What is Ego State Therapy?
Ego State Therapy is a form of therapy that recognizes and works with the various sub-personalities of the self, or different ego states of a person. These sub-personalities are often based on different developmental stages and are typically the parts that have been hurt or are holding on to uncomfortable emotions like shame, anger, or fear. The goal of ego states therapy is to help the wounded parts heal, create harmony between all parts of the self, restoring mental and emotional balance. Ego state therapy can be used to treat anxiety, depression, trauma, phobias, among other mental health struggles.
How Does Ego State Therapy Work?
We are made up of a compilation of the earlier chapters in our lives, from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and finally older adulthood. Each of these parts of us continues to live on within us and are carrying their hurt and pain with them, that is until we lovingly tend to that part and help it heal. This helps explain why a disagreement with a romantic partner can deteriorate into the equivalent of two toddlers throwing a tantrum. When something in the now triggers pain from the past, that ego state temporarily takes over, until the grounded adult reclaims the driver’s seat.
Ego State Therapy helps get in touch with the different parts of the self and develop a loving relationship with each part. For instance, as that inner child feels tended to, loved, and validated they will start to feel safe and will become activated and triggered less often. The therapy will help the mature adult self be most present in dealing with other people, emotions, and situations.
Ego State Therapy Techniques
Three of the most helpful Ego State Techniques are:
- Inner Child Connection: Connecting to your inner child is a powerful way to heal early hurts. Find a picture of yourself as a young child and put it on your fridge or somewhere you see it often. Whenever you walk by and see the photo say loving things to them that will help them feel safe, loved, and validated. Some examples are:
- “I’m sorry you had to go through that. I will keep you safe now.”
- “You are so special and unique; never lose your spark.”
- “I love you.”
- Explore the Thoughts in Your Head: Begin to notice the messages you speak to yourself in your inner dialogue. Get compassionately curious about them. Ideas to explore:
- Do some thoughts sound younger and some older? Try to give them each an age.
- Do any of the thoughts remind you of things your parents used to say? Is it possible that it is actually their voice and you have internalized it because you heard it so often?
- Ego Parts Visualization: Begin to bring yourself into a relaxed state through deep breathing and body relaxation techniques. Begin to visualize yourself in a beautiful field in the woods and bring to mind the following:
- There is a circle of chairs set up in the field and you make your way to the center of the circle. As you stand in the center of the circle you are in your mature adult, nurturing self.
- Now begin to visualize your child self (about the age of 5) sitting in one chair, your adolescent self (about age 15) sitting in another chair, your young adult self (about age 25) sitting in another chair, and so on.
- Go around the circle and visit with each part of yourself. Ask them what they need to feel seen, loved, and validated. Begin to practice giving each part what they need. Stay in this space as long as desired and when you are ready remind them all that you will continue to check in on them and work on loving them more and more.
Helpful Ego State Therapy Resources
Here are suggestions for my top three resources for Ego State Therapy:
- Sandra Paulsen is a leading expert on using ego state therapy to treat trauma. Her site provides a number of clinical papers to explain the process of ego state work, as well as workshops for professionals.
- The Internal Family Systems Institute provides extensive information on IFS therapy, a specific form of Ego State therapy, including training, workshops, and conferences.
- Inner Child Healing E-Books provides free e-books and worksheets to guide inner child healing work.
Forgash, C. & Copeley, M. (2008). Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company. Lewis Herman, Judith (2002) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Paulsen, S. (2009). Looking Through the Eyes of Trauma & Dissociation: An Illustrated Guide for EMDR Therapists and Clients. Booksurge Publishing.
Shapiro, R. (2016). Easy ego state interventions: Strategies for working with parts. W W Norton & Co.
Watkins, J.G. & Watkins, H.H. (1997). Ego State Therapy. London: W.W. Norton & Co.