The idea of multiple selves is a concept that describes how differing aspects of our-selves exist within one person. Rather than describing multiple people residing within one body, one person’s self is seen to include a range of selves – or parts of one-Self.
Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) describes this idea beautifully:
“…a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand…and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own… so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine and so on… and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all”.
Taken from – Woolf, V., Orlando: A Biography
How are Multiple Selves portrayed in counselling theory?
The concept of multiple selves is reflected in the work across a range of schools of counselling and psychotherapeutic theory. In Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis, we find the ‘Parent – Adult – Child’ model of ego states. Carl Jung’s Archetypes are seen in Robert Moore’s archetypal roadmap of the psyche using the ‘King – Warrior – Magician – Lover’; and more recently in the work of leading contemporary person-centred therapists David Mearns & Brian Thorne – who introduce Configurations of Self. They describe how a person can experience multiple parts of one-Self held within an organised whole.
All the above models provide a conceptual framework within which to explore and understand our-selves.
How does a knowledge of theoretical models support counselling?
I have found it useful to tentatively hold my knowledge of the above models alongside the empathic understanding I have for my clients. It has been useful as it gently prompts me to explore varying ways of understanding my client’s experience – in ways I might not otherwise. This often leads to a deeper empathic connection with my clients.
I believe this empathic understanding is implicitly sensed by my client and indeed – explicitly imparting certain theoretical aspects of counselling theory works well in a psycho-educational way. This is particularly so for clients that find it supportive to have a cognitive understanding of themselves.
How are multiple-Selves experienced?
It seems to me that the degree to which we can accept the contrasting elements of our personalities, along with our psychological health – plays a large part in determining how happy we are with our-selves.
Psychological health plays a role because to hold contrasting aspects of our-selves takes up mental resources depending on how contradictory in nature they are. Up until now we may have been able to maintain a coherent and workable sense of Self. Yet increasing life pressures can put a squeeze on personal resources in a way where our sense of Self begins to falter or completely crumble.
The contradictory nature of the ‘parts’ that make up our-selves varies from person to person. In my life, I have become aware of one part of my-Self that has a basic need to feel connection with others. And another ‘part’ whose primary need is to feel ‘safe’ and often fears this connection. This has often affected on how willing and able I am to connect with others intimately.I recall challenging times as I sought to integrate and find a balanced way of being that satisfied the contrasting needs of both ‘parts’ of my-Self.
Having such differing parts can be experienced as inner conflict – causing high levels of psychological distress. The good news is that counselling offers a way to explore and integrate these different aspects of Self-expression.
Where do Multiple-Selves come from?
Leading person-centred therapists Mearns & Thorne describe how people learn to shape them-selves in response to their environment. Particularly as a child, we learn to express our-selves selectively to ensure we receive the approval of our caregivers. Not only because we are dependent on them for our day to day survive. But also because we tend to act in ways that satisifes our need to feel loved and validated (by others). Behaving in ways that give us the most sense of belonging.
Thus as children, our sense of Self is heavily influenced by our caregivers. We end up taking these adapted behaviours and perhaps an already fractured sense of self into adulthood.
Life often bring changes to our social environment. The rules of belonging, explicit and implied vary from group to group, from relationship to relationship. Again we may find our-selves compromised as we strive to belong. All the while, we carry what Carl Rogers called conditions of worth – hardwired into us during childhood. These conditions of worth ultimately influence our capacity to feel OK about ourselves.
How might Multiple-Selves show up unhealthily in my life?
The psychological distress associated with issues around Self-identity, Self-acceptance and Self-expression can manifest as stress, anxiety, panic, depression, a temporary loss of sense of self (Dissociation), hearing multiple voices, a nervous breakdown…I could go on.
In everyday life, you may find yourself at a standstill; feeling impotent; struggling in your relationships; negatively acting out your addictions; experiencing extreme shifts in mood (bi-polar); confusion about your sexual or gender identity; experiencing ‘uncontrollable’ bouts of anger. Again, how this manifests is at least as varied as there are people.
How can counselling help?
I’ve talked about some of the deep-rooted origins and experiences that contribute to psychological distress and some of the challenging life situations you might find yourself in right now.
The good news is that counselling can help. Essentially, within a supportive counselling relationship that provides you with a safe place where you feel valued, accepted and with someone you trust.
The degree of acceptance and trust you feel will set the scene for how well you will be able to explore and reflect on your inner world and how your sense of Self impacts upon your everyday life. The therapeutic process of exploration, discovery, acceptance and integration will be greatly supported by an empathic counsellor who is sensitive to your needs.
Finding the right counsellor can be am overwhelming and mind-boggling undertaking. I recommend a professionally registered therapist. Someone who has not only undergone professionally accredited counselling training – but is also able to translate this knowledge competently into practice. In essence – someone who can not only talk the ‘therapeutic’ talk but also walk the ‘therapeutic’ walk.