Fronting and Switching
Table of Contents
- What are fronting and switching?
- What if we can't switch?
- Voluntary switching if you don't feel separate
- Voluntary switching if you do feel separate
- Coping with involuntary switches
- Resisting a switch
What are fronting and switching?
In the plural community, "fronting" refers to the act of controlling the body. When you are in control, you are "in front." Fronting is like being in the driver's seat of a car for some systems. Whoever is making the decisions and driving around is the current fronter. Other times, it feels like being yourself in a particular way. It's possible for multiple members of a system to control the body at the same time; this is called co-fronting. When you're not in control, it's sometimes said that you're "in the back." You might be unconscious, half-aware, in headspace, or fully aware of the external world when you're in the back. If you are aware of the outside world and the current fronter, you're co-conscious (which is a goal for many systems, as it can reduce memory loss).
An alternate view of fronting may be more useful for those that don't consider themselves separate people. There may not be a sense of anyone specific being in front at all, but of one's self being experienced a certain way. It may be more useful to think of your front-self, or the self that you are right now, rather than whether someone is controlling the body or not. It may also be useful to think of the body as having its own consciousness that is given identity by your system. That conciousness is always present, hence the consistent sense of "I am here" regardless of your traits, but the identities it holds are swapped out and shift around. Your self doesn't leave, but the identities it holds come into and out of it; effectively, they blend with that awareness to front. For more separated systems, this may or may not be a comfortable way of thinking about it. Conceptualize fronting in your system in whatever way makes the most sense to you.
Switching is the act of changing who is in front. This might be voluntary or involuntary. A voluntary switch is one where the system members involved choose to switch. They may choose to put a specific member in front, remove a specific member from front, or swap out the fronter(s) altogether. An involuntary switch is one that the system did not try to cause. Involuntary switches can happen from exhaustion, dissociation, and more. They can even be caused by triggers.
Sometimes switching feels like your sense of self has changed. You may not have the feeling of becoming someone else but instead notice that you have different preferences, beliefs, and/or identities from ones you held earlier. You might notice your thought patterns or emotions have changed. It may feel like your "me" has shifted. Other times, it might literally feel like changing places. You might experience yourself stepping back while someone else takes over the body. You might feel like you've been possessed. Some systems experience increasing dissociation and physical symptoms (such as a headache) before a switch that make it hard to function, while others don't dissociate before switching and find it painless. Some switches can be noticed right when they happen, but some switches aren't noticed until well after the fact. There's a lot of variety in how they're experienced.
Exercise: Pay Attention
Go about your day normally. At various points, pause and note down how you experience yourself in that moment. Write down how old you feel you are, your core beliefs, your emotional state, and anything else you think is important about you. At the end of the day, review your notes and see if anything changed significantly during the day. Can you pick up on any switches? If you didn't, try doing this exercise for longer and see if anything happens over a longer period of time, or try writing down who else in your system you felt the presence of in the back. Did anything change internally? Were there any patterns?
What if we can't switch?
Not every system switches. Regardless of disordered status or origin, it's entirely possible that you don't ever switch, and there's nothing wrong with that. Switching is made out to be a big deal in the plural community, but you don't have to switch to be plural. The only requirement is being more than one in some way, whether that's separate people, parts of one self, or something in-between. You're fully capable of having a happy and fulfilling relationship with your system without ever switching.
There are other ways that system members can influence front, too. Passive influence is when one system member influences another in thoughts, emotions, preferences, or other qualities of self. It's sort of like fronting from the back and can be difficult to notice. An example of passive influence is suddenly feeling the urge to do something you don't normally enjoy, but that a system member does. Another example is feeling the emotions of a nearby system member. Some systems don't fully switch at all but instead operate off passive influence, effectively fronting through one member who's stuck in front. Others use passive influence as a form of communication!
It's also always an option for the fronter to act as proxy for those inside. If someone wants to say something, you can say it for them. If they want to do something, you can do it for them. It can be like they're fronting without actually handing off control of anything. You're letting them make decisions, even if it's still you carrying them out. This can be a great option for letting insiders interact with the world.
Voluntary switching if you don't feel separate
Most guides to voluntary switching are aimed at multiples and very separate medians. They don't work particularly well for systems that feel like they're all one person, or who aren't able to communicate with each other easily. If you feel like different states of the same self, then guides that tell you to move people in and out of your body aren't going to be very helpful. The good news is that there are other ways to switch that don't require you to try to be separate.
Fake it 'till you make it
Take a moment and pay attention to how you feel. What kind of words do you tend to use? What are your emotions and beliefs like? Do you feel anything noticeable in your body, such as a certain way you hold your eyes or a feeling in your chest? What kind of person are you right now? Really stop and observe yourself. Write down what you notice if you'd like to. Any kind of observation helps.
