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Ego States

Gordon Emmerson, PhD.

INLPA Book Review Ego States JP

Ego State Therapy

By Gordon Emmerson, Ph.D.

Crown House Publishing Limited, Wales, UK

Publication Date: 2003

Reviewed by Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D.

The publication of Dr. Gordon Emmerson's book, Ego State Therapy coincided with the meeting of the "First World Congress of Ego State Therapy," held March 20 - 23, 2003 in Bad Orb, Germany, sponsored by various European hypnosis and hypnotherapy societies. Ego State Therapy is regarded as a "developing approach" to hypnotherapy. For NLP practitioners, it offers an expansive method for working hypnotically with personality "parts" and an interesting way for helping clients acquire a "meta" position in relation to their strengths and weaknesses, presenting problems and desired outcomes.

What is an Ego State?

According to Emmerson:

Ego State Therapy is based on the premise that personality is composed of separate parts…These parts are called ego states. The state that is conscious and overt at any time is referred to as the executive state. Some non-executive ego states will be consciously aware of what is happening, while others may be unconscious and unaware….An ego state is…distinguished by a particular role, mood and mental function, which when conscious assumes first person identity. Ego states are a normal part of a healthy psyche…Ego states start as defense coping mechanisms and when repeated, develop into compartmentalized sections of the personality that become executive when activated. (p. 1-4)

Ego State Therapy is a book for psychotherapists who want to learn more about the nature of ego states, how to access them hypnotically and non-hypnotically, and how to use ego states in psychotherapy. Emmerson states that the goals of Ego State Therapy are to 1) locate ego states harboring pain, trauma, and discomfort, 2) facilitate communication among ego states, and 3) help clients learn about and manage their ego states.

The Nature of Ego States

Emmerson draws from the work of Dr. John G. Watkins, who first began writing about ego states in the 1970s. Ego states begin in childhood as coping mechanisms, often in response to trauma or emotionally significant events. All ego states initially develop to protect or benefit the individual in some way. Ego states cannot and should not be eliminated, but they can be changed. Ego states seem to have their own identity and feelings (although they should not be confused with the "alters" of multiple identity/dissociative personality disorder). The average person may routinely use 5 to 15 "surface" ego states that are "close to the surface of the personality and usually communicate well with one another." There are other ego states below the surface, which become active only in response to specific stimuli that trigger associations or memories of the past. These "underlying" states are sometimes accessible only with hypnosis. Ego states can affect emotions and physiology and may express themselves as psychosomatic illnesses. Conceptually, Emmerson views an ego state as a "neural pathway that has been formed from intense use."

Ego states can be thought of as mini-personalities that can communicate with each other, form alliances, and create conflicts among themselves. Some states, called Creative Form Identities, communicate mainly through the movement of a specific body part, such as the left hand, for example. There is a special state called "inner strength" that consistently represents the inner spirit of a person. An "introject" is an internal representation of a significant other who may be living or deceased. Introjects can parade as ego states, but they are not, and can be dismissed or asked to leave, if they prove troublesome.

Most interestingly, Emmerson offers the idea that the "subconscious mind" is a cadre of ego states, each with a particular function:

Ego state personality theory allows the therapist and the client to have a clearer view of how the personality is composed and where most psychological problems originate. It demystifies the "vast unknown subconscious" revealing it to be accessible ego states. (Introduction)

Ego States in Therapy

Ego states should always be treated with kindness and respect, as though each is, itself, a client. A therapist can access a client's surface ego states non-hypnotically with the "empty chair technique" of Gestalt Therapy, or conversationally, simply by obtaining the client's permission and asking specific ego states to communicate. Hypnosis provides access to a wider range of states. Emmerson recommends that therapists "map" a client's ego states (along with their roles, names, ages, etc.) in order to keep track of them, and know which ones to call on for help.

Working with several ego states at once is similar to group therapy. The process includes getting strong ego states to help weaker ego states, as well as resolving conflicts between ego states. The goal of Ego State Therapy is to promote positive internal dialog and mutual respect among all states. It also helps the client access the most resourceful and appropriate ego state for any given situation.

Emmerson explains how to use Ego State Therapy to identify traumatizing events, and to process and heal the trauma. Processing the trauma requires allowing the traumatized state to "be executive," express itself, and obtain support from stronger states in meeting its needs. It is important that the traumatized state confront the internalized (remembered) "aggressor." Sometimes the therapist can contact a traumatized state only by working through a "protector state" that guards the traumatized state.

