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Interview with Martyn
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Transcript: Identity Loss
Systemic Coach Training © Martyn Carruthers 2002

Online Life Coaching & Counseling for Identity Loss

Identifications & Identity Loss

This segment of our training was transcribed by
Ana Pejcinova, PhD. in Warsaw, Poland in 2002.

Martyn Carruthers describes some forms of Identity Loss.


In Systems 1 you studied our first step of systemic diagnosis: “Where are people now in their relationships?” You began to understand the common chaos that happens if people relate to partners like children, to parents like partners, and to children like parents, etc.

On Systems 2 you learned how to help people plan their lives using both conscious and unconscious resources. Do you remember the "elephant" question? "How can you swallow an elephant?" This was about coaching people to make workable plans by which they can fulfill their congruent goals.

Of course, most people have objections to their own goals - or to the ways that they wan to achieve those goals. Therefore our coach training includes how to quickly recognize and solve common objections. Psychotherapists may refer to objections as resistance or denial.

Systems 3 covered how to help a person continue goalwork even when in trance. This leads to helping people find and stabilize the experience of integrity that I often call the Soul of Soulwork. This experience provides a sort of compass for life – for making decisions according to integrity.

About 25% of people cannot easily enjoy that experience, that's about 25% of the general European population in my opinion: that's one in four of your family, of your friends, of the people you work with. This means that no matter how much goalwork you do, many people cannot find a life goal. Even if they are motivated, something actively prevents them experiencing or approaching integrity.

We already discussed guilt, responsibility and damage by prior mentors. People who have hurt other people, people in crisis and people who avoid responsibility are unlikely to experience integrity – although they may find interesting altered states that feel good but do not provide life direction.

Evolution of Systemic Coaching . Comparison of Coaching Styles

Types of Identification

The goal of this segment is to coach people who want to resolve symptoms of identity loss. I will review three types of identity loss and then we will work with them in depth. The first type is Identification – and dissolving identifications appears to be missing in psychotherapy. Yet, like other systemic phenomena, identifications appear to be common and often show up during our systemic diagnosis.

Identification represents existential confusion. For some reason, usually involving a person’s early family experience, one person identifies with another person. Where does one person start and the other person stop? On a family matrix, people may spontaneously indicate this with overlapping symbols of self and other.

Victim Identification, Dead Person Identification and Hero Identification - simply indicate which emotions are primarily and existentially expressed and offer some ideas for disidentification, so we'll look at them in detail. It is possible for a person to have a mixture, for example a person may be partly identified with a victim-mother, partly identified with a dead brother, and partly identified with a heroic sister.

Lost Identity

What are other blocks to integrity? Lost Identity - Is it possible for someone to lose their identity, what do you think? Is “identity” like your keys that you can lose, and you cannot remember where you've put them? I left my heart in San Francisco – or was it my sense of self? Maybe it was my wallet. Some people act as if their identity was something that they can lose – like their scruples.

It seems that a person's sense of identity can become unavailable – that a person can lose access to their center. This typically happens as a result of stress. Remaining a “sensitive human being” in brutal conditions may not support survival.

An important thought for Lost Identity is that stress was usually deliberately applied, it was not accidental. The stress of falling and breaking an arm is different from the stress of somebody deliberately breaking your arm. Identity Loss usually has a relationship reason for a person wanting to retreat and hide.

Maybe somebody in this room has no missing pieces? [laughter] More likely, you've all lost pieces of yourself over the years. And occasionally you meet people that seem to have no sense of self. Ana, can you describe the client that we talked about during the coffee break?

Ana (PhD therapist): A client I worked with had Lost Identity symptoms. His identity was somehow hollow or somewhere else. There was no feeling that I was talking with a real person in that physical body. There was no liveliness; there was no center of life that I could feel in that person. His emotions seemed programmed - normal, but never his own, never intense, there was no excitement. He was under a threat of death from cancer, and married with children, yet this person was not really stressed! There was no trace of instinct for survival. That's how I saw this person.

Martyn: First, Ana talked about her own feelings in relation to this man. Then Ana described a list of things that seemed to be missing in that person, generally: no involvement in life, no display of emotions. “What did that man have that normal people do not have? What did he do that normal people do not do?”

Ana: (pause) I don't know!

Martyn: People with Lost Identity symptoms often sit around like cabbages waiting for something to happen. An extreme case might be catatonia. They might sit like this [shows catatonic posture]. What are they doing that normal people do not do? A feature of extreme Lost Identity is that there is little sign of what we might call humanness. Of course, we all have this choice every day. Most of us can dissociate – especially when we are bored or stressed.

Monika: These people usually try to feel the emotions of other people.

