Lately, one part of me can’t seem to sit down and write a blog post. It’s not that I don’t want to write or intend to give up blogging. The problem is another part of me has found dozens of other equally important or fascinating things to do with my time. Ever find yourself in the same position where you want to do something but other actions seem necessary or important? Or what about when you know you should do something but find yourself mindlessly scrolling on the computer? Well last week I happened to be listening to a podcast while doing my morning walk and discovered the likely answer. Apparently, each of us has many different “selves” within us that have different needs and agendas. I learned that the concept of multiple selves has existed within the psychological and philosophical awareness for decades. And according to some “experts” it can be very beneficial to us all to learn to understand, appreciate and orchestrate these selves into a coherent harmony. Let me explain.
The current podcast I heard was an interview with author and university professor James Fadiman, Ph.D. who carries degrees from both Harvard and Stanford. His book co-authored by Jordan Gruber is titled Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are. Fadiman challenges the idea that each of us contains only one personality and contests the idea it is pathological to recognize our multiple selves. In contrast, the idea that we only have one personality (called the “single self-assumption”) is patently false.
Don’t believe him? Ask yourself if you’ve ever had an argument with your self? Just who is doing the arguing with whom? Or have you ever had two different desires in your mind? Or if you’re like me, commonly referred to times when you feel you have two minds going at the same time? Fadiman believes we all have those minds going within us. But again, we tend to think multiple selves is pathological because most of us grew up thinking that Multiple Personality Disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) is a mental health condition. After all, didn’t most of us watch the movie Sybil back in the mid-seventies?
Instead, Fadiman and many others are convinced that multiple selves are completely normal and that we commonly have a variety of these selves inside of each of us. Sure, in some people there may be extreme cases where aspects of their personalities become destructive and refuse to harmonize, but that is extremely rare. Author and professor-emeritus Robert V Levine, author of The Face in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self agrees and said, “we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many and diverse and sometimes adversarial.” Levine continues to explain that “we are malleable to the core. Everything about us, from our bodies to our neural circuitry to our personalities, from situation to situation and one time frame to another, is ever-changing.” The good news is, we can make that collection a symphony or just a clanging bit of noise.
So why does it matter? And how does it help us to be aware of these multiple selves within us? According to Fadiman, Levine, and others it is because it can help us make better decisions and take better actions in the future. Fadiman claims it helps us to be “In the right mind at the right time.” For example, if we consciously make the shift to the right “mind” or self in each moment, we can better accomplish what we hope to do. Like the case of me wanting to write a blog post. If I wander around in a self that is more interested in calling up friends or hanging out on Facebook, I’ll never get any writing done. Instead, I can call on the part of me that enjoys writing and has the discipline to do it. Luckily that aspect of me is fairly well known to me so it wasn’t that difficult. Sometimes we might need to develop certain parts of us that aren’t so accessible (like that part that enjoys and finds exercise easy compared to the couch-potato part of me!) but the effort is worth it. The goal is to get our selves working as a team where we accomplish our intentions for the benefit of the whole.
Also, according to authors Hal and Sidra Stone Ph. Ds authors of Embracing Our Selves it is important not to suppress or “disown” the aspects of ourselves we don’t particular like or think are negative. Just like calling one of your children “stupid” or a “bad seed” that can actually lead that part of us to act-out or live up to what label we give it. Instead, by embracing all the different parts of our self and learning to work with them, we become whole beings better able to love and accept ourselves. Plus, when we learn to recognize those parts of ourselves, especially the ones less desirable, it makes us more forgiving and compassionate toward the “selves” of others that might be acting and doing things we find objectionable.
Fadiman also suggests that we ask ourselves in any given moment, is this the best part of me to deal with the task (or problem) at hand? For example, say I need and want to comfort a friend, but my humorous self is most active. Consciously shifting to a loving and supportive friend is something I might want to do. Or again, say you must show up at the bank for an interview. Do you want to look, act and dress like the self that prefers riding your bike or playing pickleball during that time? Self-awareness of your-self allows us to consciously shift when necessary to be as effective as we desire in any given situation.
