What are primary selves and disowned selves?

The selves are central building blocks of the psyche. They originally were referred to as sub-personalities. In recent times they are also referred to as energy patterns. So far as we are concerned all are proper names though at this point we are more comfortable with “selves” and “energy patterns.”

We grow up in family systems that are constantly reacting to us and teaching us things from the moment we are born. We are also exposed to influences from the larger family system, the religious teachings, the teachers at school, and the values of our culture. The "primary selves" are the selves that we identify with and that define who we are, how we think, and how we behave in our lives. They are also the way we define ourselves to the world.

These primary selves may change at different times in our life but they basically develop to help us to be successful in the world. When we use the word “I” we are referring to the primary selves or self-system.

The disowned selves are the selves that are pushed down or repressed by the primary system. "Disowned Selves" is a term first used by Nathaniel Brandon who was, at that time, referring to what we see as one group of disowned selves, those that carried the rejected emotional lives of people.

This is how it works. If a family values the mind as the most important part of living, then one usually grows up with the mind as a primary self. As it gets stronger, the mind suppresses the development of selves that are opposite to it - such as imagination and vulnerability. The selves that would express vulnerability or imagination then become "disowned selves". For another example, think of a family that values responsibility. It is often the case that the first sibling may grow up and strongly identify with responsibility. The second sibling may rebel against the pressure of the family and this rebel self can force the sibling to adopt a totally different primary self-system. The second sibling may choose a life that rejects responsibility and so begin to define himself or herself in the world as a hippy or playboy or choose a career that is opposite to the desires and values of the parents.

Disowned selves may be partially disowned or fully disowned. But they do not disappear completely. The disowned selves live on in us in an unconscious way but - because we are not conscious of them - they can affect our behavior and decision making without our having any idea that this is happening. The awareness of the role of these selves in our lives can be particularly helpful in more complex relationships such as Stepparenting.

Our book, Embracing Our Selves and our CDs An Introduction to Voice Dialogue, Relationship, and The Psychology of Selves or Making Relationships Work for You, give complete descriptions of these selves and their development. Browse our Bookshop to discover CDs that cover the most common primary selves - and choose the one that seems most appropriate for your life.


psychology of the selves

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