations about “themselves”. You will have truly built the relationship as well as looking at the theory and how to use the models. They will tell you their “real feelings” about their goals and you will be able to broaden your horizons as the navigator opens up more of their inner worlds.