Multiplicity of Mind

We are all of many minds about who we are and how we will respond to our life circumstances. We reveal this complexity when we say things like, "A part of me wants to watch TV but I know I should get to work on a project I have been putting off." We are aware of there being different perspectives, values, attitudes, moods, goals, which different "parts" of us bring to any enterprise.

When we are under very little stress and things are going well for us, we lose sight of our multiplicity. Each part of us connects well with the other parts and we function as a unified whole. We feel as though we "have it together." But when we are feeling anxious, we find that we have more trouble making up our minds and getting them all to work together. One part may dominate another perspective or way of being and we may do things which are not typical for us.

When this happens we may say that one or more parts get pushed to an extreme position. The emotional intensity of the situation highlights the inherent conflict between various parts of us and we feel anxious.

While we are all unique in the manner of our internal systems, there are features which are common to all of us. One of these is that our systems function in certain predictable ways when we are under stress. The parts which are moving to an extreme position tend to either step in and take charge of things, or they back off and hide. Sometimes parts are sent into exile by the rest of our internal system.

The parts we call exiles tend to carry very strong feelings and are triggered by highly emotional events in our lives. They may be associated with emotional events in our past which we have not been able to face and work through.

We also have protector parts. They are the ones which take over the reins and make our decisions. They can either be proactive, anticipating what is likely to happen and, thus, get us ready for some circumstance; or they can be reactive, finally stepping in when things appear to be out of control. The proactive protectors we call managers. The reactive protectors we call firefighters.

We have many more aspects to who we are than just the exiles, managers and firefighters. Usually they all function in harmony. But at times parts are pushed to an extreme position and find themselves in conflict with each other. To illustrate this, let us return to the example in the life of the Johnsons from the end of Chapter Two.

As you may recall, Joe is watching the news on TV when he hears Jane engaging Jack about his failure to take out the trash. Joe has a manager who wants to get up and shut the door so he can't hear them but he also has a manager who wants to go in and fix things. He also has a young part which identifies with Jack and remembers the humiliation of being scolded by a parent. And he has an adult part which identifies with Jane being thwarted in her ability to get their son to do a simple task. He also has a firefighter part which wants to explode on both of them for disrupting his ability to listen to the news when he has been working hard all day.

So we can immediately identify a couple of managers, a couple of exiles and a firefighter all trying to claim attention in Joe's awareness and actions as he moves to address the situation with Jane and Jack. How Joe will act in his relationship with his wife and son depends fully on how Joe addresses each of these parts of himself which are being aroused by what he hears from his loved ones.

Before Joe can responsibly address the conflict Jane and Jack are having, he has to address the conflict he is having with each of them. But before he can address the conflict he is having with them, he will have to address and resolve the conflicts he is having with himself, that is, the conflicts between the various parts.

To do this he will have to acknowledge and appreciate each of these parts which are being triggered and pushed to an extreme position.

  • He has to notice the manager which wants to simply close the door on the racket and appreciate that this part is trying to take care of him.
  • He has to notice the manager which wants to fix things between his wife and son and appreciate that this part wants harmony and to protect the young part of himself who remembers the shame of being scolded.
  • He has to notice the exile who is that child part of him who was scolded and still feels the flush of humiliation.
  • And he has to notice that part of him which knows what it is like to fail at controlling a child and which is identifying with Jane at the moment. He has to acknowledge that he feels shame at not being the father he thinks he should be.
  • But most especially he has to notice and attend to the part of him which wants to "fix" things by venting all the anger he has stored up from a day or a week of not having things go his way. He has to appreciate that this firefighter is trying to protect and restore him by allowing this way of letting off the steam, but he also has to be so familiar with this firefighter that it will trust him to find a better way to get those needs met.

As Joe focuses on each of these parts he has to come from a different locus of identity than the parts themselves and do so through a particular lens which allows him to approach them with clarity and compassion. He must come from his Self. The Self is not just another part. It is an aspect of our interior awareness which may be thought of as above the parts looking down on them with concern, or it may be thought of as the ground from which the parts emerge, but it is categorically different from a part.

There is an essential shift in Joe's awareness when he changes from "one who is angry at Jane and Jack for disturbing him" to "one who has anger about what is happening." Is the anger who he is and thus is the subjective experience of being Joe, or is the anger something Joe has and thus is something upon which he can reflect and act?

This shift in perspective of taking what was the subject of the action and turning it into an object for our reflection and consideration is at the core of all developmental shifts. Let us look at the shift from 1° to 2°. At 1° I am my experience. I am hungry. I am happy. I am tired. At 2° [Personal-material: choice] I am someone who is having experience. I am one who is experiencing hunger, happiness or fatigue. Further, I am one who can make choices which will impact my hunger, happiness or fatigue. What was subject at 1° becomes the object of the consideration of 2°.

At 2° I am one who is making choices in my life which are creating outcomes. But as I move to 3° [Interpersonal-relational: experience] I reflect on how those choices impact those around me. I transform from just being one who makes choices to one whose choices arise in the context of a set of cultural expectations. What was the subjective experience of being the one who chooses becomes the object of the attention of who I am at 3°. Are my actions consistent with the social expectations in which I live? Am I someone who has honor?

But as I try to remain honorable, that is, as I try to conform to the dictates of the cultural milieu in which I reside, I find that I cannot consistently do that and still meet the demands of my own personal experience. As we saw with Anne and her daughter discussing sex, sometimes we have to step back from the immediate rules we have set for ourselves and discover a more inclusive and comprehensive way of being.

It is this action of stepping back and looking at the current circumstances that is the core of what we have to do to effect our own transformation. So as Joe gets up from his chair in front of the TV and walks into the other room where Jane and Jack are engaging each other, he must attend to each of these parts arising in him from the perspective of his Self, not from the perspective of the parts themselves.

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