Martyn: Like at a cinema? When I think about that, when I engage in this internal dialogue that I call thinking, I am not available for active communication. If I remain in this thinking state, I display some of the symptoms of Lost Identity that Ana described. Most of us do this every day, but not non-stop for weeks.

With Lost Identity, there is an extended time period when a person does not behave like an emotional human being. At this time, integrity is just a word - it does not make sense – it’s an ideal. Recently we were working with a woman had been diagnosed as psychotic. We learned about about Lost Identity!

Ewa (Systemic coach): My client was diagnosed as psychotic, and with this belief, she stopped going to work, she stopped going out, she sat in front of the TV, using whatever happened in her life to undermine being normal, saying, "because I am sick."

Martyn: This sounds like a variety of Lost Identity; an example of how a belief can prevent a person finding integrity. Also, it shows how people can identify with labels given by authorities.

Włodek (Systemic coach): I know a woman who does not have any feelings at all. We were coaching this woman and we discovered that she felt that she was one meter outside her body, dissociated all the time, because she was afraid of being criticized.

Martyn: Maybe she was horribly criticized as a child. Probably you've all experienced Lost Identity. Think of your years in school listening to teachers. You may have looked something like this … (makes a flat, blank face). If you behaved like a human child at school, you might be punished for your humanity. How many years of that did you survive? That is one way to create Lost Identity - punish people for expressing emotions and reward them for excellence in the dissociated behavior of internal dialogue - the behavior that that you may call thinking.

Identity Conflict

The third Integrity block is Identity Conflict. All of you had a conflict, whether to come to this training or not. Roy came from Canada and he had a conflict. Right, Roy?

Roy (Canadian therapist): [Roy deliberately coughs loudly - laughter] No, really. I felt quite congruent with this decision.

Martyn: Were you congruent with the decision before or after you made it?

Roy: [laughs] Yes, that's true.

Martyn [to group]: I remember Roy's emails! Roy had a conflict: "Should I go to Europe? Or should I stay in Canada!" Roy had at least two choices, and perhaps his decision was not "In which country shall I learn systemic coaching?"

With a decision like this, a key question may be "Am I a person who can go and study on another continent? Or am I a person who stays at home and waits?" Often, choices are superficial to this deeper structure. The deeper decision is "What sort of person am I?" Roy said that he made a congruent decision and he looked congruent when he said that, but probably not 100%. [Roy: "Yeah."] Roy may have been thinking, "What about my children, what about my work?"

Generally, to make a decision with 90% congruence is wonderful. It is rare in my life that a decision was 100%. Or if it was 100%, then perhaps there was no decision. Are you going to sleep tonight? Perhaps you didn't think that it might be a choice until this moment. Are you going to take your next breath? Oh, you are so congruent about that, there is nothing to decide. There has to be a decision for it to be a congruent decision. So Roy decided to come to Poland to learn systemic therapy, which is a strange decision for a Canadian therapist.

[To group] A question for Roy might be "Can I commit to my decision 100%, and even though the situation is not 100% perfect, I will act with 100% of my energy." And if you can do that, you can probably step to the Soul of Soulwork (a stable experience of connectedness and life direction) rather easily!

What if Roy said 'No! I am only half committed, and half of me wants to stay in Canada. I will come to Europe with only half of my energy and I'll focus half of my energy on my home. And then, if coming to Poland does not work exactly the way I hope, I can go home. I plan for failure in advance." Roy's focusing seems to need a central core - what we can call identity.

In my experience, about 10-15% of European and North American people seem to have more than one well-defined self in the same physical body. If this is true, it does not matter how much goalwork you do with one self, because another self can say "No!" or “Wait!” Some people call them gremlins or demons. The decision is not what to do. The key decision is more often, "What sort of person am I?"

Consider multiple personality syndrome. A diagnostic feature is that the personalities are amnesic of each other’s behavior. If people remember what they do in each persona – it’s not multiple personality syndrome.

Look at Agata and Artur, two wonderful people and one wonderful couple. The partnership of "Agata and Artur" has two identities. [Artur: "At least." - laughter] However, it is one couple. So that means that there is no discussion about what to do, everything is obvious, and there is no conflict, right? [laughter]

Agata: "Is it obvious for you or for us?" [laughter]

Martyn: Exactly, it can be political. "How can a couple make congruent decisions when each partner has different goals?" Maybe 'the man always decides?' Maybe the woman decides and pretends that the man decides? Many possibilities exist for each partner – being part of a couple is not so easy. I perceive partnership as a special form of teamwork that requires that both partners use team skills.

Do you know couples who continually sabotage each other? Imagine them both living in one body. Then perhaps you can better understand inner conflict. Probably many of you know this from some parts of your lives. Most people seem to have some experience of inner conflict.

