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Integrating Our Many “Selves”

          We generally think of ourselves as being a single, identifiable person or “self”.  We have a particular nationality, an ethnic and religious background, a set of habits, beliefs, interests, and our own personality or style.  But if we look closely enough, we’ll see that we behave and feel so differently from one situation to another, it’s almost as if we were many different selves.

          At work we’re our work-self, and at home we may be some combination of parent-self, child-self, spouse or partner-self.   And when we’re on vacation, at parties, playing sports, or in other situations, we may have other selves as well.

         When the MPFC is doing its job, our various selves are aware of and respect each other.  As an example, let’s consider our “work-self” and “vacation-self”.   

Suppose these two selves were well integrated.  If we were in the middle of a work project and started daydreaming about going to the beach, we would be able to calmly observe the daydream and acknowledge our need to relax and take some time off.  We could then gently shift our attention back to the task at hand and stay focused on our work.

If our work and vacation selves were in conflict, we might find ourselves struggling throughout the day to focus on our work while our attention keeps being drawn back to images of our favorite vacation spots.

What if, instead of being in conflict, our work and vacation selves were just out of touch, disconnected from each other?  We might try to focus on our work, but find that we just don’t have the energy to get things done.  Without being aware of it, another part of ourselves – the vacation self – has “checked out,” leaving us without the energy or resources to do our work.

          To the extent the MPFC is not doing it’s job, and we’re not living from the core, our various selves are likely to be in conflict or totally unaware of each other. This lack of integration can be a source of  stress in our lives. We may pursue conflicting goals, and our behavior may be confusing to other people, as they may not know which of our selves they’re going to meet at any given moment.  

          Here are a few stories about the different ways our selves relate (or don’t relate) to each other.

A Case of Disconnected Selves:
Albert's Self Inadvertently Saves Albert's Other Self
(but they've never met)

          Neuropsychologist Robert Ornstein offers a somewhat amusing illustration of different selves in a story about a man he calls Albert.  Albert was the patient of his psychiatrist friend,   Dr. L.

          One day, Dr. L received an emergency call informing him that Albert was standing on the edge of a cliff, threatening to plunge himself into the ocean hundreds of feet below.  Dr. L immediately got in his car and sped to the site.  

          When he arrived on the scene, he tried in a calm steady voice to persuade Albert not to jump.  He asked Albert to think about how his death would affect the people who loved him, how his children would fare without a father. But Albert had already considered all those things.  So Dr. L. asked him about other aspects of his life, but Albert had considered them as well.  

          While Dr. L. was anxiously trying to figure out some way to get through to Albert, a police officer had parked his car near the site, totally unaware of the drama that was unfolding.  The officer took out his bullhorn and shouted authoritatively, “Who’s the ass who left that Pontiac station wagon double-parked out there in the middle of the road?  I almost crashed into it. Whoever you are, get over here and move it right now!”  

          Without hesitation, Albert got down from his perch, obediently walked to his car, and parked it on the side of the road out of the way of traffic.  Then, without a word, he got into the policeman’s vehicle and was taken to the hospital.

          How can we understand Albert’s behavior in terms of different selves? 

          Ornstein explains that it’s possible for us to shift quite rapidly from one self with its characteristic set of reactions, to another self with a different set of reactions - often without our knowledge.  In this case, one of Albert’s selves had prepared for his suicide – the one that was distressed about his life and his future.  He hadn’t realized he had other selves with different priorities, some of which didn’t care a bit about his life crisis.  

        Ultimately, Albert’s life was not saved by virtue of having worked through his life issues. Those issues were simply overridden by an automatic shift of his mind which replaced his suicidal self with that of a simple law-abiding citizen – one who reflexively obeyed the voice of authority.

A Case of Integrated Selves:
One Self Rises Above the Other

          Here’s another story in which a shift from one self to another took place in a flash.  This time, instead of happening mindlessly, the shift occurred through a more mindful process.

          Eliot Teltscher began playing tennis at age 9, and by age 23 was ranked 6th in the world.  He was widely known to be a fiercely competitive player.  In fact, during a major competition, after losing one of the matches on a controversial point, he became so furious that he grabbed the referee who’d made the call.  It took several spectators to pull them apart.

          Given his highly competitive nature, Teltscher’s action at a 1982 tennis tournament in New York’s Madison Square Garden was perhaps all the more extraordinary.

