Another Trinity of You

The experiential essence, the narrator, and the persona.

Posted Apr 21, 2013

About a month ago, a popular PT blog described three major approaches to ideas about the nature of the self and identity. Some ideas in the field emphasize how you are: a) like all other people (typicality); b) like some other people (relativity); and c) like no other person (variability). In this blog, I outline another trinity of you; the three domains of your self and consciousness that you attempt to harmonize in your everyday life.

Imagine the following. You have been deeply attracted to another person for some time, but haven’t said anything to anyone. In fact, you really haven’t even elaborated to yourself that you have such feelings. You show up at a party one night, only to find your best friend (who has always been popular with the opposite sex) flirting with the person you have been attracted to. Your friend sees you and invites you over. You feel a sudden flush of emotion, offer some excuse, and find your self heading outside for a deep breath and some centering thoughts.

Let’s introduce the three parts of your self, and then we will talk about why the above situation created significant disharmony between them. The first part of the self is the experiential essence. This is the sensory-motor, feeling-in-the-body, phenomenological self. Your gut-based drives and impulses, core emotions, and perceptions of reality are all part of your experiential self. It also consists of the stored episodes you have experienced in your life. It operates on largely on visual images (real or imagined) organized by emotion. In the example above, when you saw your friend flirting with the person you were attracted to, your experiential essence responded first—you took in the whole scene as a gestalt and had a series of strong emotions to it.

The second part of your self is your narrator. Your narrator is the verbal story teller that is narrating what you believe is happening and what your reasoned-based response is to the situation. The narrator works to weave episodes together into stories that make sense. The private self-talk that we all engage in—that is your narrator.  It is the self-conscious portion of your identity. It also stores your factual and conceptual knowledge (semantic memory described in this prior blog).

The third part of your self is your persona. Your persona is the public image you attempt to project and manage for the benefit of your relationship with other people. We generally want others to see us in a positive light (or at least in a sympathetically negative light), and we need to consider others’ perceptions of us and how they might react to what we do or say. Humans have such good “theory of mind” abilities (which is the ability to imagine what other people are thinking) in part because it helps them manage their persona.   

Now, here is the trick. It is often the case that these elements of the self become disharmonized. In the example above, seeing another person as “attractive” is part of the experiential essence—it emerges as a visual gestalt organized by a feeling. Yet the (language-based) meaning and implications of the feeling now needs to be processed by the narrator. But that can be complicated. Imagine, for example, you have been hurt by someone who reminds you of the person. Or you have told yourself you are not interesting in dating right now. Or the person works in the same office as you do. For any number of reasons, the narrator might be “resistant” to elaborating on the drive of attraction felt by the experiential self. Thus, you try to inhibit, block, or redirect your impulses and attention. This is why the feelings of attraction might not be elaborated on, even privately.   

Now imagine the further disharmony once you stumble upon the scene with your best friend flirting with this individual. You know that in terms of your public role, no one has done anything wrong, that their actions don’t explicitly violate any agreed upon contracts or expectations, or anything like that. And yet, your experiential system doesn’t care about that. It simply does not like what it sees. The impulse is to tell your friend to back off, that there are plenty of other people they can flirt with; maybe, even, a part of you wants to say that you have been jealous of their popularity. But as these impulses emerge they threaten the public persona. In short, if you acted on them, you would be making an ass out of yourself. So the narrator inhibits the immediate impulse. But given that your experiential self is sending confusing messages, it now is very difficult to manage the public persona in a calm effective way. Hence, you offer an excuse to justify your departure. Outside, your narrator works to develop a story about what you feel, what you should do and say, that attempts to harmonize the various domains.

As a clinician, one of the most central pieces I listen for in hearing people’s presenting problems is disharmony between the experiential, private narrator, and public persona. Conflicts between these domains and maladaptive short term strategies for dealing with them (e.g., stuffing uncomfortable feelings) are at the root of much suffering and psychological dysfunction.   


Some related TOK blogs on this topic: