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One Self or Many Selves?

Understanding why we have a multiplicity of self-states.

"Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their head." — William James

"But the concept of the self loses its meaning if a person has multiple selves…the essence of self involves integration of diverse experiences into a unity…In short, unity is one of the defining features of selfhood and identity." — Roy Baumeister

These two quotes capture competing perspectives on one of the most longstanding puzzles of human psychology: What is the self? And, more specifically, is there just one "self" in each person or do we really consist of many different selves?

When faced with this question, most people respond initially that there is just one “self” and that is the "me" who is reading this blog post! My hope for this rather lengthy post is that it will give you a clearer sense of why this is such a complex question.

Let’s start with a basic common sense response and say that there is a single self. This position can initially be justified by the basic observation that we inhabit one body. My body can be conceived of as an object and like most “normal-sized” objects, it exists in one location in space and time and in that sense it is singular.

But deeper reflection reveals that we are not usually talking about the physical body when we are talking about the self. If so, my "self" would still be there if I had a heart attack and fell to the floor and died. But most people, myself included, would say that a dead body does not contain the self; the self resides in the dimension of the mental and cultural and is not really reducible to the physical and biological (see here and here for my naturalistic analysis of dimensions of reality).

That raises the question, what does the self consist of? In other posts (see here and here), I describe the human self as consisting of three related, but also separable domains.

The first domain is the experiential self. This is the "theater of consciousness" and the first-person felt experience of being. In this context, it includes the felt consistency of being across periods of time. In that sense, it is tied very closely to memory. This is the part of you that “disappears” when you enter deep sleep, flickers on and off as you dream, and then comes back online as you wake up.

In this TED Talk, the famed neuropsychologist, Antonio Damasio shares his thoughts on this portion of the self—and he appropriately notes that it is a portion that relates very directly to experiential consciousness. It also relates deeply to your core drives/needs and emotionally organized feeling states. This level of self is a mental capacity we share with other animals, and it presumably forever disappears when we die (at least from a naturalistic perspective).

A second portion of the human self is called the private self-consciousness system. In more common parlance, we can call this the “narrator” (or interpreter), because is the portion of your being that verbally narrates what is happening and why and tries to make sense of what is going on. As you read this post and think about what it means, this is your verbal narrator working. It is also the part that includes your reportable self-concept and explicit beliefs and values about the way the world works (e.g., your religious and political beliefs). This portion of the self is what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self.”

The final portion of the self is the public self or persona. It refers to the public image that you attempt to project others, which in turn interacts with how other people actually see you—the crucial element of this portion of the self is referenced in the James quote above.

Mapping these three parts of “the human self” gives clues about the primary focus of this post, which is becoming aware that although we tend to experience a sense of continuity and unity of the self, the fact of the matter is that it is much too simple to say that we have one self and be done with it.

If you have ever been surprised by how you acted or felt confused, conflicted, or uncertain about who you truly are, or realized how dramatically different you feel in different situations or in different moods, then you know that this thing we call the "self" can have many different and often competing facets and states—and if you haven’t had this experience, then you probably have not been paying too much attention!

To see what I mean, let’s start with an everyday example that recently happened to me, and then let me give an extreme example from my clinical practice a decade ago. The other day, I received a call on the heels of a conference presentation I offered, in which the caller invited me to be in charge of the membership of a particular organization. The caller, who interacted with me on several occasions during the conference but did not know me prior to the event, said to me, “We need someone in charge of membership like you who is gregarious and socially engaging.”

Later, when I told my wife about the way he characterized me, she laughed said, “I thought you psychologists could read people. He obviously failed there!” My wife, who knows me very well, was basing this comment on the fact that in many social situations I tend to be fairly reserved, am hesitant to make "small talk," and am more likely to find myself in a corner rather than the center of attention. So, which is the “real me?" Gregarious or reserved?

Now consider a patient I worked with, call her Hannah. I met Hannah because she was enrolled in a clinical research study I was running for folks who attempted suicide (between 1999 and 2003). She had made many serious attempts. In a fairly short period of time, I began to see that there were many dramatically different sides to Hannah.

First, she presented as cold and aloof. Then, by about our third or fourth session, she switched, attaching to me, praising me, telling me she thought I could “save” her and that she needed to keep seeing me. Then as the therapy progressed, I saw a rageful, destructive part of her. I had Hannah doing some diary work, and when she became activated in this way, she wrote differently, talked differently, and had different memories (in addition to relating to me dramatically differently). She even had a different name for herself (Fran) and often could not remember what Hannah was doing when she adopted the persona of Fran.

