Sub-systems (sometimes unhyphenated: subsystems) are systems within systems.
Often a multiple will end up with groupings within their head -- either full fledged multiple systems within the system, or groups of families of people (all the people derived from the body spirit, for example.)
Sub-systems may be hidden within the system at first, just like the multiple system usually hides from the outside world. Sometimes, the sub-system is even a person inside the head who happens to be multiple (see Gatekeepers and Veils).
There's also times sub-systems show up in the inner world aka internal landscape as separated areas — towns, villages, homes, worlds (though this can also be a feature of Gateway Systems New) that represent the barriers that hinder mingling, interaction, communication, closeness — or bundle people into relationships with each other rather than other groups in the meta-system (the overall body-system).
For community terminology's sake, "side systems" are systems at the same level with each other. Sibling systems would be side-by-side sub-systems within a "parent" subsystem (sub-sub-systems). The (whole) plural, multiple or DID system would include the body — as it's the boundary of the system that separates it from the external world. Some folk may not have any residents in their outermost system and only have sentient residents in their first layer of sub-systems — and hence refer just to side-systems for the most part.
Side-systems often form around a theme or topic, such as a particular type of abuse, or a specific relationship, such as family members. They're often used to protect themselves from abuse, or to avoid certain topics. A side-system might be created when someone is abused by a parent, sibling, or lover, or when someone has a bad relationship with another person.
Side-system boundaries are different from the boundaries between different layers of the whole system. For instance, a child might create a side-system to deal with the pain of her parents' divorce, while the whole system deals with the pain of her father leaving home. They also might be created to deal with entirely different external environments such as school vs. home, where there is little cross-over and an entirely different set of social rules, culture, and potentially even language (when there's a different language spoken at home than at school as one example).
Subsystems allow partitioning not only of language, but of knowledge of other system members while still having working groups of headmates (whether or not they're co-conscious). They can be especially important when there are strict social expectations of keeping secrets, or lying about one's home life or family. A child at school may never slip up and share what's going on at home because they have little to no access to that information — it's held by an entirely different subsystem. So even the "good times" at home aren't accessible to that "apparently normal" child.
In more practical than theoretical terms, from an experiential viewpoint, side-system boundaries can be perceived as the walls of a house, protecting the inhabitants from the outside world. Even though they may appear in-system as a person, that person contains many — a plural within a plural system. It's a form of mask, just like the outer system often masks as a singular external person in society.
Organizing a larger and more complicated system can present its own challenges, which many therapists are at a loss to help with. Folk in the community track their overall system, including members of various internal subsystems, through diagrams, spreadsheets, by naming the various internal subsystems the same way one would name systems, places, or people in the plural community (i.e. "The Red System" or "Druid's Grove" or Star& — the plural cultural convention meaning "& company" that shows that someone is plural.) so it's easier to discuss them, and to show belongingness in-system. Thus Crimishia is a member of the Star& subsystem of The Crisses — or simply Crimishia in The Crisses is one of Star&.
Discovering that you've got Subsystems
Discovering you're plural is one layer of surprise, but discovering you have subsystems is like discovering you're plural all over again, albeit at least hopefully subsystems as a possibility was on your radar for a while. The situation can be complicated, and can raise system headcounts quite rapidly, and once you notice one subsystem, you might start to notice more.
It's important to keep in mind that they were already there — the only thing that has changed is that you're now aware of them being there. Plurality & DID are always full of selves-discovery, and it can be celebrated rather than a point of reluctance or fear. Recognizing individuals who were formerly deep, masked, or not co-conscious, welcoming them into the fold, being compassionate with them (they may be as confused and wary as you might be), and getting to know them as much as you can given the complexities that sub-system boundaries may impose on your& system is important to help re-stabilize after any potential upheaval that these discoveries may represent for your system.
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Yes, subsystems can be very subtle, folk can transverse boundaries between internal systems, folk can seem to be an age-slider or shape-shifter and later you find out no, that was a subsystem and each age or form was a separate member…
Some systems are very covert which can include being covert from themselves. Sub-systems is one way of "burying" identities, information, memories, influence, masks we need to wear in various situations, etc.
Thank you. This is information I didn’t have. Important because in 1990 my therapist said “even your fragments are fragmented”. Today we lived through an example.
It's even a complicated topic to write about, perhaps because our own understanding of our system has evolved over time and the frameworks we use to understand it also evolve. So we see more layers and striations and acknowledge our little bits in our LEGOCriss subsystem much more than we did; even though we knew they were there, even the knowledge was elusive/covert and slippery.
We'll keep working on improving information for polyfragmented systems, and hopefully folk will share their knowledge & understanding as well : )
From our own experiences, subsystems can be *very* wacky sometimes, and seemingly contradictory to expectations. For example, one of our residents is a median system, but one of her facets is a partitioned system. So sometimes, there'll be two people going around in the innerworld instead of one, and to make this more complicated, one of the members of this partitioned sub-sub-system can sometimes appear even without their partner. - Zircon