Our “self” consists of multiple subpersonalities – internal parts of our individuality that we may or may not be aware of. If any of these subpersonalities cannot manifest outwardly because they do not find a suitable social role for themselves, then we are more likely to become tired and burn out faster. How can you tell which “self” is suffering? And how can you help it? Leonid Krol explains in his book “Life Without Burnout: How to Maintain Emotional Stability and Take Care of Yourself” (“Alpina Publisher”, 2023).
SUBPERSONALITIES AND SOCIAL ROLES
The term “subpersonality” is widely used in the field of psychotherapy, such as psychosynthesis, introduced by Italian psychotherapist Roberto Assagioli. We can notice manifestations of our subpersonalities when we engage in internal dialogue, argue with ourselves, sometimes out loud; when we suddenly split in situations of important decisions, for example, into “Alenushka” (cautioning not to drink from the goat’s track) and “Ivanushka” (insisting on drinking from the track because of unbearable thirst).
I enjoy comparing sub-personalities to characters from fairy tales that live within us simultaneously. Ideally, if we live with all our sub-personalities, each one can participate in our lives by expressing themselves in one or more social roles. Roles give sub-personalities the opportunity to show themselves and come out; it’s how we express ourselves and the reactions we get to our expressions.
It’s important to understand the difference between sub-personalities and social roles.
Sub-personalities are “parts of us,” “different versions of ourselves” that exist within us, even when we’re alone. We may not be familiar with some of them, while others we may love and use frequently. Social roles, as I mentioned, are the manifestation of sub-personalities in external life with other people.
For example, Dmitry has a sub-personality that can be called “Wizard.” This sub-personality loves everything funny, unusual, and amazing. Dmitry’s “Wizard” can play tricks, surprise and delight people. This sub-personality is manifested in the social role of “Sunday dad,” when Dmitry takes children for walks and invents interesting games and quests, and in the social role of “life of the party”: when Dmitry appears at his friends’ gatherings, the atmosphere immediately livens up. (Of course, Dmitry has other sub-personalities, and he doesn’t necessarily behave with children and friends in only these ways. For example, in the role of dad, his “charismatic leader” sub-personality may also come out, who is obeyed from the first word.)
The risk of burnout increases when any sub-personality does not find a suitable role for itself.
For example, Dmitry gets a job with strict regulations and management where he doesn’t even have the opportunity to occasionally amuse or surprise those around him. He is required to perform his tasks precisely, and anything outside of that is considered a violation. Dmitry can use his other sub-personalities, but the “wizard” will have to find roles outside of work hours.
In principle, this is perfectly acceptable. However, the “wizard” sub-personality is important to Dmitry, and it will seek opportunities to express itself not only as a father and a friend. Therefore, if its manifestations at work are not welcomed at all, and the atmosphere in the team is always formal and indifferent, Dmitry will burn out faster. It is much better if the relationships within the team allow Dmitry to exchange a couple of jokes with colleagues once an hour – this will not make him work worse, but better.
HOW PEOPLE BURN OUT DUE TO INCONSISTENCY BETWEEN SUBPERSONALITIES AND ROLES
Let’s consider two concrete examples of how people burn out due to a conflict between subpersonalities and roles, and think about what can be done about it.
- Little Girl and Mom
Lena works in the office of a company that combines many types of activities: an advertising agency, a publishing house, and a conference organizer. Lena herself also performs a variety of tasks. Her schedule involves constant communication: with colleagues, clients, and company partners. According to common opinion, Lena copes wonderfully. She is known as the “good fairy” of the agency, having worked there for over ten years since its inception. Fragile and light, smiling Lena finds a common language with anyone. She doesn’t have a separate office, her workplace is located so that anyone can come up and talk, ask questions, give orders, or discuss something. Everyone is used to this – including Lena herself.
