© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 1 November 2018
In my discussions with clients, some are surprised when I use the idea of them having multiple selves as a way to understand elements of their experience. Therapists often think about the concepts of identity and multiplicity differently than the general public. Below I explain some of the core differences.
Commonly, people think of being one individual self – something we use the word “I” for. When they think about multiple selves, it’s often an extreme and pathological image coloured by movies and other media representations of ‘split personality’ like the movie Psycho or The Many Faces of Eve. It is indeed true that experiencing severe repeated trauma can result in people having multiple separate selves which are often unaware of each other. This is called ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’. In the public, this is sometimes confused with ‘Schizophrenia’ (likely because it literally means “split mind” in Latin) but that’s a separate condition which is more about being unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
The kind of multiplicity I’m talking about is both more subtle and more commonplace – so much so that we don’t usually realise it’s even occurring. Most of us are think, feel and behave a little differently in different contexts. For example, we’re more restrained at work, yet we’re more relaxed with our friends. We behave differently around our parents, and differently again with our lovers. These different ‘versions’ usually have a fair bit of overlap and we don’t even notice the shifts between them – it’s all largely automatic and unremarkable.
Still these different selves can often have different reactions to the same events and the same people. Where it comes into more common experience is when you hear people talk about parts of themselves, for example “part of me loves him and part of me hates him”. That’s not just a figure of speech, it’s actually true.
Our different “parts” can be in conflict with each other. One of the ways this can show is when we surprise ourselves by behaving in a way that is ‘out of character’ for the context we’re in. We might speak up at work when we’re normally soft-spoken there because we see or hear something we can’t tolerate. One of our other selves has briefly seized the stage and then faded into the background. Afterwards, back in our normal work ‘self’, we may be left slightly shocked and surprised, wondering why we just blurted that out.
However, if we’ve experienced some difficulty in life, either when we were younger or as an adult, there can be ‘pieces’ of our experience - how we felt, thought, and behaved - that are kept more separate from our usual day-to-day awareness. This is often because we felt emotionally overwhelmed at the time and our sense of continuity was impacted. We didn’t get the support we needed at the time to help us integrate this troubling experience into our narrative memory - our self-story.
As a result, when something in the present triggers the re-emergence of this ‘self ‘, it’s more jarring and we can feel like we right back there experiencing it all over again. For example, a relationship breakup might trigger us into an intense state of despair and sadness in which we re-experience the loss of a beloved parent or grandparent if we weren’t able to grieve properly at the time. Overhearing a shouted argument might trigger us into powerful feelings of fear and helplessness in which we re-experience the frightening arguments our parents used to have.
When we’re inside these states, it can feel like they’ll go on forever. This is the timeless quality of this kind of trauma and it’s because the experience has not yet been integrated into our sequential memory. Once we manage to shift back out of these states, it can be hard to remember and relate to how we were just feeling. We can wonder if it was real or whether we made it up. In fact, if what we experienced was unpleasant, we can wish it wasn’t real so we try to minimise it and avoid thinking about it. But it keeps happening. The drive to integrate and understand difficult moments in our lives is part of the minds attempt to heal. This process is trying to help us achieve wholeness but it can have unfortunate timing and it generally goes better when you have someone who cares about you to guide you through it.
If internal conflict between your selves or intense states of powerful emotion are causing you confusion or distress, talking to a caring professional can make a big difference. Honouring and integrating the different voices that live inside us makes for a more meaningful and harmonious existence in which we get to know and respect all of ‘us’.