“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”
The above quote is a line from “Songs of Myself” in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It can remind us that as humans we are complex and many-sided creatures.
That we are multifaceted beings has been a commonly-held belief ranging from philosophers and psychologists to inventors and poets for generations.
“A man has as many selves as there are individuals who recognize him” wrote William James, Father of Modern Psychology.
“The core of my personality consists of many selves” echoes Hans Bender.
“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves” counseled the American Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton.
How does our real or true self differ from our everyday self? Is there a difference? If so, does that mean we unwittingly identify with one or even several false selves?
Dr. Charles Whitfield, author of the book Healing the Child Within proposes the following definition of True Self:
“Our True Self is spontaneous, creative, expansive, loving, giving and communicating. Our True Self accepts ourselves and others. It feels, whether the feelings are joyful or painful. It expresses those feelings. Our True Self accepts our feelings without judgment or fear, and allows them to exist as a valid way of assessing and appreciating life’s events. It can be childlike in the highest, most mature and evolved sense of the word. It needs to play and have fun. And yet it is vulnerable, perhaps because it is so open and trusting. It surrenders to itself, to others and ultimately to the Universe. And yet it is powerful in the true sense of power. It is healthily self-indulgent, taking pleasure in receiving and being nurtured.”
How many of us can honestly identify more often than not with the above description?
When I think of the essential nature of someone living from the state described above by Dr. Whitfield, the image of a young child comes to mind. We were all once young children and if this is a more or less accurate depiction of the authentic nature of humans, then what happens between early childhood and the present time that clouds that nature?
We were all shaped by our family, the culture in which we were raised, the influence of our education and peers. Additionally, many were further impacted by trauma and abuse. Through these influences early in life we develop different ego states which begin to generate parts of our personalities that can take the lead when we need them to. That’s true of every person.
In fact, ego states are formed under three different conditions of personality development:
- They help us to adapt to different situations. We learn as children to behave differently in public, or at school, with friends, etc. from how we are at home with our families. Ego states make this possible.
- They may be introjects of parents or other significant adults with whom we interact as we are growing up. That means we take in their energies when we use them as models of how to act and how to be.
- They can be created to contain overwhelming traumatic events in life and protect us from having to think or feel about that trauma. In this way, they teach us strategies for coping and adapting.
These ego states create an inner family of parts, and each part has its own history, thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors. Individual parts interact with the energies and patterns of other parts, somewhat like members of a family.
Sometimes when there is conflict between different internal states, just as in external family systems, these ego states become closed off from each other and isolated from the family as a whole. Some parts have requirements that don’t fit with the needs of others.
Everyone I know, including myself, thinks and speaks in the language of parts. How often have you heard yourself saying “a part of me sincerely wants to make a constructive change but there is another part of me that does a stellar job of sabotaging my best intentions and I go back to doing the same destructive old thing.” We’ve all had the experience of feeling the different parts of ourselves competing with or contradicting each other. These parts can also create tension and conflict in our relationships with other people in our lives.
Most everyone can relate to the very normalized experience of being a ‘Divided Self’. I can certainly attest to holding inner conversations between disparate aspects of myself. For example, I have a strong perfectionistic tendency which can manifest in rigid and polarized ways if I am not aware and consciously connected to this part.
I have learned to ‘meet’ this aspect of myself with another part of my nature that is more relaxed, playful and creative. But without having a healthy detachment from the perfectionist part, I am at risk for becoming inflexible and non-creative in my attitudes and endeavors.
And certainly, most if not everyone can identify with being held hostage by that infamous duo, the inner critic/inner judge!
Cheri Huber, author of There is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hatred writes “Identity is maintained by repetitious thoughts spoken by authoritarian voices telling endless stories about who we are and then judging us for not measuring up to some ill-defined standard”.
David Schwartz, Ph.D. and family therapist is the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy which supports the premise that we all have different parts of ourselves. In this context, this is a non-pathologizing approach to healthy self-development.
The scope of IFS also sees people as being whole, underneath this collection of parts. The belief is that everyone has a true self or core spiritual center, known as the uppercase ‘S’ Self to distinguish it from the other parts of personality that constitute the lowercase ‘s’ selves.
We have the ability to develop a relationship to this Self, the nature of which has qualities of acceptance, curiosity, connectedness, compassion, kindness, and calm.
Perhaps this is what the earlier-mentioned Thomas Merton meant when he wrote “We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves”. Maybe the purposive spirit of our Daemon exists in those deep capacities of our essential nature, which I wrote about in another article on this site (Guided by Your Daemon).
We can learn to relate with curiosity and compassion instead of reacting destructively to or from those places in ourselves that are conflicted.
We all have the freedom to develop the qualities of the ‘Self’ which can serve as the centering agent in our psychological and emotional health. As we become more adept in identifying with these qualities, we are better able to engage with our other parts, or ego states, from an objective and centered place in our minds and bodies. But maybe more importantly, we become unencumbered by the committee of our internal saboteurs which can get in the way of our identifying and expressing the inherent potential with which we were born.
I have found a useful metaphor that clearly illustrates the potential of a healthy relationship between True Self and the varied ego states, aka as parts or sub-personalities I write about here.
The metaphor is a wagon wheel. In an era long past, before the invention of the automobile, people were dependent on wagon wheels for transportation. The integrity and functionality of the wheel was critical to the wagon’s mobility and safety.
As you might remember, a wagon wheel has a hub at the center connecting to multiple spokes that are bound to the rim. When all of the spokes are intact, with no spokes missing or broken, the wheel will turn with ease. But if there are any spokes missing, broken, or disconnected from the hub the efficiency of movement is significantly hindered and the ride is bumpy and dangerous.
If you look at the image at the beginning of this post you will see a picture that approximates the wagon wheel. This image is the logo for Still Point which is the name of my business (stillpointjourney.com).
You will see in the logo an image not unlike a wagon wheel, however the hub at the center is depicted by a starburst of light that connects to the myriad heads at the perimeter of the circle. The heads represent the internal states we can all identify with, many of which cast a shadow on the expression of our True Self: perfectionist, pleaser, judge, saboteur, harsh critic, performer, etc.
The light radiating from the still point at the center connecting to the many heads is analogous to the qualities of True Self informing and inspiring the smaller conditioned selves which can encumber our highest expression and well-being.
We have the capacity to learn how to experience the place of stillness at the center of our being. From here we can offer guidance and compassion to the diverse characters within, creating internal harmony rather than be bound by continued tension that can manifest as anxiety, fear, resentment, shame, etc.
A loving, responsible parent innately relates to his confused or troubled child with acceptance, patience, and the supportive guidance all parents offer their children. Similarly, we can foster and strengthen the qualities of our True Self as the primary energy available to connect with and integrate the many other parts of personality.
As our connection to True Self strengthens, we have a reservoir from which to develop our deepest capacities per the wisdom of Thomas Merton.
Where we begin in this journey is through the willingness for contemplation, learning to resist being driven by the busyness and anxiety of the mind, using the breath to come back to our center. Repetition creates relevance and over time, with daily practice, accessing the truth of who we are at the center of our essential nature becomes relevant to the unfolding of our wholeness and well-being.
“True self is true friend. One ignores or rejects such friendship only at one’s peril.” – Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation