System Maps

| By Paul | | Comments (17)

I have struggled for a long time to make any sort of system map. Decades really. I have long known that this inability has clearly been all about resistance. And the resistance was mostly that I believed once I made a map, I was locking all of me into a certain way of viewing myself. I thought it meant it would play too much into a "dissociative" way of looking at the world, when what I really want is to move away from that view.

One important lesson I have learned is that to heal and move forward, you have to accept where you are in the present.

Over the past few years, with that acceptance mostly in hand, I have focused on more visual ways of checking in with myself. I started with these maps two months ago. I have now made 15 maps, and my goal is to make them more regularly. Each really only takes a few minutes. I use a simple diagram program called Diagrammix on Mac OS, but there are many out there. To make a new map, I either start with the previous one (if I feel connected to that last state) or I start with a template (if I do not).

I change links and arrows, widths of circles or squares, shapes, colors, size and more. It ends up feeling a lot like a virtual sandbox. I have found that what comes out is usually not at all what I would be able to describe if I had to use words. So, in that sense, they are quite helpful. I do not really have to think all that much and I do not really worry about how "accurate" the map is. The intent is to do as good a check-in as possible. It is sort of akin to taking a temperature reading. It is but one measure, albeit and important one, of where my head is at.

I also save all the images to a folder, and can flip through them as a slideshow. This sequence of images gives me a sense of change over time. Again, quite helpful.

My private system maps do have labels in the circles and squares (I removed them for this post). I have talked before about labels and names, see Naming Parts of Our Dissociated Selves. For me, I have found that the names and labels help me identify and make sense of what is going on. It provides a framework for me to think about myself, and thus, is an important component of healing, changing, or growing. I am, however, careful with names and labels and have established a "safe setting" rule where they are used. That means they remain private.

The maps show me how drastic the changes can be over time. Sometimes I have made a series of maps just over a few hours and even that can show dramatic shifts. The point of seeing that, for me, is mostly about gaining visual markers. What often happens for me is that hours or days run into other hours or days, and I can easily lose track of continuity of experience.

There are many skills one can use to help. I have written about many before, and this is just one more skill to add to the "toolbox."


Lu said:

"And the resistance was mostly that I believed once I made a map, I was locking all of me into a certain way of viewing myself."

I felt that too about mapping when I was first given the assignment. So I approached it by using sticky notes (with names and notes on the notes) on a whiteboard. I found it very useful to be able to move them around, establish hierarchies, hide some behind others, etc. I learned how core experiences that were very different from one another (different traumas) held groups of self-states that I hadn't been sure how they connected before doing this sort of mapping.

Good alternative system for someone still confused by computers and all the possibilities.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Lu:

Lu, That is a really wonderful alternative. Which makes me think that magnets on a magnetic surface would also be a good alternative too.

Candycan said:

This is really interesting. I've heard of system maps but didn't really know what it meant. I like the way you say yours change too. One thing I find is that I try to figure out who is who and who knows who and then I feel I am a fraud if it seems different on another day. I don't know why it hasn't occured to me that things can just change that way. Sometimes I could know a part well and other times be too separate. It doesn't mean I lied before (this may seem laughable but this is really my thinking at times).

I think I might try making a map myself. Thanks for sharing this.


Paul Author Profile Page replied to Candycan:

Hi C. Thank you for writing. This piece of accepting that the "map" changes is really hard and I think it's not something that is explained very well by therapists. It's key though.

coach2 replied to Paul:

Therapists who ask for "mapping our systems," in my opinion, are working from an extremely limited paradigm of what systems act like. I've found in literature searches and interviews, only standard ways describing systems to help a patient try to conceptualize what a system might look like. Examples such as drawing or naming parts as a family, as a landscape, a puzzle is too limiting. My take is that many of us attempt to depict our system with therapist encouragement and often fall into frustration, detracting self-doubts, an unnecessary confusion because we don't come up with "a readable system".

I hope some day patient-centered disassociation research will occur. For a systems understanding to be based on asking and collecting information about the system, in large studies for dissociation. To better flush out what the patient's experience of living within a system at different time development is like. Yes, strengthening the concept for a patient with language such as parts known as helpers, controllers, child etc. is a start but limited and outdated. The outdated descriptions I believe are a lack of research. No studies of trauma based systems are studied to glean more accurate and wider concepts effecting a valuable self-knowing tool for survivors. It reminds me of gynecology practice in the 1970's, where that specialty had never researched women's experience and perceptions of childbearing, PMS etc. Women eventually developed in small groups and a consciousness to learn the names of female anatomy just to communicate their symptoms in medical visits.

I believe one of the greatest tools in beginning therapy is to learn how trauma effects a young person's developing brain. Organizing unknown to a growing child a system structured for safety, for amnesia, and for survival. These first steps in developing self-care tools, after disassociate symptoms are identified from the trauma which has occurred are then followed by the normalcy in creating a system, seems fundamental.

