Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Our Many Selves

Do you have more than one self?

Nick is a polished, intelligent, and well-spoken guy; but when he got up to make a presentation at work recently, someone else seemed to have stepped into his skin. "I couldn't string two words together," he said. "Nothing that came out of my mouth made any sense."

Ellie is a loving and gentle mother. But when her three year old screamed "I HATE YOU!" during a temper tantrum, Ellie felt as though she had suddenly become someone else. "It wasn't my mother," she said. "It was me - age 3 years! I couldn't think! I felt like I was going to have a tantrum myself! It was as though my own three year old self had been hiding inside me for all these years and suddenly popped out!"

Most of us have felt like we've been invaded by an alien (even one that used to be a part of ourselves) at one time or another. Maybe you found yourself being unpleasant to your mother-in-law after you promised yourself (and your spouse) that you would ignore her hurtful comments; or your normally friendly self was replaced by a tongue tied imbecile in front of that hot new lawyer who joined your team recently; or you had every intention of eating only two cookies, but someone else (inside you) made you eat the whole bag.

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This invasion of the body snatchers can work the other way, too. Lou's experience is a perfect example. She was at her desk, doing some work, when her boss called her into her office. Several other executives were there. Lou's boss asked her to give an impromptu progress report on a rather obscure part of the work the office had been doing. "If I had had time to prepare," Lou told me, "I would have been a wreck." Instead, she was calm and relaxed and gave a perfect presentation. "Who was that woman?" she asked herself. "Not me!!"

Politicians, professional athletes and actors are all famous for having public and private personas - although these days there's not as much to hide behind as there was before the days of the internet. Superheroes also frequently lead double lives - think Superman and Clark Kent, Batman and Bruce Wayne, Spiderman and Peter Parker...you get the idea. (Hmm...I did a search for female superheroes and couldn't find anyone with the same general popularity. If you know of one, please let me know...this is clearly a topic for another post...)

But maybe you'd rather not be lumped with either politicians or superheroes. It might help to know that psychologists have come to believe that it is normal to have many selves. For one thing, we are neurologically programmed to respond differently to different people and situations. At one time psychoanalysts believed in what they called a "true," "private," or "core" self which was not always seen by other people, but was consistently with us at all times, even when we did not have access to it.

Stephen Mitchell, a New York psychoanalyst and author, suggests that all of our selves are true. Some are more private or hidden than others, but that doesn't make them any more real than those that are visible to the world.

You may be more comfortable thinking of these different selves as different aspects of yourself. Since psychological health comes from integrating these different selves, that's how I generally look at them; but I also know that the feeling is often that there is a completely different being inhabiting your body right now.

Pablo Neruda captures the feeling in a wonderful poem called "We are many" Here is just one example of what he says:

"When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth."

According to Dr. Mitchell, these different selves (or, if you prefer, different unintegrated aspects of yourself) serve a very important function. They represent our ability to respond and adapt to different situations and different people. Unfortunately, those adaptations aren't always in our favor, for example when we act silly or stupid in front of someone we badly want to impress; but this quality makes it possible for babies, for example, to smile happily when greeted by different personalities and voices. This way they get positive reactions from Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma, sister, brother, caregiver, and so on!

Unfortunately, we start to suppress some of the selves that get the least response in our lives as we develop into adults. So when these selves suddenly appear, we are taken aback and have no idea what to do with them.

So what can you do so that you don't end up in Nick's situation?

First, the more you can acknowledge the different selves that exist in you, the more you can have some idea of when they might appear. For example, Nick realized that he was not only attempting to impress his boss, but that at the same time he was concerned about the possibility that some parts of his presentation would show a colleague and good friend in a bad light. His tongue tied self appeared just in time to stop him from saying something that would have incriminated this friend. When he realized that this was what had triggered the appearance of that other self, he also realized that he could have organized his presentation differently; but he also realized that he had been avoiding dealing with a serious problem at work that was related to his friend.

Once you've recognized the different selves and what they are trying to do, you can make decisions about how to approach any difficulty. Nick, for example, decided to open up a conversation with his friend to see if together they could figure out a way to fix the difficulty; and if not, he would have to search for some way to find a solution that worked for his self that wanted to stand out at work and the one that wanted to protect his friend.

"At least now these different selves are out in the open and even shaking hands," he said. "Now I guess I have to get them to talk to each other."

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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