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What is Ego State Therapy?

Ego State Therapy is a powerful and brief therapy based on the premise that personality is composed of separate parts, rather than being a homogeneous whole.  These parts (which everyone has) are called ego states. The therapist learns to work directly with the state that can best benefit from change, rather than merely working with an intellectual, talkative state.

We are each made up of a number of different states

Each state has its own feeling of power, weakness, emotion, logic, or other personal traits. When we say, “Part of me wants to,” we are talking about an ego state. When we say, “I feel at peace with myself on this issue,” we are talking about our ego states agreeing, not having an internal struggle. Our various states help to make our lives rich, productive, and enjoyable. A state harbouring pain can cause unrest and unwanted emotional reactions.
Ego State Therapy facilitates the part of the client with the problem to come forward so the origin of the problem can be directly addressd.

What are the Goals of Therapy?

The goals of Therapy are:

  • To locate ego states harbouring pain, trauma, anger, or frustration and facilitate expression, release, comfort, and empowerment. It is unresolved states that come out and make us feel out of control. They are our internal tender spots,
  • To facilitate functional communication among ego states. For example the statement “I hate myself when I am like that” indicates two states lacking in proper communication and appreciation, and
  • To help clients learn their ego states so that the states may be better used to the clients’ benefit (e.g., allowing the client to get work done, rest, be open to enjoy emotional experiences or be assertive when challenged).

Where do Ego States come from and do we all have the same ones?

We are not born with our different parts or ego states.  We make them as we live.  Our ego states are formed when we do something over and over again.  This ‘over and over again’ learning creates a physical neural pathway in the brain that has its own level of emotion, abilities, and experience of living.

Ego States develop during early childhood years but in particular, during the development of personality. It could be said that Ego States form by the process of conditioned response, reinforced by repetition to deal with the recurring challenging events of life or any new or existing traumatic stimulus.

Prof Gordon Emmerson states that an Ego State is a neural pathway of dendrite and axon connections trained by recurring synaptic firings. It is created through training repetition.
The premise of repetitive thought or consequent physiological action generating neural pathways within the brain is a principle currently held by many behavioral psychologists’.

Prof Gordon Emmerson proceeds to clarify:

If, as a child, I bring my mother a cup of tea and she gives me a hug and thanks me, then the next time I want some nurturance I may do something nice for my mother or for someone else.  If this continues to work for me, and I continue to do nurturing things for people, and I continue to get positive feedback, I will develop a nurturing ego state.  At future times in life, when I want to feel a connection with someone this nurturing part may come out and my feelings and actions will be nurturing.  Some people may be good at bringing that part of me out.

If, as a child, I am feeling a need for attention and I tell a joke or do something funny, and if I get a positive response, and if I continue to get a positive response over months and years for being funny, I may develop a joking, comedian, ego state.  If, on the other hand, when I tell those first jokes, if I get a, “Be quiet” response, I will probably not develop a joking ego state. We each have our own special parts according to the experiences we have lived.  The ways our family and friends react to us help us develop the particular ego states we have.

By repeating actions over and over again the brain will grow and connect in such a way that will create a physical neural pathway that is an ego state.  We will switch into an ego state when a need for that state occurs, or when an injured part is reminded of the injury it may come out in an attempt to gain some resolution. That is why a bad feeling can come over us all at once.

Our brains are composed of cells, called neurons. We are born with millions of neurons.  We can lose them through injury and aging.  Thankfully, we have a lot, and the ones we have can be trained, and retrained. Our brains can grow. We can grow new neurons and we can grow new connections between our neurons.

An interesting thing is that our brains grow according to stimulation.  When mice were raised in an active environment their brains grew bigger than mice grown in a passive environment.  Like muscles, brains grow bigger with use.

Numerous other animal studies confirm that the brain develops according to the particular type of stimulation it receives.

An example of how neurons, axons and dendrites work in the brain could be clarified by the analogy of people taking a shortcut, eventually wearing a walking track across a lawn. As more people use the track, the track becomes deeper, more visible, and clear of grass. But if the lawn was fenced off and the shortcut no longer used, the grass quickly grows back and very soon the track no longer exists. Yet the track will restate itself back to a path, very quickly if used again.

An Ego state therefore could be a likened to that shortcut track just previously mentioned. An actual physiological entity that exists in the brain as a result of recurrent synaptic firing and training, learned by repetition, reinforced by certain times and aspects of our lives, that have now actually become part of what we deem to be personality (Emmerson 2006).