But when Lena comes home, she falls powerless. She often has a headache. Lena has no strength left for her favorite hobbies. She refuses to move in with her longtime partner, although he often proposes marriage to her, and she is afraid to even think about having children. We have come to the conclusion that Lena is tired of people. She is burning out from her work, despite the fact that she loves it.
In our sessions, we identified two of Lena’s subpersonalities.
One of them is the “beloved little girl.” Lena was the youngest child in the family, and everyone spoiled her, and she made everyone happy, which was effortless for her. “Little girl” can afford to joke and fool around a bit, everyone loves her just because she exists. Being a cute “little girl” is pleasant, it gives freedom and security, a feeling of warmth and acceptance from those around her. Lena is quick, short, and slender, with mischievous curls, and often smiles. At first glance, the “beloved little girl” subpersonality found an excellent social role in Lena’s work. Everyone loves her, and she tirelessly flits around here and there.
Lena’s second sub-personality is the “common mother.” Lena is a sensitive and emotionally mature person who enjoys taking care of others, seeing other people’s desires and needs, and finding a balance between them. This sub-personality plays a major social role in her work.
Lena bears a great responsibility, primarily emotional, as she connects people in the team, prevents conflicts and misunderstandings, and the effectiveness of interactions between different departments depends on her mediation. Lena cannot relax for a moment.
It turns out that the sub-personalities of “little girl” and “mother” do not play the social roles in which they can fully manifest themselves, but rather those that are convenient for others.
The “little girl” cannot be capricious, and the “mother” should not look too adult and tired. This duality of Lena’s role at work also leads to burnout: “you must be sweet and easy-going for everyone – and at the same time remain a common support.”
Note that no one is to blame in this situation. Lena herself took on these roles, and the team willingly agreed for her to combine them. She likes both: being the common favorite, receiving compliments, feeling young and energetic for socializing; and being indispensable, the person on whom everything relies.
The reason for what is happening is that Lena is very afraid of being alone. The work team has become a kind of family for her, in which she is both a “daughter” and a “mother” at the same time. Because of this, she overworks, gets very tired, and does not have the energy for any other life outside of work. Therefore, there is no desire to create her own family: unconsciously, Lena feels that she already has one family and enough care.
A similar conflict of sub-personalities and roles may have deep underlying causes rooted in past experiences. However, our goal was to understand what was happening here and now, and this doesn’t always require delving into the past. Lena and I worked on her current issues, which bordered on the external and internal factors of burnout. Here’s what we did.
Acknowledging her fears
Lena realized that she was afraid of loneliness and rejection and subconsciously believed that she had to be indispensable. Therefore, she was afraid to talk to her colleagues about overwork and working conditions because they would be disappointed if they found out that she wasn’t just “Lena the Sunshine”.
When she finally made up her mind, her colleagues unexpectedly (to her) began offering her other, less taxing formats for their relationship. It turned out that they had long noticed that Lena was not feeling very well and became concerned. Following a conversation with the manager, a separate office was allocated to Lena. New job instructions related to Lena’s responsibilities were communicated to the team, making it easier for her colleagues to understand where the boundaries lay.
Different sub-personalities require different roles — that is, different behaviors, different outward manifestations. If you’re a “little girl,” you can be capricious and extravagant. And if you’re a “mom,” you don’t necessarily have to smile and flutter around all the time, it’s enough to simply take care (including taking care of yourself).
I suggested to Lena to be more aware of which of her sub-personalities is currently “on stage.” For example, Lena enjoys moments when she drinks coffee with her colleagues, jokes around, and solves some problems along the way. At this time, she is the “little girl,” can be coquettish, show off her bag, and tell a joke. For most of the working day, Lena is the “mom.” This means that she can leave the office door open—for taking care of the team, or close it if she wants to focus on work.