These feelings are something specific to the you that is reading this guide. Odds are that others in your system have at least minor differences in these things- it's what makes them not the exact same as you. They might tend to feel different emotions, or feel the body differently. They might be associated with a color or feel younger than you. They may even have access to different memories. You don't experience them as separate, but they still have differences. These little differences are very useful for switching voluntarily.
There's a common phrase in English: "fake it 'till you make it." We're going to do that here. Try to remember what you feel like when you're someone else in your system. Don't just list off facts about them; recreate their feelings as vividly as possible. If you know they usually feel happy, put on the biggest smile you can and pretend you just won the lottery. If they feel small, you can scrunch up in your chair and make yourself take up less space. If they're associated with the color green, picture yourself as green. If they have a favorite place to be, you can go there. Try to emulate that system member as well as you can, even if it feels like you're just acting, and start thinking of their traits as yours. Recreating those feelings can draw that system member into front, and you may find after a little while that you're not acting anymore.
Here's an example. Suppose I have a self that's very logic-oriented. They think in straight lines and big words, love science, and are associated with the color blue. When they're in front, I tend to feel anxious, and my forehead wrinkles a little. To get that member in front, I might wrinkle my forehead like they do and recall the physical sensation of anxiety. I might engage with their interest and read some articles about science, even though I find them very boring, and try to think like a computer. I might picture myself as being blue and start thinking of myself as them. If I recall the feelings of being them vividly enough, I find myself becoming them. It stops taking effort to behave like them because I am them.
If you don't know what it feels like to be another member of your system, that's okay. Step one for you will be getting that information. You could ask all of your parts to write down observations about themselves in a shared journal or otherwise ask for it directly. You could also ask friends and people you trust what you're like at different times and write down what they say. It's a bit harder to work with external observations, but it can work if you get enough details about your other selves. You may even find that your friends notice things you wouldn't otherwise pay attention to.
Step back, come forward
There's another way to do voluntary switches, though it has a catch: you have to have internal communication of some sort. This method relies on being able to communicate inside your head. It doesn't need to be verbal communication or bidirectional, but you need to be able to send a message to parts of you that aren't in front and have it heard.
Earlier, I mentioned a concept of consciousness being separate from identity. Some systems experience their awareness as being attached to the body, or as something they can move in and out of. They have a "persistent I" or "observing self" that is different from their system members. This can be a very useful concept that explains experiences like being unable to remember things you did in headspace. Awareness follows the sense of "I", and the "I" was not looking at headspace. It also explains why switches can feel like becoming someone else rather than changing places- that observation is being made from the "I", which does experience itself as becoming someone else.
If this concept applies to you, you can directly ask system members to step into or out of the "I". When someone is in the "I", you have their traits and emotions; when they step back, those traits and emotions don't go away, but they're not at the forefront anymore. They're not experienced as you. System members may intrinsically know how to step into and out of the "I", and may have been doing so without your noticing. It's also possible that they're not sure how to come into the "I" and may need to be helped into the body's awareness. From inside of the "I", you can try to share your awareness with them and invite them into you. Extend the sense of "I" out to them for a little while so that the "I" experiences them. They can always leave it later.
This method is especially useful if you need someone to leave front, or if a part of you is getting in the way of doing something. You can ask them to step back and observe instead of being in the "I", which brings them out of front and into co-consciousness. If they don't feel comfortable stepping back, don't force it. Pause and ask them what they're afraid would happen if they stepped back, and hear them out in full. Don't dismiss their concerns, even if they're completely irrational. They feel that way for a reason, and it's important to respect them. Once you've heard them out, you can offer up solutions to make them more comfortable stepping back. Maybe they could come right back into the "I" when you're done, or if the thing they're afraid of happens. Maybe there's some way you can make the fear less scary or address it. Maybe you could have someone else step into the "I" who knows how to handle the scary thing. Work with them to help them feel safe stepping back.
If you're spiritually inclined, you can use your spiritual framework to control or influence switching. Whether that means having someone possess you, moving energy in your body, shifting the form of your astral body to match a system member, or using some other method, lean into what works for you. Energy work may be particularly helpful. You could move energies associated with system members into your body to manipulate front, for example.
Turn your attention to yourself. What do you notice about your body? Make a mental note of it, then look at your mind. What thoughts and feelings are you having right now? What do you believe about yourself? Do any memories or impressions come to mind? Observe yourself for a few minutes, then write down what you noticed. Later, have someone else in your system repeat this exercise if possible, then compare what you both wrote down.
Voluntary switching if you do feel separate
On a core level, switching is about dissociation and association. Yes, even if you're not disordered. Not all dissociation is pathological. Daydreaming, highway hypnosis, getting lost in a good book, and other experiences are all benign examples of dissociation. Dissociation is just detachment from one or more parts of your mind or the world. When you switch, you are dissociating the fronter from the body. At the same time, someone else needs to associate with the body so that it feels like its actions are their actions. Most methods of switching are ways to induce this trade-off through metaphor or experience.
You could have the fronter dissociate intentionally, no metaphors needed. Have them think that this is not their body. It belongs to whoever is switching in, and they were just borrowing it. It's not theirs now. Have the fronter try to watch themselves from a distance, as though they were just an observer of your life. Let their thoughts move to the background or take up less space. At the same time, associate the person switching in with the body. It's theirs now. They're the one moving it, and they're making the decisions. The previous fronter is a voice in their mind right now instead of calling the shots. You can move the body in a way that's clearly controlled by the new fronter to help cement that association.
Following the instructions for switching if you don't feel separate is absolutely an option. Bringing system members to front by remembering what it feels like when they're present can be very effective and is more direct than a lot of metaphors. Many systems have a consciousness associated with the body that stays present, with system members giving that consciousness an identity rather than providing the consciousness wholesale. The method in that section directly works with that body consciousness.
If imagination is helpful for you, you could think of the body as a suit made of fabric, skin, or any other material. It could even be an exoskeleton. The fronter is wearing that suit right now, and to switch, it needs to come off of them and onto you. It's easiest to start slow. Pay very close attention to your body's hand, and feel the presence of your system member inside of it. Ask them to pull that presence back and up your arm so that your body's hand is empty. At the same time, try to push yourself into that hand and make it yours. Imagine that you're the one wearing it now, and move it around a little to really cement that it's yours. You might be cofronting at this point- you have the hand, and they have everything else- or that may have been enough to cause a full switch. If you're cofronting, you may want to continue this method with the rest of the body. Whatever happened, practice with this method until you don't need the imagery anymore to trade control. This method is particularly useful for learning to cofront and "borrowing" body parts.
You could also create a literal fronting space in headspace. Maybe it has a chair with controls for the fronter, and screens to see the world. Really cement that the space is front, then have the fronter notice your presence next to them in that space. Slowly ease your way into that space with them, and then have them move backwards out of it if you don't want to cofront. It might feel like falling backwards, going underwater, depersonalizing, or leaving the center of thought.
If you're having difficulty leaving front, it could be that you're trying too hard. Switching is a lot like falling asleep in some ways. If you try really hard to fall asleep, you won't. The act of trying keeps you awake. Instead, you have to relax and allow it to happen. Switching is the same way. If you try really hard to dissociate, you're going to wind up paying too much attention to yourself and accidentally associate. Instead, try to relax and sit back in your mind. Let your thoughts drift freely. Don't think about anything in particular. Just relax and allow the switch to happen.
For those that are spiritually inclined, using your spiritual framework to trade places might work well. You might have the fronter astral project to leave front, use energy work to move system members around, or any other methods that are helpful for you. Trust your intuition and experiment.
I'm going to preface this section with a disclaimer. This requires good co-consciousness, and ideally some experience with cofronting. It could also cause problems for those that experience high levels of pathological dissociation, or who are prone to distressing rapid switching. Read with care, and remember that you don't have to do everything in this guide. Take what works and leave the rest.
Microswitching is rapid partial switches between co-conscious and cofronting members. You could also think of it as possession from a distance instead of wearing the body. An example would be two system members trading control of the body to write back and forth in a journal in realtime, where both members are equally present and aware but neither holds full executive control. This kind of trade-off can be very useful when communicating externally, or in situations where two or more system members need to share the load but where full cofronting (where all involved system members can control the body at will) isn't an option.
In order to microswitch, all involved members must be very close to front, but not quite in it. They need to be aware of the external world, communicative, and right on the edge of switching in. It's about being mildly dissociated, just enough to make it easier for everyone to affect the body from a distance without causing problems. If you're too connected to the world, you'll be sucked into front. If you're too disconnected, you won't be close enough to affect the body, and you may be unable to do anything at all. It's a delicate balance to find and one that will likely take trial and error. The goal is feeling like everyone is watching from a distance while still being able to reach out and influence the body at will.
From there, it's a matter of system members reaching out to move the body. Coordination is essential. Think of it like putting on a glove. Everyone needs to be holding the glove, but not quite in it; they take turns slipping their fingers into it to wiggle its fingers, then pulling back out to hold it. Too many people in the glove is hard to coordinate and makes it harder to hold the glove. Letting go of the glove means it falls to the ground or is being fully worn by someone. Know your limits and communicate throughout. If you start feeling too dissociated or foggy, stop and ground yourselves immediately. Serious dissociation isn't worth it, and you don't want to trigger involuntary switching if you're prone to it.
