The Integral 3-2-1 process expanded into a 1-2-3-1 process

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


All of us in Integral have heard about and practiced the 3-2-1 process.

  • Third person: I’m distressed, and find myself angry, sad, or frightened of another, depersonalizing him or her into a dangerous, upsetting, or abusive “it”—3rd person.
  • Second person: I change that perspective into me feeling/thinking negatively about a human “you”—second person.
  • First person: I then look at how I’m manifesting similar thoughts/feelings/behaviors (which I’ve been projecting outward onto you), changing my orientation towards taking responsibility for “me”—first person.

3-2-1, like Byron Katie’s work and most cognitive therapies, presupposes someone shifting from a defensive state into some capacity for compassionate self-awareness before doing the processes, and that is an awfully big presupposition considering how our nervous systems resist such self-awareness when gripped in defensive states. It also focuses on our relationships with others, but often our biggest problems come in relationships with different parts of ourselves—our rageful self, ashamed self, inner critic, frightened self, anxious self, cynical self, despairing self, and so on.

As a practitioner, that shift from defensive state to a state of healthy response, able to do techniques like 3-2-1, has always been a central therapeutic challenge. In sessions, therapists use the power of the lower left quadrant intersubjective relationship to help clients make transitions from defensive states into states of healthy response, where the client has some form of compassionate witness activated, thus making numerous healing moves possible. In my book on Integrally informed psychotherapy, Waking up, I suggest that what therapists actually do is relate, teach, inspire, confront, interpret, and direct. That relate piece is the sin qua non that enables therapists to help clients make the shift from defensive resistance to openness for positive change.

Once some compassionate self-observation is on-line, 3-2-1 can be utilized in interpersonal tangles, but, as I just mentioned, there are unconscious complexities in human consciousness, like dealing with our many interior selves, that often respond well to other dynamics, one of which is a 1-2-3-1 sequence. Let’s look at 1-2-3-1 in response to the experience of shame—where everyone encounters the infamous “inner critic.”

Shame, like most pain, makes us extraordinarily self-focused. We experience real or imagined disapproval and our interior moral compass generates a shame emotion and a self-critical story to support it. For instance, say I’m telling my heavy friend a story about a super heavy individual who behaved badly, see the distress on the face of my friend, and then collapse into a shame spiral of humiliation and negative self-absorption—an intensely painful first person, “I” experience.

An effective way to process shame is 1-2-3-1.

  • First person: I begin with “I am ashamed for making a mistake,” and feel my inner critic lambasting and judging me—an intense first person discomfort.
  • Second person: I can address myself in the second person, “Keith, you meant well. Your friend still cares for you, even though you made an insensitive remark. You can learn from this to stay more attuned to your audience when you’re telling a story.”
  • Third person: I can move on to narrating and revising my story in the third person, “Keith got caught up in complaining about being attacked by this big person, and lost track of his friend who struggles with his weight. He learned that he needs to pay extra attention to his audience when telling a critical story.”
  • First person: This new story is more Keith-positive, and pulls me back into first person perspective thinking, “I’m basically a good guy who made a mistake and have learned from it.”

What both 3-2-1 and 1-2-3-1 reflect is the Integral principle that vertical development leads us to more easily inhabit different perspectives—with each perspective having its own unique state of consciousness. In a 2nd tier moment there is felt appreciation for all points of view, which is felt appreciation for all states, with an openness to find deeper truths in all stories. What we’ve learned in psychotherapy is that all states have stories, and that painful states need more that acknowledgement and acceptance—they need attention to more positive states and more beautiful, good, and true stories. The 1-2-3-1 process as well as the 3-2-1 process are effective technologies in making these shifts, once someone has used breath, body, wisdom, connection, and focus to weaken a defensive state enough to allow more compassionate understanding in the present moment.

I personally think techniques like these give our brains choices of where to go in different situations—a form of neurofeedback—that eventually is incorporated enough into our adaptive unconscious (our Shadow selves) that we need less and less conscious intent to make positive shifts. Fractal boundaries, like the interface between shameful shutdown and reaching for compassionate understanding, are where development takes place—where we self-organize to greater complexity, which in humans often takes the form of deeper consciousness and more compassion. This is another example of personal evolution accelerated by our superpowers of focused intent and action, in service of principle, and driven by resolve.


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