          After a particularly intense volley between Teltscher and Vitas Gerulaitis, Gerulaitis hit a ball that brushed the top of the net and very slowly dribbled over.  Onlookers assumed this would be an easy point for Gerulaitis.  However, to their delight and amazement, Teltscher raced up to the net, dived at the ball and managed to hit it over the net above Gerulaitis’ head. Gerulaitis managed to return the ball, but knocked it out of bounds, giving the point to Teltscher.  The crowd roared with excitement.  

          After the cheering died down, Teltscher approached the judge and informed him that during his winning swing, his racket had just barely touched the net.  This violation, which lost him the point, had not been seen by anyone else – not the judge, nor the crowd, nor Gerulaitis.  Only Teltscher knew it had happened. His honesty ultimately lost him the match.

          What happened inside Teltscher that led him to tell the judge about his error?  Clearly, he had an intensely competitive self who very much wanted to win.  But just as clearly, he had a self that cared deeply about ethics, about doing the right thing no matter what the cost to himself.  It is very likely that at least for a moment, these two selves were fighting for dominance.  But we can only imagine that in that split second Teltscher was able to step back into his core, and from there to see that honesty and integrity were more important to him than winning.  Some years later, Teltscher’s parents told an interviewer that they were more proud of that moment than of all the medals their son had won.

The Selves of our Daily Lives

          For both Albert and Teltscher, the switch from one self to another was quite dramatic and clear-cut.  In our day-to-day lives, we may not experience such dramatic moments. However, this kind of switch happens far more often than we realize.  

          Think about the last time you made a resolution.  Perhaps you went to the grocery store and, as you passed the freezer section, your eye was caught by the mint chocolate chip ice cream. You debated with yourself about whether or not to buy it, and finally decided to go for it, resolving to have just a small portion as a little treat a few times a week.  Then several days later, on an evening after a particularly long day at work, you’re watching TV and remember the ice cream.  You’re feeling tired and mildly irritable, and your mind is taking a break from any serious thinking.  In this moment, the person who made the resolution to eat small servings is nowhere to be found.  The disciplined shopper who carefully considers her dietary intake has now been replaced by the somewhat disgruntled, comfort seeking couch potato.

          Here’s another example.  If you subscribe to Netflix, you probably know they have a “queue” page that allows you to create a list of “instant play” movies you want to watch. A study that looked into the habits of Netflix subscribers found that people often accumulate a fairly large number of ‘serious’ movies on that list – documentaries, foreign films, etc. – that they never end up watching.  Again, this makes perfect sense in terms of our different selves.  The self who is interested in learning and being more “cultured” is nowhere to be found when a quite different self later sits down to watch a movie, wanting to be entertained.

Harmonizing Our Many Selves

          So how can we harmonize these different selves and their agendas which are so often at odds with each other?

          If you think of the “selves” not as distinct entities but as temporary groupings of various thoughts, feelings, memories, and habits clustered around the rim of the wheel of awareness, then the answer is simple.

With integration we can learn to honor these different selves, without being overly identified with any one of them.

          The more we live at the hub of the wheel, the easier it becomes to detach from any particular self, or any particular role we play in life.  Take the example above – you’ve made a resolution to have small amounts of ice cream a few times a week. Several days later, you’re watching TV, tired and irritable, and remember the ice cream. On your way to the freezer, you remember – perhaps with some annoyance – your resolution.

          Normally in these situations, what we do is engage in battle – and more often than not, it’s the tired, irritable self that wins.  But instead of slugging it out, we can choose to pause, take a few calming breaths, and shift our attention away from the desire for ice cream on the rim of our wheel of awareness, to the hub.  From there, it’s possible to detach from our craving self and reconnect – calmly, without a battle – to the “self” that had made the resolution.

          We all have many selves, and play many roles over the course of our lives.  We have a work self, a parent self, a spouse self, a friend self, a solitary self, etc.  With integration we can learn to honor these different selves, without being overly identified with any one of them.  That way we can flexibly inhabit whichever role is appropriate to the situation we’re in. At the same time, we can learn to recognize that these apparently separate “selves” are all parts of a larger “self” which is centered in the hub, at the core of who we are.  And when we’re centered in the hub, we can move freely between different aspects of ourselves, or even develop new combinations of those selves.  

          Beyond that, when we’re truly anchored in the hub, we can step out of these habitual selves altogether, and simply be fully, spontaneously present in ways that are uniquely suited to each situation we encounter.