If your system members share a single sense of consciousness, microswitching may be easier. You can use the method for stepping in and out of the body's "I" to quickly move members around within front, as well as in and out of it, by asking members to come closer or back up a little without stepping away entirely. This allows you to cycle members so that one or more have dominant control without removing others from front, allowing for rapid changes in self. Think of it like your brain has a spotlight. Whoever is in the spotlight calls the shots, but there are others on stage too who could step into the spotlight. You could also try moving the spotlight instead of moving the people- whichever makes more sense to you.
With practice, microswitching can be very useful for group conversations. It lets you all write in a journal in quick succession, play games like Connect 4 together, and otherwise rapidly alternate control without the downsides of fully switching. Be careful with practicing, though. It's not hard to take the dissociation too far and wind up in discomfort or distress. Have a plan to ground yourselves, know your limits, and take it slow. If you start feeling anxious or upset at any point, or like there's resistance, stop. You're feeling that upset for a reason, and you should address that reason before continuing.
Coping with involuntary switches
I'd hazard a guess that if you're reading an article on how to voluntarily switch, you struggle with doing so. Switching involuntarily can make life difficult sometimes. You can wind up in situations you didn't choose, and if you experience amnesia, you might not know how you got there or where things went. You've probably done well so far coping with it. After all, you've had to adapt, and you've probably got one or two systems in place to compensate and hide any issues. It doesn't hurt to add more ideas to the pile.
Having a plan for what to do right after a switch is useful. It doesn't have to be a fancy plan. It could be as simple as "keep doing whatever you were doing before", or it could be a whole procedure for catching up and sharing memories. It's a good idea to ground after a switch if you tend to dissociate. It makes it easier to settle into yourself and interact with the world. Having a list of grounding techniques that work for you can go a long way.
If you experience amnesia, keeping a shared journal of what happened can be very helpful for filling in memory gaps. If nothing else, it lets you know what everyone was up to and improves communication between you all. You don't have to go "dear diary" and pour your heart out for this to help. You could bullet point what's happened, or list it off: "fed dog, bought groceries, napped". If you're artistically inclined, a comic or doodle journal can be a great way to log things. What matters is that it's something you can sustain. Having a journal to fill in memory gaps doesn't help much if no one uses it. Keep it on hand, make notes often, and try to spread the word to the others that you're keeping a shared journal.
If someone ever notices differences in your behavior and you don't feel like explaining everything, it's handy to have a scripted response ready. "I'm tired", "yeah, I'm in a bit of a weird mood today", and similar mundane explanations for behavioral differences work well. After all, plurality isn't the first thing most people think of when someone acts differently. You can pass off even obvious differences with the right response. If you suddenly have an accent, you could say you pick things up from TV shows sometimes, or that you're trying to practice the accent for fun. Voice pitch changes are easy to pass off as being tired if someone asks, though most people don't notice them. Odds are that you can get away with telling people you're tired or in a weird mood in most cases and they'll drop the issue. Most of the time, people aren't likely to notice at all, especially if you mask your plurality.
Resisting a switch
You will eventually need to let go of front, but you can buy time until you're ready to let someone else in. There are all kinds of reasons you might want to do this- you might not feel comfortable switching in public, for example. You might feel that the system member switching in would be unsafe in front at that time. Whatever your reason, you can delay a switch with some effort.
Grounding is your best friend when trying to hang onto front. If it keeps you at least somewhat present, it'll help. Some common grounding exercises include paying attention to specific sensory details (counting floor tiles, noticing 5 things you can see and describing them, moving your body, etc.), listing information about yourself and your present situation, counting or doing math in your head, and anything else that forces you to think or pay attention to the present world. Don't do anything that would hurt you, but do whatever it takes to stay present.
Doing thing you associate with yourself is another way to ground yourself in front. If there's music you really like that the others aren't as enthusiastic about, or something you strongly associate with yourself being present, leaning into it can help hold you in place until it's safe to switch. You may find it helpful to borrow a technique from voluntary switching and pretend to be yourself in an exaggerated way; rather than doing so to cause a switch, you're doing it to stave one off and enforce your presence. Try to avoid doing things associated with other system members. When you're struggling to hang onto front to begin with, doing things that call others forward will probably push you out of their way.
Internal metaphorss can also be effective. Pushing the others backwards, trying to push yourself through your body's eyes, building a shield around yourself so no one can "move" you out of the body, tying yourself into front, and more can help hold you in place. If you can recruit another system member to push you into front, that can also help, but that's not always possible if you don't have good internal communication or much separation.