It isn’t a joke, and it isn’t a mental illness. We really contain multitudes, all of us. This is why we unironically say things like:
“I just couldn’t help myself.”
“I lost control of my emotions.”
“I don’t know why I keep screwing things up for myself.”
“I really surprised myself. I didn’t think I had the courage to do that.”
“I don’t know why I do precisely the things that I hate doing.”
One of the basic keys to getting anything in your life under control, whether it’s spending, an addiction, or a bout of depression, is admitting that there are several “you”s. And these different selves don’t always agree with each other.
Now you’ve got a conscious mind, and it’s always telling stories. And it’s always trying to tell a story that feels consistent, where all the different voices bickering inside you sort of agree. On top of that, your conscious mind tries to tell the story in such a way that it plays the most important role in the story. Your conscious mind is like a director of a play who wants the story to be simple, but all the actors keep improvising. In fact, many times the actors don’t like the director all that much and they actively undermine the director’s perceived “authority”. Other times the actors respond well to certain kinds of direction, but not to others.
Does this sound familiar?
Do you sometimes feel like trying to get all the voices in your head to agree is like trying to herd a flock of cats and kittens, some of whom are quite cute, but none of whom are really going to do as you say?
Do you ever feel like your conscious mind is merely trying to believe itself to be the most important part of the production, when really the script is being written by someone else? And does the script-writer sometimes feel like a shadowy, hard-to-find character, lurking in the recesses of your mind and only occasionally being revealed in dreams?
Well, welcome to reality.
And by the way, if you enjoy reading science, contemporary neuroscience has plenty to say about the fact that we all have multiple selves. I’m not expert enough to pretend to understand all of it, but I do know how to apply some of the knowledge.
First, one or more of your selves is the script writer. One or more is trying to be the director. The others are the actors. The actors don’t always follow the script in the short run, but they tend to follow it in the long run. The directors sometimes succeed in getting the actors in line, but often merely succeed in making them distraught enough to go WAY off-script.
And here’s the thing. Sometimes the writer is writing a really bad script for you. Sometimes the director is incompetent, abusive, or way too passive. Sometimes the actors are still reacting to trauma from years or decades ago (or even from your ancestors or close friends.) So it’s not a simple case that you just shouldn’t trust this self or that self. All of them are probably a little bit flawed.
However, the interesting thing is that all of them can be talked to. That includes the deep, subconscious script-writer. And maybe the more important point is that they all need to be listened to. Just like all the other people in your life, they want to be heard. And they want to be heard without judgment. They all need compassion, in its most basic form
How do you learn to listen to your warring selves? How do you learn to talk to them? How do you learn to be compassionate to yourself?
Primarily, you learn it by listening to others. You learn it by learning how to talk to others. You learn it by being compassionate to others.
The way you treat others, in the end, is the way you treat yourself.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument now, that this is a comment you’ve made to yourself:
“Why did you buy that? My God, that cost $150 and here it is just sitting in the closet. Why are you so weak-willed……”
Alright. Now ask yourself. If you talked to someone else that way, what would be the response? They might feel ashamed. They will definitely get defensive. They might feel guilty. They might also just go straight to anger. And those emotions will cause them to harden, and may actually make it more likely that they will act foolishly in the future.
Well guess what? When you talk to yourself (excuse me, when you talk to your selves) that way, your selves react the same way. So here you are, causing yourself emotional pain like guilt and anger, leading yourself to self-hatred, and it’s not clear that you are even changing your behavior.
Try this. Try compassion.
“Help me understand. What was going on when you bought that? What are we going to learn from this? How are we going to do things differently next time?”