Fadiman offers a story of Navy Seal Team as an example of how we can optimally train our mind to work together. Called “Dynamic Subordination” Seals are able to make dynamic movements and adjust choices and action in a group in a split-second way to optimize their needs. So too can we all learn to orchestrate our many selves to best achieve our needs and intentions. Or another example is a good jazz band. Being able to follow the lead of any particular solo with the other members supporting in an ebb and flow is also ideal. Again, the goal is to optimize our many selves into living and harmonizing in the way we hope to best present to the world.
How do we start? Just start paying attention to which self is active in any given moment. Learn to recognize if you are picking the right self in any given situation and then attempt to shift to one better suited to what you want to do and be. I like how Robert Levine describes it by saying “Fluidity creates malleability, and this malleability unleashes a wealth of potential. The very features of our self that can be so confusing — its arbitrary boundaries, multiplicity, and malleability — create possibilities for change.” He finishes by reminding us that, “The self is what we make of it. It is an act of creation. We are all heroes-in-waiting.”
So, as you can see, I was able to write this blog post rather easily once I shifted into the part of me that enjoys putting my thoughts to paper. Will it always be as simple? Maybe not. But the SMART approach will be to remember that I can shift when it’s important—and so can we all.
What an interesting read. Graduating with a psychology degree, I have studied a lot of the concepts these authors speak of. Of course, when I was in university back in the 80s, they weren’t as open minded about sharing different thoughts on established diagnoses. Glad to see things have changed and evolved for the better.
I do love Charles MID multiple interest disorder. I think I suffer from that as well. And yes, when I was working, I had my work self and when I left I had my home/personal self. Totally different people for the most part!! I agree with you that bringing to the forefront the persona who is needed for any given situation is the key to melding and getting them all to work together to make you the best person you can be in all situations.
Thanks for the inspiring post and fascinating conclusions!
Patricia Doyle says
I am learning to give myself some grace when I don’t do things I planned on. Like writing a blog, picking up the next study book, or planning an event. Maybe it is about the different selves within – the writer, the reader, the learner. I know when I was working, I definitely had a work-self and a home-self. Nowadays, I often try to downplay my domineering self and allow others to lead (and be OK with that!). When I studied enneagram, there were multiple parts of your personality – dominant, wing, thrive, stress – so I guess the multiplicity of self isn’t that new to me. I do love the metaphor of a harmonious symphony versus a lot of noise!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Pat! The author James Fadiman is also a fan of the Enneagram and says that those processes are all tools that help us to know ourselves better. I think that is why they both appeal to me. And YES to “tone down” any dominating self and let the others have both a voice and participation. Staying in a balanced and harmonious whole is a goal I’m shooting for! ~Kathy
Mona R McGinnis says
There are situations in which I have difficulty being my best self. One of my many selves at work? When asked, “Who do you think you are?” it’s difficult to answer succinctly thanks to those many selves. Like the Gestalt theory explains, I’d like to think that the whole is greater than any of the individual selves.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Mona! Yeah sometimes our “best” self seems more elusive. But from what I’ve read so far I’m thinking there isn’t necessarily a “best” self but rather a best self for the situation and your goals/intention in the moment. So if you are at work, allowing the self that brings you closer to your goals/values/intentions is overall best for you. And so too with all the other situations you find yourself in. And accepting all of those selves is what makes you “whole.” Does that make sense? (unless I missed what you were trying to say…) ~Kathy
Donna Connolly says
Hi, Kathy –
As with Tom, the suggestion that ‘we are more like a republic than an individual’ makes much sense to me.