Hannah had been seriously and horribly abused as a child, both physically and sexually, over many years. She suffered from what used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder and what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. MPD/DID is a fascinating (and tragic) condition and has been a controversial diagnosis (which is one of the reasons the name was changed). It is controversial precisely because it seems that some individuals do operate as radically different personalities within the same body, and yet this observation clashes with the strong felt sense that each individual has a single person residing within them. (It is also controversial because it is so exotic that it provides an incentive to fake it or fake report on it).

My overall point with these two examples is that it is very clear that people have a multiplicity of self-states; without wading into the complicated debate about the validity of MPD/DID, at the very least DID shows how extreme these multiple self-states can be in people. Moreover, as a clinician, although DID is very unusual, it is very common in the clinic room to see a situation when the multiplicity of self-states is an obvious source of distress and maladaptive behavior patterns.

Because of this and the general value of self-knowledge, it is important for folks to understand the forces that go into why we humans experience a multiplicity of self-states, which is what follows here.

Conceiving the “self” as patterns of behavior through time. Although we often think about the self as a “thing,” it is also the case that one can think of the self as a pattern of behavior through time. In this view, the “I” is synonymous with what I feel, think, and do feel across time. When examined in this light, then the idea that there are multiple self-states becomes clear in the sense that we do very different things across time. This basic insight frees us to think about the self in a much more dynamic way, as opposed to attempting to characterize it as a specific, fixed, and unchanging object.

Situations matter. Thinking of the self as a pattern of behavior across time blends into another key point as to why we have a multiplicity of self-states, which is that our behavior is largely a function of the situation. This fact should not be too surprising, but as fellow PT blogger Sam Sommers points out, it is a surprisingly easy thing to lose sight of.

If we go back to my everyday example, there are some situations that are rewarding for me to be gregarious, whereas there are other situations that are much less so. If I am in a situation where others will reward talk about theoretical and philosophical dimensions of psychology, I am likely to become energized and talkative. However, if the social system is rewarding talk about other topics I both know and care little about, I become reserved. In short, change the situation and you change my behavior; thus I enter into a different self-state.

It is also, of course, the case that our self is defined by roles that society has constructed. There are very different expectations for me as a husband as opposed to a friend as opposed to the director of a doctoral program in professional psychology. And not only that, how I experience myself will be hugely influenced by how others see me, a point so important that we need to spell it out further.

Our sense of self is shaped deeply by others. James Mark Baldwin has a great quote that “ego and alter are born together,” which means our self-concept is foundationally shaped both by how others see us and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

This starts with our earliest attachments when our fundamental sense of security is shaped by how well our caretakers were attuned to our needs and vulnerabilities. Thus we come to experience ourselves first via the eyes of others.

In addition, our self-consciousness system was shaped as a social reason-giving device. That means that our “narrator” first starts off via speech narrating to others why we are doing what we are doing, and this means that our self-concept is formed in large part by the audiences.

In terms of a multiplicity of self-states, this means that our self-concept is deeply influenced by the “audience” we initially narrate to. Change the audience, and we change the self. That is in part what William James is getting at in his quote.

An excellent example of this was found in a classic social psychology experiment on attractiveness. In the experiment, done in the 1970s, men and women, who had never met, were arranged to have a phone conversation. The man was given a picture of the woman he was talking to. The picture actually was either of a very attractive woman or a much less attractive woman (this was the experimental manipulation; it was not really a picture of the other woman).

The transcripts of the conversation were taken and then the male’s portion was removed. Independent reviewers then assessed the female’s portion of the conversation for the degree of friendliness, engagement, and likability. And, lo and behold, the women who were talking to men who believed they were talking to someone beautiful were rated as being more positive on these socially desirable qualities. In short, our very essences are profoundly shaped by others and how others see us.

The core self is organized by motives and emotions—and these fluctuate! Our experiential self forms the organized core of our self, and it in turn is organized by emotions that are tied to our goals. As I note in this post, our perceptual-motivational-emotional system will fluctuate, depending on things like biorhythms (time of day, month, season) and what goals have been sated (e.g., hunger, sex, sleep) or are active.

A vivid example of this is the hunger drive. In her wonderful novel, Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand reports on the life of Louie Zamperini, a WWII vet, who is shot down and spends six weeks on a raft with a fellow soldier. As their hunger sets in, it comes to completely dominate their minds, such that they smell food, dream about food, and talk of food around the clock.

We have evolved “sub-selves.” We can be even more specific about our motivational systems and how they give rise to our experience of a multiplicity of self-states. In The Rational Animal (2013), PT Blogger Doug Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius argue that there are seven major evolutionary goal states that have shaped our psychology in profound ways; as such we should consider ourselves as really a collection of “sub-selves” that have different perceptual-motivational-emotional structures designed to solve the following adaptive problems: 1) self-protection/injury avoidance; 2) disease avoidance; 3) affiliation; 4) status-seeking; 5) mate acquisition; 6) mate retention; and 7) kin care. Importantly, because these different sub-selves have different goals, they may often be in conflict and different situations will activate them in different ways.

The present versus future self. One of the most common conflicts between self-states that people experience is the conflict between their present and their future self (here is a TedTalk on this).

Almost everyone can relate to this. Our current self wants the piece of cake, but our future self wants to be fit and trim. Our current self wants to be relaxed by a cool drag on a cigarette, but our future self does not want lung cancer. Our current self wants to take the day off and go on a vacation, but our future self does not want to face an annoyed boss or depleted bank account.

As fellow PT blogger, A. David Redish articulates brilliantly in his book The Mind Within the Brain, the mind (of which the self as we are thinking about it is a part) is an action selection system that consists of many different subsystems that operate on different time scales. The most basic is the reflex system, which operates almost instantaneously. Another quick acting/reacting system is the emotional-Pavlovian response system. There is also, however, a deliberative system that extends the animal/human in time, simulating future situations and future costs and benefits.

Because these systems compute action selection differently, then it is not at all uncommon to experience very different and conflicting self-states as a consequence. And, as any addict can attest, these systems can produce very different and highly conflicted self-states.

The sense of self-continuity across time is dependent on memory systems. I have been thinking of writing this post for the last couple of weeks. How do I know this? Because I have memory systems that connect my current self to my past self. As anyone who has experienced amnesia, worked with a demented elder, or had an alcohol-induced blackout, if the memory system is knocked out, the self-system is greatly compromised.

As I note in this post, we have several memory systems that are relevant, including short and long-term, as well as procedural, episodic, and semantic. Crucial for understanding why we have so many different potential self-states is that these memory systems are influenced by many different things. For example, we code memories by emotional states. Thus, if you are in a happy mood, you remember positive events; in contrast, being in a negative mood results in being more likely to recall disappointments and failures.

In addition, the memory system, as described here, organizes events based on themes and is heavily shaped by primacy, recency, and goal states. Because memories are encoded by emotion, traumas can result in very powerful shifts in memory systems, such that for some, they can be blocked out completely and for others, they can result in chronic activation. PTSD occurs in some folks because of the inability of the memory system to effectively integrate and habituate to the trauma, which can then result in fairly dramatic changes to the self-state.

Psychodynamic defense mechanisms. The autobiographical self, or ego, is a knowledge system that is organized by different forces. Most notably, it is inclined toward aligning information that is: 1) accurate and coherent; 2) consistent with existing structures; and 3) enhances the self, depicting it has good, right, and effective (here and here are some additional posts on this topic).

Because of the need to see one’s self in this manner and to manage one’s impulses and the impressions that one forms in others, the human psyche comes equipped with filters that shift attention, block impulses, and rationalize events. These processes have been documented by psychodynamic theorists in great detail.

Dissociative Identity Disorder represents perhaps the most extreme manifestations of these processes, such that aspects of the self are so “split off” or “compartmentalized” (see here) that not only is the person not conscious of them (which is common), but whole personalities can be built around them and then emerge.

In sum, there are many forces that influence and shape our sense of self such that in retrospect is it no surprise that we all experience a multiplicity of self-states. In fact, with so many forces, it is almost a miracle that we have a sense of continuity at all!

However, as Damasio notes, an experiential reference point is crucial for learning over time, and this, in addition to the capacity to integrate many streams of information at once, is likely why nature gave us experiential consciousness. And autobiographical consciousness becomes a stabilizing force when one realizes that they themselves are the audience that they are justifying their actions to as they engage in private speech. It is this sense of “I” that remains fairly constant across settings and functions, not unlike the executive of a company—the company is far larger and more divergent than she is, but she nevertheless remains a central control point.

A quote from Carl Jung captures the emergence of this frame of reference brilliantly:

I was taking the long road to school…when suddenly for a single moment I had the overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: I am myself!...Previously I had existed, too, but everything merely happened to me…Previously I had been willed to do this and that: now I willed. This experience seemed to me tremendously important and new: there was “authority” in me.

Many people, however, struggle to form a stable, healthy executive that serves as a coherent control system for the multiplicity of self-states that emerge as a function of shifting moods, biorhythms, roles situations, and relationships, and so on. Instead, they experience themselves as a collection of competing, incoherent parts, which can create much conflict, functional impairment, and distress. For these individuals, they need a form of psychotherapy that recognizes the multiplicity of self-states (e.g., see Parts Psychology by Jay Noricks) and allows them pathways to begin to weave together these parts of self into a more functioning whole.

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