In addition, when transitioning from one role to another, it is worth taking breaks, like an actor who first takes off one costume and then puts on another. Lena (and all of us) also need time to change and adjust. Burnout arises precisely because tensions of different roles mix and accumulate, without finding a way out. When transitioning to a role where the sub-personality “mom” is involved, you can stretch and say to yourself (or out loud) something like, “Well, I’m going to lead now.” When starting a role where the sub-personality “little girl” is involved, you can shake yourself and do a few dance moves in front of the mirror. The main thing is to release the tension and bodily features of the previous role before moving on to the next one.
These techniques helped Lena stop burning out and get more pleasure from work and life. In addition, Lena maintained a relationship with her partner, and soon they will have a real little girl.
2.Confused, angry, diligent
Konstantin was born in a small mining town with a high crime rate. He grew up in a semi-criminal environment, where he was accustomed to solving everything with force. In addition, his father died when Konstantin was still a teenager, and his mother relied on him as an adult assistant (the family also had two younger sisters).
As a child, Konstantin often felt both the responsibility for his family and the insecurity, helplessness, and fear. After serving in the army, Konstantin got a job in a supermarket and made a career from the bottom up. He is now thirty-two, and to further advance his career, he needs to obtain a higher education degree. Konstantin finds it difficult to study, he feels like a stranger among “these smart guys,” he feels confused, angry, and wants to “send everything to hell.”
Kostya has several subpersonalities, including “confused,” “angry and aggressive, able to stand up for himself,” and “hardworking.”
In stressful situations, the first two become active. Kostya feels weak and unsure of himself but cannot ask for support because he has no experience doing so. In his childhood, he had no one to ask and had to cope on his own. Direct aggression no longer helps Kostya because the problems he faces cannot be solved with fists (as they could be in the playground or in the army).
Currently, Kostya’s only social role is that of the “hardworking” subpersonality. This is the role of a promising, hopeful, ambitious worker who is ready to study successfully. However, since the first two subpersonalities are idle, and the social role is very complex (it is difficult for Kostya to learn, and he is not as successful as he would like), he becomes tired and burnt out.
We see a conflict between Kostya’s roles and subpersonalities. His aggressive subpersonality allowed him to break through, but now there are no roles for it to fill. This happens because Kostya cannot constructively transform his aggression: he can either turn it into an immediate reaction (a hit or verbal abuse) or suppress it altogether. In his new environment, hitting and arguing are not acceptable, so Kostya does not use his aggression and cannot draw the energy he needs from it to develop.
The same is true for the “confused teenager” subpersonality: it cannot find a suitable social role. When he was growing up, weakness could cost him dearly, and he had to hide it. Kostya has no experience of constructive weakness when a person seeks and finds help from others.
Exit strategy for Kostya – learning to find roles for his sub-personalities.
Asking for help and support
Currently, Kostya is learning. In these conditions, he can openly express his lack of understanding, go to the teacher, and ask for a little more attention. It’s also perfectly fine for him to occasionally ask his classmates for some clarification during the seminar. More communication means less self-sufficiency. The “confused” sub-personality finds its social role as a “seeking student,” and this role is liked by others because it assumes the reciprocal role of a “wise mentor.” Name me a person who would refuse to spend half a minute in the role of a teacher, explaining an unfamiliar word or a logical connection.
Learning to transform the energy of aggression without resorting to immediate reactions
In simpler terms, when getting angry – not hitting, but also not suppressing the desire to strike, but doing something else instead. What will Konstantin do in moments that used to require him to hit someone but now force him to suppress his emotions? Kostya needs to find his own role for his “aggressive” sub-personality that is unique to him. There are many ways to package civilized expressions of aggression, and they vary for different people. For example, using irony, speaking softer and more distinctively, clenching fists in pockets, or strategizing to come up with a winning combination to gain the upper hand.
How to Identify Your Subpersonalities and Roles
To better understand what subpersonalities you have and whether everyone in your life has social roles, I suggest you try the exercise “All of My ‘Selves’ – by Roles!”
