Allow me to Introduce myselves: viewing yourself as a community of selves

24th October by George Warren

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I’d like to talk about one of the most helpful learnings and mindsets of the last few years. One which has transformed how I work, how I interact with others and how I better understand myself.

I used to view myself and my personality as one, complete monolithic ‘self’. A rounded, fully formed identity, who was a bit adaptable but pretty fixed. Almost as if there was a little ‘me’ inside my mind, a homunculus at the control panel.

If we view someone as one, fixed identity, then it can become easy, and very natural, to label them. To write them off. To dismiss them. Notice how easily it can slip into your language:

‘You’re always angry’

‘They are being too emotional’

‘I’m such a sad person’

‘That’s just who I am. I’ve always been that way’

Today, I’ll shine a light on some wisdom from John Perry - from the very first episode of my podcast. I’ll offer a challenge to that viewpoint and some guidance for how to view yourself and others.

A stage of players

The core idea is this: we’re not one single core of self, but we are a multitude of different selves. John spoke of a ‘stage of players’. With lots of different, competing characters, ‘and they’re all there for a reason, all on your side’.

Drawing on his background in therapy, when clients would ask his help in ‘getting rid’ of anger or anxiety, John’s metaphor highlights it ‘would not be a cure, but an amputation’. That anger and anxiety are valuable, necessary emotions.

As opposed to one hogging the spotlight, the practice and work is in allowing or encouraging it to step aside, but not walk offstage.

Sometimes referred to as ‘sub-personalities’, these ‘all make up the totality of your personality, and the art of living well is to think about what one character you want to bring forward at any one time’.

John elaborates on the work of Miller Mair, a personal construct psychologist, in whose work ‘viewpoints become alive, capable of talking to each other, arguing and collaborating’ in a ‘community of selves'. In this community, offers John, ‘everyone has a role to play and it is a crucial role…there’s a sense of interdependence’.

Inside out

One of the greatest Pixar films, and a fantastic illustration of this idea, is Inside Out. Here the adolescent protagonist is shown to be driven by five core emotions.

What I especially appreciated was the value that is placed on emotions in this story.

It honours my experience that we are not just clever, brainy humans operating ‘from the neck up’ - (see Rene Descartes, I think, therefore I am). But that we are messy, relational, tribal mammals led as by our emotions, if not more, than our thoughts. That the mind and the body are not separate, but inextricably intertwined and operating together.

Let me lay down this challenge to you: no matter how logical and rational you would like to think you are, I wager than more often than you’d like to think that your decision-making is informed by instinct and emotion, above reason and logic.

Helping others with their stage of players

Once we bring this metaphor into our belief system, it is transformative in how you view and communicate others.

Helping someone come to understand the part of them that is experiencing anger, as opposed to viewing them as ‘angry person’, helps us get some objectivity and distance from it. We can listen to that player on the stage, hear them, show them curiosity or compassion. And, in my experience, once that ‘part’, that player on the stage is heard - they are happy to shuffle off to the side.

No longer viewed as an angry person, or someone who is ‘always angry’, then can be viewed as someone who is experiencing anger. Perhaps, holding this theory, one of the other characters can be welcomed and heard.

A tonic for tension

Folks often come to something like coaching feeling an inner tension, an inner conflict. A dilemma - should I stay or should I go? Or perhaps some built up frustration - I’d love to tell them what I really think!

In my own experience, it can feel like an internal tug of war. Often between the part of me who wants to go for a long hike, phone off, in the mountains and forests - and the other industrious, striving, ambitious part of myself.

A feeling of ‘do more’ versus ‘be present’, or ‘good enough’ versus ‘not good enough’. Understanding that these are both healthy, natural composites of ‘me’ that might need some listening to, that they both have my best interests at heart, has been immensely and deeply helpful to how I live my life.

And a tonic for complexity & fixed mindsets

Much of how I view the work that I do is shining a light on complexity, messiness, nuance and paradox in a time when so many of us are looking for simplicity, ease, shortcuts and hacks. We can’t be our ‘best self’. Perhaps we can draw on the personality that will best serve us in the moment.

The next time you hear, ‘that’s just how I am', what if you showed that curiosity, or challenge. To keep telling ourselves that story, I think, is to embed that belief. To surrender and to be condemned to servitude to that one emotion. It is such an entrenched fixed mindset, that it writes off any future possibility to change. I wonder if there is a part of you that …… or tell me about a time when you haven’t…. or it sounds like you’re resigned to feeling that way forever

A challenge to ‘living our best life’

I don’t think we should strive to live our ‘best life’. A constant pursuit of personal growth, and the wider self-help industry can be argued to collude with the idea that you are deficient. That you are not good enough.

But what if you were perfectly imperfect as you are. What if you are beautifully whole and a wonderful mess of competing emotions. What if you embraced the totality of you as you are, and led with self-compassion?

As discussed with Linda Aspey in a previous podcast episode, perhaps the focus on just our best self, and just our best life, colludes with the era of individualism. A neo-liberal myth whispered to us, which tells us to focus on us - to fear them.

In the era of climate and ecological collapse, what is the relationship between ‘your best life’ and a wider societal, ecological, climate unravelling? Perhaps we might drop the ‘y’ and widen our ambitions to living ‘our best life’.

I often wonder if, like me, the wisdom, solution and help doesn’t necessarily lie ‘out there’ in the next book, the next course, but if the wisdom, solution and help lies already in the privacy of your own heart.

That everything we need to know, or need to feel, is trying to be communicated by our own very kind, very different cast of characters on our own internal stage.

A big thank you to coach and AoEC Faculty member - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his informative and engaging podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.