The system description depicted from Paul's schematics and captions does well to convey just one representation of a system, at different points in time. It is illuminating. Therefore, I think of the benefits to both patient and therapist, of collecting a multitude of people's narrative or pictorial experience of systems and apply scientific inquiry to the data collected. To approach systems development, not only in depiction but in narrative, and then pursue a larger concept to address this fundamental aspect of studying trauma effects. Research has turned primarily toward the capturing of symptoms, modifying with medication, not self-care tools. Who benefits long term from that and where does it lead?

I find more is developed in this site about representing dissociation and is evolving.
So, no complacencies viewed here Paul. In fact before the screen filled in I knew how important marking of spaces was as a tool. Nicely shared from all thanks!

Deanna said:

I am fairly new to MindParts and the Expressive Carnival and I appreciate your connection with art and the mind. Before I even knew what "mapping" was, I visualized (and sometimes drew) my parts as channels on a mixing board. I am a musician so I guess we use what is familiar! Each channel in the board has a slider to indicate volume (0-11; yes, my amp goes to "11"), has a variety of different frequency adjustments (low, mid, high), has "effects" (echo, reverb), a mute button, and a red "clipping" button (this means you are producing a distorted sound.) I think the key to mapping is as you said, seeing change over time. It is a concrete way I can look back and see how my alters have moved closer to a cohesive "picture" of our sound.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Deanna:

Hi Deanna, Thank you for writing. I'm going to put up the carnival theme in the next couple days. This concept of a mixing board completely makes sense to me. I love it! I play music and have a mixing board in my house. I've never thought of inside using that metaphor though! Thank you so much!

Evan said:

These are very evocative Paul, thanks.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Evan:

Thanks Evan!

Laura said:

What a helpful post - although my therapist has never suggested I do this, and I don't think I would be able to do it right now, I have wondered about it. Like the rest, I thought that I would be a fraud if it changed or was different later on, and I thought that the term 'map' meant a definitive structural map, and not just a snapshot of placement at one point in time. Also REALLY helpful to realize that a map could be made out of different materials (shapes, post-its, sound...).

I wish I was self-aware enough to understand what my 'inside' might look like. I guess I certainly have more information that I used to.

I'm such a visual person, I wonder if thinking about internal communication from a very visual perspective could help me. I do try to use imagery (you know, the rooms, conference tables, etc), but mostly I'm just mystified by the process. I'm gaining some insight, but it's excruciatingly, frustratingly slow (unfortunately, I'm afraid it feels that way for my therapist as well).

I don't even need real mapping or real communication. I think just getting myself used to the presence of the others would be a big step. We're so phobic of each other.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Laura:

Laura, I am a believer that increased self-awareness will come with patience and hard work. "Communication", I have found, often is not literal. So, this requires sometimes thinking outside the box a bit.

wantstorun said:


I have not done a system map before, either. I did, at one point a couple years ago, draw out a blueprint-type layout of the main structure of my internal landscape and that was helpful for me at the time. However, the internal landscape changes/adjusts, and so, like you, it made me a bit uncomfortable putting it down onto paper.

Thank you for sharing how you do a system map. I also appreciate how others have shared their techniques, I will revisit the idea of this task very soon.


Paul Author Profile Page replied to wantstorun:

Hi wtr. It definitely does require a level of comfort, and as I said it took me many many years to overcome the resistance to do things like this. But, I find this does help. Maybe this will be an art directive for the upcoming carnival?

wtr replied to Paul:

Sounds like you have an upcoming topic for the Carnival, a very good idea! I look forward to the Arts Carnival especially for that purpose: A means to safely push myself further in my healing.


OneSurvivor said:

I have always admired people's abilities to do system maps. I have only done one once...a very simple one in the beginning. Since then, I have never really been able to do least not in the "traditional" sense. I did a theatre one once, but that was it.

I am glad that you can do them and see the changes taking place.

Janet said:

I think of my various Parts as Paper Bags I get stuck in with walls or sometimes there are holes in the bag and I can feel two at once. Mapping is so difficult for me because I feel they are not so defined as I read in "the" books with specific names, histories, roles. The bottom line is that I feel these various Paper Bags/feelings/moods and cannot really differeiate their unique personalities as some people discuss. I am not super consistant in each Paper Bag. Feeling Little one minute feels different the next. Sometimes I sound Little but feel big.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Janet:

Thank you Janet. I can completely understand your explanation of how it doesn't feel so defined as parts for you.

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This page contains a single entry published on October 27, 2011 2:45 PM.

Expressive Arts Carnival No. 14: Hopes & Dreams was the previous entry in this blog.

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