Rejoining Joy

Ways of living

The Multiple Parts of the Self

Leading Yourself to the Stage of Growth

Dan felt he did not know himself. "Who am I? What is important to me?  I cannot figure that out." He asked questions like these, and moved from one opinion about his core self to another, to the exasperation of his parents. Salem felt the same way, but she related her angst to her feminine identity and culture. "I'm trying to strike out on a different path, but family tell me what to do. They are too old country for me."

Many young people are trying to establish their roles, responsibilities, and sense of self. However, they need to accept that in all these areas changes are inevitable. Self-identity is never set as a tablet in stone, but keeps growing in one way or another. Moreover, the self consists of many parts, although this might not be apparent to us. We are used to thinking of the self as a single whole that defines us. For example, we might say that we have this particular characteristic or that specific passion.

Our sense of personhood is continually in transformation and seeking new areas of growth or parts. Even when our self seems to be stable, psychological energy is being expended to keep it in its present state. A stable self needs to ward off negative interferences or new ideas and aspirations that could affect it. It could be easier psychologically to entertain change than to reject it outright.

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Indeed, often we strike out in new directions that might be the most challenging of tasks. Moreover, after they are completed we might start out on another. That is, even though we might think that we especially seek stability, often, after getting to a stable plateau, we seek new tasks or we encounter new problems that shake our stability and move us to growth. In these cases, the self can branch out and find new areas of growth and different parts.

Of course, it might be quite difficult to confront even the smallest of tasks in the day if we are depressed, too worried, angry at life, or fearful to the point of panic and being frozen in our actions. We might have suffered greatly and cannot take the step of feeling the suffering of others. Our core self might seem overwhelmingly negative to us, with little hope on the horizon. In these cases, the self has little room to grow.

Or, we might withdraw from a task or problem, feeling that we cannot handle it, or lack resources to help us with it. We might come to believe that we cannot cope or cannot do well. We might develop a psychology of failure, or a fear of change as part of our self-concept. In these cases, the self might even become more negative, constrict, or lose parts.

When our sense of self is limited by ideas of the self that corner us in spaces with little room for positive change, how can we take back the self from these limitations, even when we have created them ourselves? Part of the answer to this daunting question is to understand that the self is not one thing but a complex of multiple definitions and parts and to seek to have them grow and diversify into new areas.

How does this concept of multiple part selves apply to you? Even though you might think that your self is a unity, and is stable and cannot change, your self might be chafing for change and growth. Your self is psychologically complex, and it could be reaching out in new directions without you being aware of it. Or, you might take a very open decision to seek out new directions in self-growth and explore new avenues in the self.

Each of your parts has developed out of your past experiences, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Some of the parts of your self might be more prominent, for example, in the way that you present yourself to other people or in how you define yourself in moments of self-reflection.

Other parts of your self might be hidden or masked and rarely become evident. One example is that you might behave in one way most of the time when you are with other people but you might behave differently when you are with a best friend.

Parts of your self that are masked or hidden are still in your core self. You need to see them as waiting for you to give them more space or time in your core self, and to have them grow so that they are more evident to you and to others.

Think of the self as having potential parts in waiting for you to activate and have grow. Parts of your self might consist of dreams or wishes that guide you at times, but are only just glimmers in the making. Or, they might be only hopes, but they still could be very powerful motivations in your psychology. These types of part selves are the ones you should try to grow, because they can lead the way for the others, and might help you eliminate or control the parts that are problematic to you. Growth can be actively undertaken; you do not have to wait for others to start changing your sense of self.

Also, there might be quite negative parts of your self that should be better controlled or eliminated. However, you might not know how to do this, or you might even sabotage all efforts to do this. Some negative parts of the self or negative habits do not go away by wishful thinking. They require much psychological work. For example, you might present as extremely virtuous and moral to others, but drink to excess occasionally, and then be rude or act even worse.

This illustrates that your self parts might be in competition or conflict amongst themselves. They might have not learned to share the stage and find balance. No matter what happens, you remain the leader of the growth of your self, and can find new ways, paths, and joys. Dim the lights of the stage so that you can start the next scene in the growth of your self and its parts.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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