It gets better. Imagine driving a car with a passenger yelling at you where to go and where not to go and trying to get your compliance. How about six passengers? I often refer to a complex conflict as a seven part identity conflict, because there are usually seven active parts. I’ll describe how that works later, and show you how to help people assimilate and integrate those seven parts with lasting results.

Anyway, most of us have parts, and those parts may not like each other. There may be internal conflicts and internal alliances. For example, a part of me that likes to run, and a part of me that wants to be fit, may together sit on a part of me that wants to eat chocolate. [Laughter]

[Marcin] "How long does it work?" [moving his arms from side to side]

[Martyn] Yes, Marcin shows you see a typical non-verbal ‘balancing’ physiology that I associate with conflict.

Identity and personality are abstractions. Does anybody really have identity? I don't know, do you? I can listen to people and see what they do: I see Artur playing with his pen; perhaps he's relaxed because Agata (Artur's wife) takes good notes [laughter] - I listen to the words that people use, and notice how those words are communicated.

Relationship Ecology & Congruence

I notice "Do your words fit what I see?" In this course you may find that these theories not only explain what has already happened, not only make it clear what is happening in a given moment, but also predict future behavior, predict the relationship consequences of actions - call it relationship ecology.

If you ask clients whether they have identity loss, they won't know what to say. In general, ask clients open questions like "What do you want?" In the moment you ask that question, open your klapki (Polish for horse blinkers), open your senses, watch carefully what happens and strive to listen.

Few answers will be well-formed (clear), and often people will go into trance. "What do you want?" [Martyn role plays a person in trance] "Uhhh - ummm!"

This is a useful diagnostic tool! A person answers, "What do I want? [Looks down left] Hmm. [Looks right] Oh-oh. [Looks forward] I'm not sure." What has the person told you non-verbally? A lot – if you understand family matrix and eye movements, including that this person has maybe 3 conflicts and hints about with whom. You're guessing of course - you do not know for sure. But if you see three physiology shifts, then it is likely that a person will describe three objections or three conflicts.

Physiology shifts usually resonate with the person’s words. For example, "I want to learn systemic therapy AND stay in Canada." If you hear a double goal, there's probably conflict. Or a person might do this: "You ask me what I want? Umm."

[Pretends trance] What does trance communicate?

Marcin: That the person does not know what he wants.

Martyn: Good, and it may indicate that some important part of the person is not available in normal consciousness. A person may be in crisis. For example, if your client was recently informed, "I am divorcing you" and your client has a business appointment with you, your client might be so preoccupied that there is no space to think about business. Or maybe the person was traveling all night: "What do I want?" [pretends to fall asleep]. Or perhaps the person is dehydrated, and until there is a glass of water inside, the person cannot focus because of a disturbed electrolyte balance.

Guilt is less conscious: a person wants to be happy, and says: "I want to be happy, but something always seems to stop me." Later you might find that this person betrayed a partner, or abused children, or hurt parents or so on. For this person, being happy may not make sense!

Lack of motivation often indicates conflict. It's not often that I meet people with no motivation. More often their goals were senseless: “My father wants me to finish my university degree in music, but I am not interested in this. Please, Martyn, can you motivate me to study music!"

Another issue is responsibility, for example, “I want to be rich, but I don’t want to think too much or work too hard”. This attitude feeds most of the get rich quick schemes of the world.

[To group] More examples: When you think about happiness, what do you feel at this moment? When you think about what you want, what feelings do you have in your body? And when you say you want something, do you intend to get it, or is that just more talk? Do you want to commit to achieving your goals, or do you just want to think about having them? This is where our systemic coaching starts ...

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Online Life Coaching & Counseling for Identity Loss


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Have You Suffered Enough?

 Where are you now? Understand your emotions, fixations and enmeshments
What do you hope for? Know your goals and stop sabotaging yourself
Do you feel resourceful? Learn to develop your inner resources
Do emotions block you? Relationship problems and mentor damage
Do your beliefs limit you? Change limiting beliefs and end dependence
Do you feel connected? Resolve identity issues to recover lost resources
Is your partner happy? Build healthy partnership (or separate peacefully)
Are your children healthy? Happy parents better manage family problems
Do you want team success? Team leaders and their teams develop together
Do you have complex goals? Specialty coaching, counseling & therapy

Plagiarism is theft. Copyright © Martyn Carruthers 1996-2018  All rights reserved. Soulwork Systemic Coaching was primarily developed by Martyn Carruthers to help people solve emotional problems and relationship conflicts to achieve their goals. These concepts and strategies are for general knowledge only. Consult a physician about medical conditions and before changing medical treatment. Don't steal intellectual property ... get permission to post, publish or teach Martyn's work - email