I am delighted that the writing side of you won out for creating this post. I’ve missed them!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Awwww…thanks for the encouragement…I missed the writing side too! (hahaha!) But she is still there just a little too easily distracted! A real key for me is finding info that I find so interesting I just MUST write about it. Now that I’m home I’m back to reading and/or listening to podcasts and that always helps. Just about always something in there for one or two of my “selves” to get intrigued! ~Kathy
Retirement Reflections says
Gary Lange says
Yes, we can always become better…
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Gary! What’s the saying, “It’s the journey, not the destination?” Always more to learn and ways to improve. ~Kathy
Galen Pearl says
This is fascinating! I am very aware that I have “attached” to different identities at different times in my life, but I never really thought about having multiples selves at the same time. But it makes perfect sense. For example, by profession I’m a lawyer (retired). Within that umbrella label, I’ve been many things — a transaction consultant, a cross cultural training, a professor — each requiring different skills. Beyond “lawyer,” I have many other selves. I’m aware that I tap into different perspectives and skill sets as appropriate. Your examples were perfect. When my grandkids are upset about something, they don’t need a legal analysis, they need a love and comfort. I’ve always felt that my personality was hard to pin down — now I know why — I have so many of them!! Ha!
Also just caught up on your last post about your marriage. Congratulations!! Thanks for sharing your insights and your story.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Galen! Thank you once again for sharing such great examples of what the idea of multiple selves means and how they are such a part of our lives even if we aren’t consciously aware of them acting out. Thom has always teased me because my astrological sign is Gemini and that gives me permission to be two minds…but like you I am aware that I have a dozen or so at times. Knowing the right time to let one of them take the lead and the others to back away is always key and I’m guessing with all your background you are VERY good at that. May we all find what works best for us in the long run. ~Kathy
I can so relate to your blog writing dilemma, Kathy. For months now, I’d rather do other, more important things and I have to force myself – by alternating selves – to produce updates and posts regularly. And it’s not that I don’t want to write anymore – which is part of my identity. It’s that there are more pressing at the moment.
As for “It makes us more forgiving and compassionate toward the “selves” of others that might be acting and doing things we find objectionable.” This is not working for me. Not where we are in Texas right now, where people act selfishly, creating noise, nuisance, and litter all around us.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Because I’ve been following many of your “adventures” throughout this year on your blog I completely get what you are saying about having to make choices with your time. You amaze me with all that you do do! I’m afraid I would have left MUCH longer gaps between posts. So good on you!!!
And I get what you are saying about certain clumps of people. I did appreciate the concept that suggests that by acknowledging our different selves we are more likely to acknowledge other people’s selves…but some of those other people selves seem totally out of whack for sure! The only thing that (sometimes) works for me is thinking that in there (their mind/brain) somewhere there must be a very frightened and scared young child who is dealing with the world in a very unbalanced way. Of course that doesn’t mean you ignore the behavior, just find some small piece of compassion for the life they are living. I hope that your time in TX is nearly over and you can move on to where your adventurous selves are happy and at peace! ~Kathy
Tom from Sightings says
I love Levine’s concept that “we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many and diverse and sometimes adversarial.” Here’s my problem. Sometimes when my various individual voices vote, I am an election denier. Makes it hard to make a decision!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! Hahahaha! I would say that an “election denier” might have a real problem with the idea of multiple selves. But what I hope is that all the different selves you have appreciate your sense of humor like I do. ~Kathy
Kate Sullivan says
You are always so spot on. Great insight and suggestions for further reading. Also gives me some “relief” from what sometimes I think is my scattered approach to life. I just need to chill and embrace my varied self. Thanks.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kate! Isn’t it nice to find some reasoning behind all the different voices in our heads without thinking we are crazy! I agree and like the idea of giving ourselves permission to chill and accepting our varied selves. Thanks for sharing (some!) of your thoughts on this! ~Kathy
Charles Tutt says
Thank you for this article! I often tell people I have multiple interest disorder. Now, I’m sure I also have multiple personas as well. Every time I set out to do something, especially if I announce it to anyone, that announcement/intent immediately puts the brakes on whatever I wanted to do.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Charles! I like the idea of MID! That explains a lot doesn’t it? And then throw in your different “selves” and every one of them has their own interests. The trick is to get them all working as a team not sabotagers! I took a class years ago that studied the work of Hal and Sidra Stone and they use the process of “voice dialogue” where you get each of the selves to “talk” to one another and work out their differences. Like many people we know, many of our selves just want to be acknowledged and “heard.” Maybe that would help with stopping all the brake action? Good luck! ~Kathy