Reviving the Healthy Multiplicity Self Paradigm

— Jordan Gruber, JD, MA & James Fadiman, PhD

Introduction

Although the assumption that we are or ought to be a single self is linguistically, culturally, and psychologically embedded at nearly every level of formal and informal discourse, we believe it is observably erroneous and pragmatically dysfunctional. Our book, Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are (2020), was written to reopen a pivotal conversation that has essentially been culturally verboten for over a century.

Have you ever argued with yourself? With whom were you arguing? Who was the other voice, or other voices? If you have ever argued with yourself and changed sides, who did that? When looking at that last cookie or a third piece of cake or candy, who says “yes” and who says “no”? Have you ever been by yourself or with friends and done something shameful — against your better judgment — something you would never do around your parents, children, co-workers, or boss? Who was it that acted that way? Was part of you embarrassed even as you did it? Afterwards, did you hear the voice of regret?

This essay begins with a short review of the healthy selves perspective, then turns to the paradigm shift in the making. (Elsewhere, we review the history of the healthy selves perspective, from its origins in Western psychology in the 1880’s to its banishment around 1910, and how — with the exception of a few spiritual and self-development approaches — it was driven underground for much of the 20th century.)

A Brief Description of the Healthy Selves Perspective

The healthy selves worldview arises from the recognition that our lifelong experience of inconsistency — both within ourselves and within others — has a perfectly simple and parsimonious explanation. To wit, all human beings, from the healthiest to the least healthy — or from those with the least cohesive and most dysfunctional selves to those with the most cohesive, healthy, and well-functioning selves — are composed of multiple distinct parts, minds, or subpersonalities.

“All human beings, from the healthiest to the least healthy — or from those with the least cohesive and most dysfunctional selves to those with the most cohesive, healthy, and well-functioning selves — are composed of multiple distinct parts, minds, or  subpersonalities.”


While more than seventy different terms in English alone have been used by others, we prefer the term “selves” — and its technical big brother “self-states” — and have defined them as “recurring patterns of mind-body chemistry, perception, beliefs, intentions, and behaviors in human beings.” Although each of our selves has innate value, they often differ from one another in significant ways, including having different agendas (“drink the vodka”/“don’t drink the vodka”). This can cause us internal discord or doubt, and we may act in dysfunctional or harmful ways.

While selves may not generally be immediately obvious, the recurrent behavior of specific selves is readily observable to others who see and experience our outer behavior. Similarly, such recurrent behavior — as well as associated recurrent thoughts and feelings — can become visible and obvious to each of us from within as we place attention on and become aware of the healthy selves perspective.

We distinguish healthy multiplicity — what most people already functionally embody to a workable degree — from dysfunctional multiplicity, as in multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, or other individuals whose selves are so incohesive that the person causes harm to themselves or others, or otherwise can not cope well with life. Media such as Sybil, Split, Fight Club, or United States of Tara portray overblown cases of dysfunctional multiplicity.[1]

We frame the discussion of identity around the concept of “cohesion” — a positively oriented transpersonal and intersectional psychological framework built on our observations and understanding of healthy selves. According to current conventional psychology, each of us only has a single self. Therefore, when we cycle through our constellation of selves and settle into another part of who we are, we have “disassociated,” a term typically negatively and often pathologically defined.

Yet, if we consciously proactively shift into a kinder, wiser, or more effective self that avoids an unnecessary or harmful argument with a friend, spouse, or co-worker — if we skillfully move ourselves “into the right mind at the right time” — we have clearly done something that is unambiguously positive and healthy. Consider a fun-filled exuberant healthy child who, when they spend time with their older relatives or are in an unfamiliar situation, may be quiet as a mouse. Given the circumstances, an ability to shift into a different and more effective part of who they are is a normal, functional, and healthy element of every human being’s innate behavioral repertoire.

Because everyone embodies multiple selves, and because we can skillfully use these selves in life-advancing ways, the mere fact that we have multiple selves is never what makes us unhealthy or mentally ill. Instead, what can makes us unhealthy or unstable is when a lack of cohesiveness, resonance, and functional turn-taking between our selves results in dysfunctional, destructive, or otherwise harmful behavior.

Cohesion in this sense embraces three Cs: Congruence (doing what we said we would do, regardless of which part of us may have said it), Coherence (making sense to others and being generally understandable), and Compassion. As we learn to better harmonize our selves, we feel more compassion for the different parts of who we are, as well as the different parts of the other people in our lives — including the selves of other people that do things we don’t like, are inconsistent, or are otherwise dysfunctional, harmful, or problematic.

“As we learn to better harmonize our selves, we feel more compassion for the different parts of who we are.”


