Parts of Us: Understanding Our Complexity
We are used to thinking of ourselves as having a single personality. We think: “This is who I am, this is what I believe, this is what I want”. This theory of unitary personality makes sense and has been popular throughout the history of psychology. However, it doesn't account for the fact that we seem to have so many contradictory, illogical and conflicted views. How can just one personality be all these different things? How can we understand our different parts?
A family of personalities
A better approach might be to see ourselves as having a number of personalities that together constitute something like a family. When we see ourselves like this we can better understand the different aspects of us. Each one of these personalities has decent different aspirations, desires, fears and motivations. There can be friction with other parts of you, just like the personalities in a family. And just like in a family, our parts have to negotiate with the other parts to get along. For example, the part that wants to stay in bed needs to negotiate with the part that needs to work. Or, the part that wants to go out and have fun needs to negotiate with the part that doesn't like crowds.
The limits of the one-personality model
If we see ourselves as just one personality, we can believe there are good parts of our personality and bad parts. This can lead us to believe that all we need to do is cut out the unacceptable part of our personality and everything will be fine. For example, if we have addictions, then if we remove the addicted part of ourselves and all will be okay. Similarly, if we feel anxious, we can believe that curing the anxious part of ourselves allows us to be normal and productive. This is a very seductive point of view, but it doesn't really reflect the reality of human complexity.
In reality, changes are hard to make. We can try and address our anxiety, but it's likely that were still going to have moments when we are anxious. Similarly, even though we may not be in active addiction, there's going to be a part of us which still seeks out the thing we're addicted to. This is just how humans work.
Seeing ourselves like a collection of people in a family can really help us with treatment. Instead of seeing our anxiety as being a part of us to kill or discard, we can see our anxiety as ‘belonging to' a member of our family who gets upset and fearful. What you do with a family member who is feeling upset and fearful? you treat them with with care, compassion and soothing. This is exactly how you should treat yourself when you have anxieties. Similarly, rather than dispose of the addicted part of ourselves, imagine one of the family in the family is addicted. In helping this person, you would treat them with care and compassion and help them gently learn to live a life without the things are addicted to. This is exactly how we should treat ourselves with addictions.
Our different parts
Using this analogy squares very well with contemporary thinking about ourselves. We try to emphasise acceptance and inclusion with other people; similarly, we need to do this when we think about our different parts – despite our failings and weaknesses. We need to understand that we can't just cut out the parts of us we don't like. It doesn't work and it ultimately does us damage. Adopting this view of personality can really help us understand the complexity of the contradictory parts of ourselves, and help us live a life of self compassion and inclusion.
– Tim Hill