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What Holds Our Selves Together?

Maintaining your self in the face of loss

Most of us believe in the necessary fiction of a unified self, while at the same time knowing that we consist of different selves.

Sometimes we experience our different selves very directly – with an abrupt change in mood or while intoxicated or during a heated argument. After an argument, we might say, “I don’t know what got into me, I wasn't myself.” After a challenging night, we may experience a morning self that wonders what our nighttime self was thinking. Sometimes our different self is joyous, which happens when we fall in love.

We also experience general conditions that require a belief in two selves: one self that regulates or judges and another self that is being regulated or judged. Self control, for example, requires a regulating self that limits the excessive desires of the other, appetitive self. Self criticism requires a judging self that critiques the qualities of the other, deficient self.

We hold our different selves together, so that we can function effectively in the world as one coherent self.

After a loss, however, this unified experience can come apart. It is then that we may encounter unsettling conflict among our multiple selves. We say “I’m fine” when people ask us how we are, even though we feel far from fine. We carry on with our exterior lives, even as we feel a disconnect between the person we present to the world and the person we experience from within. Our lives feel split and inauthentic.

In these situations, how can we hold our selves together and restore a healthy, honest unity?

To begin, we must recognize the different categories of self knowledge that contribute to our overall experience of self. We define our selves through our relationships with other people (the interpersonal self), through our bodily capabilities (the physical self), through our memories (the remembered self), and through our self concepts (the conceptual self).

With a break-up, we experience a rupture in the interpersonal self. We are different people with different people. Without the other person in our lives, we've lost part of our former interpersonal self. With a serious injury or illness, we are no longer the physical self we once were. Our remembered self can then provide solace – or torment.

It is the conceptual self – our defining set of concepts – that holds our changed selves together. Our conceptual self, for example, may include the concepts of athletic, considerate, humorous, stubborn, teacher, married, outgoing, physically fit, sister, intelligent, religious – among other roles and qualities.

By maintaining the concepts that make sense in our present situation, de-emphasizing or eliminating those concepts that no longer seem appropriate, and adding new concepts, we can restore a healthy self in the midst of unsettling change. We can exercise choice with the concepts in our conceptual self.

If we develop a serious injury, we can still think of ourselves as healthy, but with limitations that our resilience can compensate for and learn from. If we lose our job, we can redefine our professional concepts to accommodate a different job and possibly a different life style.

If we break up from a loving relationship, we can give up the self concept that binds us into a couple and take on a definition of single and open to new relationships. We can also de-emphasize the importance of being professionally productive and allow ourselves time to grieve.

None of this is easy. It takes work and persistence to change our self concepts. But the conceptual self is especially malleable and well suited for re-unifying our different selves. We cannot bring back the people or abilities we’ve lost, but we can re-conceptualize our self and hold together our different selves differently. We can, in turn, choose different aspects of our remembered self when constructing our life stories, reselecting memories to highlight different events of the past.

In this way, our conceptual self can accommodate changes in our interpersonal and physical selves and reunite them to form a coherent, authentic experience of self.

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today