A Paradigm Shift in the Making

Following Thomas Kuhn’s reasoning in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), we believe that the anomalies surrounding what we call the Single Self Assumption — that we are or ought to be a single self — have built to the point where a paradigm shift back towards a non-singular conception of identity (and even more so, an explicitly healthy selves worldview has begun. Also, following Paul Feyeraband’s Against Method (1975), consider whether adopting the healthy selves perspective would benefit you.

We can already see the beginnings of a return to an expanded explicitly healthy concept of multiple selves. “Parts work,” for example, has become popular and useful in therapy, coaching, self-development, and organizational development practices of many kinds. (Noricks, 2021) Similarly, in self-help and spiritual groups, and in venues like the Clubhouse social media platform, there is an increasing focus on subjects like inner child work (nurturing a younger self, especially one that was traumatized), impostor syndrome (not being in the right self at the right time), and explorations of creativity and moving into the “zone of genius” (that is, moving into the right self at the right time).

There is also a substantial overlap with multiple selves and the concept of “intersectionality” burgeoning throughout academia and institutions of higher learning. Wikipedia defines “intersectionality” as “an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.” This definition is premised on the notion of individuals having different social and political identities. In race relations theory, Kenneth Hardy has introduced the concept of “Subjugated” and “Privileged” selves, which also explicitly rests on the notion that everyone has different selves. (2012, Hardy).

The healthy selves perspective also increasingly sheds light on ordinary healthy human behavior that many people initially feel embarrassed or “weird” about. For example, talking aloud to ourselves is often pointed to as a sign of mental illness — yet nearly all human beings do this, at least on occasion. Moreover, research shows that those who talk aloud to themselves in other than the 1st person are better off and more effective than those who always use the word “I.” (Winch, 2014) Calling yourself by your own name or by “we” may be effective because it encourages awareness, dialogue, and cohesion between selves.

We have received numerous reports stating that having a basic awareness that you and everyone in your life has selves — and that these selves are quite real — has made their lives more functional and effective. As you become aware that you have selves, they enter into more frequent dialogue with each other, and we naturally and easily become more cohesive. Those who want to harmonize their selves can use self-development modalities such as mindfulness, meditation, conscious movement, somatic coaching, breathwork, and Polyvagal regulation and co-regulation.

Fortunately, we can become better at voluntarily and consciously shifting into and out of different selves. In this way, we can more often find ourselves operating from the most appropriate self or part of who we are, rather than being abruptly shifted or triggered into a self that is suboptimal or dysfunctional given the circumstances at hand.

If the healthy selves perspective is indeed correct, and enables individuals to see the world with less distortion, they will be freer to develop every aspect of their personal potential.

REFERENCES

Dell, P.F., and O’Neil, J.A., eds. 2009. Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond. London, England, Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

Duncan, C.W. 1994. Fractured Mirror: Healing Multiple Personality Disorder. Deerfield Beach, Florida, Health Communications.

Fadiman, James, and Gruber, Jordan. 2020. Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.

Hardy, Kenneth. “Privileged Self vs. Subjugated Self,” YouTube Video, 4:46, November 12, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OI0TSnctxc.

Keyes, Daniel. 1981. The Minds of Billy Milligan.” New York, New York: Penguin Random House.

Kluft, Richard, and Fine, Catherine, eds. 1993. Clinical Perspectives on Multiple Personality Disorder Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.

Manning, Mark L., and Manning, Rana. 2007. “Legion Theory: A Meta-psychology.” Sage Publications 17, no 6/.

Myers, Frederick. 1885. “Human Personality.” Fortnightly Review 38, no 227. 637–55.

Noricks, Jay. 2018. Healing Amelia: Taming Your Ego States and Inner Voices with Parts and Memory Therapy. Los Angeles, California: New University Press.

Richardson, Robert D. 2006. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, A Biography. New York, New York, Houghton Mifflin Books.

Prince, Morton. 1975. Psychotherapy and Multiple Personality: Selected Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Ross, Colin A. 1989. Multiple Personality Disorder. New York, New York, John A Wiley & Sons.

Sidis, Boris, and Goodhart, Simon P. 1904. Multiple Personality: An Experimental Investigation into the Nature of Human Individuality. New York, New York, D. Appleton.

Taylor, Eugene. 1982. William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Jetty House.

Van der Hart, Onno, and Lierens, Ruth, and Goodwin, Jean. 2006. “A Sixteenth-Century Case of Dissociative Identity Disorder.” Journal of Psychohistory 24, no 1. Summer 1996: 1–12.

Winch, Guy. 2014. “Why Y ou Should Start Talking to Yourself,” at Psychology Today, The Squeaky Wheel blog, May 20, 2014.


[1] A remarkably lucid and detailed look at dysfunctionally multiplicity is provided by Daniel Keyes in the non-fiction book The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981).

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