How Many "Selves" Do You Have?

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Have you ever said, "All I have is myself?" So, let me ask you a question, "How many selves do you have when you are with yourself and what happens to them when you are with others?

The assumption that there is only one of you inside you is being questioned by some psychologists. They claim that most of us are not always a single coherent and consistent personality with a fixed set of ideas, values and behaviors. Our ideas, values and beliefs sometimes contradict and clash with one another. How many times we all have said to ourselves, "I can't believe I said (or did) that!"

Let's take this line of thought a little further. Neither should we expect others to be consistent all the time nor should we view them as all good or all bad. Things in real life are not all black and white. Intellectually, we all know that, right? But, emotionally we often feel hurt and angry when someone doesn't behave exactly the way we thought they would.

When we idealize a hero or a leader, we tend to view him or her as someone without any shortcomings, doubts or weaknesses. When we demonize people, we tend to view them as if they could possibly do nothing right. Politics, which thrives on idealization of a leader and demonization of an opponent, exploits these two mechanisms to rally support.

We expect leaders to hold the same beliefs and view they had twenty, thirty or forty years ago. Consequently, many leaders must lie or practice the art of simulation or dissimulation to maintain a public illusion about who they truly are. Seriously, how many of us can honestly say that today they are exactly the same they were twenty, thirty or forty years ago!

Have you ever wondered if the public is partly responsible for the lies and deceptions of its leaders? At the minimum, followers of the phony "master" buy into the illusion that the latter creates about himself or herself. People gullibly swallow less-than-candid statements of their idealized figures and ask for more.

Do you have a singular self or multiple selves?

The idea that a psychologically healthy person has a "single unitary self" is taking a second seat to that of the "integrated self." The term integrated self implies that psychologically healthy people are able to resolve the often confusing and contradictory aspects of themselves. In the words of Jerry Lewis, M.D., "(People) believe they remain essentially the same despite the so often confusing primal stew of life experience."

"Confusing primal stew of life experience!" That's a good way of putting it. Often, we try to negotiate and struggling with life challenges and what we accumulate over lifetime is that confusing primal stew of life experience. But, psychologically adjusted individuals can make sense of their successes and failures and feel contented with how we have lived our life. The result is a contented, ever evolving, flexible and adaptable individual.

Dr. Lewis in the November 2004 issue of Psychiatric Times articulates the process and mechanism of self-integration in this way: "The past is reconstructed (usually negatively) in order to buttress the belief that one has progressed or matured. The present is experienced in often unrealistic terms (most persons report being "above average" on a broad variety of personal characteristics). …These illusions--if not extreme-are believed to be adaptive in that they help maintain the coherence of the single self."

The concept of multiple selves refers to a psychologically healthy personality and should not be confused with "multiple personality disorder," which is a sign of pathological absence of integration.

We tend to be different when we play such different roles as spouse, parent, a member of a religious or social group or as a citizen of a country. For example, as a member of a religious or social group one may have a lot of compunction in underreporting his or her income, but the same person, as a citizen, may underreport his or income to evade taxes.

We all have at least two selves, a private self and a social self. The need to seek approval and social status and please others largely determines and shapes the image we socially project.

There are things that we won't admit to even ourselves, not even privately! What we know about ourselves is limited by what we can accept or stand about ourselves. We don't like to fall in our own eyes and we defend our self-image vehemently. We can only accept about ourselves what we can handle.

Many people suffer from low self-esteem because they can't accept that, like others, they too are fallible. We all are a blend of strengths and weaknesses. Many would not acknowledge their mistakes just because you give them honest feedback. Understand that they can't bear a blow to their self-esteem. Others are too conceited to admit any shortcomings. Oh no! They couldn't possibly be wrong!

Our mind is a "gifted illusionist," to borrow the term from D. Ackerman in An Alchemy of Mind. The mind has the capacity to render the often multiple contradictory selves into a stable and coherent self. We all employ the controversial legal defense, "If it doesn't fit, we must acquit."

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Copyright 2004, Mind Publications 
Posted December 2004


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