Softening the Hostile Introject by Use of Empty Chair Approach and/or Voice Dialogue

In a previous article, I discussed the origin and function of the hostile introject, the part of the self described as the Critical Parent (Eric Berne), the Topdog (Fritz Perls) , critical Object Representation (object relations therapy), and Super Ego (Freud).    When I worked with Fritz Perls at Esalen  he seemed to imply that the hostile introject was evil and that it might be possible to get rid of it  completely.  But I learned through the years that this is impossible. Along with it’s frequent destructive effects,  it also provides guidance, direction, structure, motivation and even company to the person.    It can, however, with much work, be modified and become more benign.   To accomplish this,  I use a variety of methods.

Empty Chair Method:

I discussed the empty chair method for working on the hostile introject-self conflict in  a previous blog posting: The Empty Chair Dialogue in Psychotherapy.    The section that deals specifically with that issue  is #3.  Becoming aware of and working through internal conflicts between different internal sub-selves.  I suggest the reader consult that posting.

Voice Dialogue Method

This is a therapeutic method developed by Hal Stone, Ph.D. He had Gestalt training, but instead of staying with the Gestalt 2-subselves system, Topdog and Underdog, he claimed to have identified numerous sub-selves which were in conflict with each other.   He helped clients work on integrating these sub-selves  by identifying with each of them, in turn and having them communicate with each other.  Note that he wasn’t implying that these clients had dissociative identity disorders, but were the usual neurotic folks that showed up for psychotherapy.    One sub-self he worked on most often was the hostile introject, which he would talk to directly.   And that’s what I do  when the empty chair work hasn’t resulted in  any change in the intrapsychic dynamics, the client has been unwilling to enter into the 2-chair dialogue  because they felt embarrassed talking to an empty chair, or the client has been unable to identify different sub-selves.   Another reason for my turning to it is when  the recipient of the hostile messages has been too frightened of the introject or too much in agreement that he really is a rotten, worthless  person.   

       1. After we have  established a good working alliance,   I am  ready to start addressing the hostile introject.   I usually have previously established with the client that they have sub-selves inside that are  warring with each other.  and the client has identified the hostile introject with a name:  Judge, Critical Parent, etc.  

     2.  I ask the client if he is willing to let me interview the hostile introject.  Sometimes the client is unwilling to do that, or the hostile introject fears talking to me because he thinks I am critical of him.  I make it clear that I am not critical, just wanting to ask some questions.  I might even ask if he thinks I am critical, and make it clear by my words and demeanor that I don’t feel critical.  

     3.  I ask the introject a series of question:  how it feels toward the person, where it got its information from, what its purpose is in the person’s life, why it says critical things to the person, how it experiences the person dealing with it.  For example, is it rebellious or defensive and argues with it; does it try to ignore it; and what other ways does it respond to the introject.

     4.  I always find that, at bottom, the introject is, despite appearing large and powerful, is really immature and childlike.  And, most importantly, fearful that if it let up in its criticism, the person would get out of control emotionally, make very stupid decisions, and stop attempting to succeed in life.  In short, it doesn’t trust the person.   And it often has good reason for the mistrust because the Underdog has responded in a way that reinforces the introject’s mistrust.  I often say, “You have really had a very tough job dealing with X.  would you like your job to be easier?”  The answer is usually an enthusiastic yes.

     5.  I then ask the person if it has heard what the critical introject has said to me (of course it has!) and what it thinks about what it said.   She sees that this is an unnecessary battle that has been going on for years and that they can trust each other more than they have in the past.   The end result is after,  some intensive work on this issue, some rapprochement between the person and her hostile introject.