Imagine that you are going to audition for different roles in the new Hollywood blockbuster “Cinderella.” You will play Cinderella, the stepmother, the fairy godmother, the two stepsisters, the prince, and, if you wish, Cinderella’s father and the mouse coachman.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down all these roles in a column. Next to each one, put a colon and write down 4-5 qualities that you will demonstrate in the role of each character. In my experience, everyone’s characters turn out to be very different. For example:
- “Cinderella: modest, diligent, charming, smiling.”
- “Cinderella: cheerful, sincere, impulsive, passionate.”
- “Cinderella: talented, resourceful, quick, grateful.”
The first Cinderella was created by a client who really wants to be good. One of his subpersonalities is immediately apparent – the one who cleans very well and expects a reward for it: a secret invitation to the ball from the king. The second Cinderella is the subpersonality of another client who values her emotions, wants to act spontaneously, and believes that it will help her succeed (but unfortunately, this subpersonality is not yet sufficiently expressed).
The third Cinderella is the most interesting: she is the intelligent servant, Figaro in a skirt, who does not wait for favors from the fairy, but achieves her own and grabs luck by the tail. One of the important qualities of such a Cinderella, which is accurately noted, is gratitude: in all fairy tales, the hero must be able to thank the forces that helped him. This subpersonality belongs to a woman who, by the age of fifty, has lived in four different countries, owns a large cosmetics company, and is married to a man much younger than her.
The princes are very different as well (especially since we know very little about him from the fairy tale):
- “Prince: shy, intelligent, caring, perceptive” (A woman from an IT company, with developed empathy and a sense of humor. Her subpersonality is highly valued by her colleagues.)
- “Prince: thoughtful, perfection-seeking, philosophical, cold, detached” (A very young man – the son of a powerful father who is trying to make an important life choice for him. This subpersonality allows him to evade his father and preserve himself.)
- “Prince: cheerful, frivolous, fickle, adventurous” (This prince is described by a seventy-year-old scientist who sometimes wants to be a boy at a ball.)
So you have written down the qualities of all the characters. Don’t forget about the stepdaughters: secondary characters can often be very expressive. You can say that you have an approximate, conditional description of your subpersonalities. It doesn’t matter if there are five or ten of them: there is no and should not be any final truth here. We are drawing a map with an arbitrary level of detail. The point is to look inside. Thinking through even 3-5 characters can give you a lot.
It is impossible to say exactly what our subpersonalities are really like. Their nature is such that they are only visible indirectly. Usually, our subpersonalities hide behind the masks of our social roles, and we rarely notice them directly, especially those for which roles were not found. But if you analyze the characters of any fairy tale, book, or movie in the manner described by me, the resulting “casting” will describe your subpersonalities quite well.
A fairy tale is a system in which there are different characters, and how you make them depends on your set of sub-personalities.
The fairy tale helps you see them better through a playful description of the characters, and then see how these sub-personalities relate to your own life, whether you have the ability to be a “haughty prince.” If someone becomes interested in the process and finds many sub-personalities, it will simply be a more complete description of different sides of their “self.” You can use not only “Cinderella,” but also “Harry Potter,” myths of Ancient Greece, or your favorite TV series. But it is important that the characters are different: main and secondary, heroes and villains, not just those you like.
Now, looking at each of the characters, reflect on whether there is a place for them in your life. Where and how can you be a powerful stepmother who wants to forcibly do good to everyone (or a haughty stepmother who doesn’t care about anything but money)? Do not judge the characters. Just ask yourself: are there suitable roles for each of the sub-personalities in my life? And if not, where could these roles be found? What can I change to give a voice to those characters who are currently forced to remain silent? The fairy tale becomes one of the possible models that help “capture” the voices of our sub-personalities and understand how they can manifest outwardly.
The exercises I propose increase emotional awareness, allow you to think about different options for situations that have occurred in your life, about different ways to react to difficulties, and different life choices. The process of completing them contributes to understanding how to avoid or reduce your individual burnout.