Another application of Ego State Therapy is facilitating communication among ego states, to resolve inner conflict and incongruity. The therapist acts a mediator in helping states negotiate with each other to resolve their differences and misunderstandings. Working with "malevolent ego states" may be particularly challenging.

For our personal growth and self-knowledge, Emmerson recommends that we get to know our ego states; their qualities, functions, and strengths. This allows us to call upon the appropriate state for any given context, and foster communication and cooperation among our states. Talking to internal states is best done in light trance.

The text covers additional applications for Ego State Therapy such as alleviation of psychosomatic symptoms, pain, depression, anger, and panic attacks, as well as smoking cessation and weight control. Ego State Therapy can be used in couples counseling to help both partners clear their own traumas, improve their communication patterns and increase self-awareness. Emmerson makes the case that in addictions, the user relies on drugs to deactivate certain states-states that usually carry fear, fear, anger, sadness and trauma. These states must be supported and strengthened as they are reactivated during withdrawal and recovery.

Emmerson includes transcripts from therapy sessions and outlines of Ego State Therapy sessions to help readers understand the methods clearly. His text instructs on how to gather information from individual states, use hypnosis, facilitate communication between states, map ego states, negotiate with ego states, help states meet their needs, and resolve ego state conflicts. He adds that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be used in conjunction with Ego State Therapy to help clients develop and practice new behavioral coping skills.

Emmerson writes that:

Ego State Therapy is very fast and powerful and it provides a causal solution, not a coping strategy. It provides both direct access to the problem and…a means to change the state that has carried toxic trauma, pain, frustration, misunderstanding, or anger, to a state that can feel relieved, empowered and appreciated. (p. 195)

The Author

Dr Gordon Emmerson is a senior lecturer in the school of psychology at Victoria University in Melbourne Australia, where he coordinates the Master in Counseling Program. He is a member and previous state president of the Australian Society of Clinical Hypnotherapy (ASCH), a member of the Australian Psychological Association (APS), and a Victoria state registered psychologist. He is assistant editor of the Australian Journal of Clinical Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis. Dr Emmerson has published a number of articles on Ego State Therapy and has taught workshops on the therapy in Melbourne, Sydney, the United States, Germany, and South Africa.


Ego State Therapy offers an intriguing theory of personality, and an appealing therapeutic method that has many applications. Some readers may wonder how many of Emmerson's observed characteristics of ego states (i.e., ego states have feelings, have separate ages, do not like derogatory comments about themselves, may refuse to cooperate, may want a new name, etc.) emerge based on the practitioner's expectations and presuppositions, buoyed by cooperation and compliance from the client, in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such is the dilemma of all psychological theories-the human personality lends itself to many descriptions and metaphors. It is a Rorschach inkblot in which we see what we expect to find.

One might also ask; Is there one true core self that manages and coordinates all of our ego states? Or do our ego states function like the leaderless T-groups that were popular in the 1970s? Perhaps the answer can be found by asking our ego states themselves.

Ego State Therapy is worthwhile reading, well organized, and highly instructive in explaining theory, methods, and applications. Emmerson provides ample case study evidence and research findings to indicate that Ego State Therapy has efficacy in alleviating both psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. Assigning components of personality/behavior to "parts' or ego states is a handy way to work with the complexities of the human mind; one that clients and practitioners alike can easily comprehend.

For NLP Practitioners, Ego State Therapy offers a good way to work hypnotically with personality "parts" that may block or facilitate access to inner resources, and a method for accessing memories of significant emotional events that may be relevant to a client's presenting issues. It is useful for working with the "inner child" and for healing "damaged" elements of self; for resolving inner conflict and facilitating intra-personal integrity and congruity. Personally speaking, all of my ego states enjoyed reading Ego State Therapy and they unanimously recommend it with enthusiasm!

To order Ego State Therapy contact:

Crown House Publishing Ltd.

Crown Building

Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales

SA33 5ND, UK

Email: Phone: 44-0-1267-211-345

In the US:
Crown House Publishing

P.O. Box 2223

Williston, VT 05495


Phone: 877 925 1213

Fax: 802 864 7626