4. Our wholeness is in our relationship between our parts.
I approach the self as both multiple and whole, differentiating between parts of self that have varied and at times conflicting wants and needs. Sometimes clients, when coming to see the truth of this, wonder if that means they have multiple personalities. I do not see this as the case.
We have this structure within ourselves called the “ego” whose job it is to create a unified concept of “who I am.” When this ego is working effectively, we engage in our lives, accomplishing valued goals and managing distress. People whose egos are severely damaged tend to have lives that are chaotic and turbulent, highly reactive and dependent on others or highly rebellious. The ego has a bad reputation in some spiritual circles, particularly those Western spiritualities informed by Eastern understandings of selfhood. In part this is in response to the exaltation of ego in Western thought, in which the ego is heroic striver, emerging from chaos and weakness to carry out mighty feats and hold the coherent “I.”
We need the ego, and yet the ego has a blindness that can create its own problems. Part of the ego’s work is to create a coherent narrative of self and cling to a unitary sense of truth. If “I” am upset in this moment by something a coworker did, “I” might become convinced that I am being unfairly victimized and this person is a persecutor. Because I have become identified with this feeling of persecution, the ego will generally suppress or deny any evidence to the contrary–for example, the possibility that I might have done something to upset my coworker first. Or if “I” do become open to this, then “I” might jump to become identified with the role of the persecutor and deny that I was victimized in any way.
I think of the ego as something like the command chair in a spaceship, or the Iron Throne of Westeros. It is an empty chair that runs the conscious self-system, but whomever sits in the chair is effectively the “I”. When we are not present to ourselves and our paradoxical behaviors, we might not recognize that what we think of as “I” is composed of many wants, needs, fears, beliefs, impulses, all attempting to actualize themselves and working at cross purposes. When we start to reframe these conflicts as parts of self, we gain needed distance and perspective. “Part of me feels mad at her for what she said in the meeting, and another part of me feels guilty because I insulted her first.” This shift does not immediately solve the problem, but it gives us space to clarify what is happening and what we need to do.
The more I explore my Self as a system of connected parts, the more I see that many of my problems arise from dysfunctional relationships between parts. There is a part of me that wants safety and comfort who might act up when I follow another part of me that wants visibility. Perhaps I apply for a job that I know I can do and want, but once I get to the interview, another part of me creeps in and starts filling me with anxieties and doubts. This part, the anxious part, has something of worth and value to add. Perhaps it senses something in the work environment and realizes that this job isn’t what it looked like on paper. Perhaps it’s trying to get my attention to convey something important, but the part of me that wants to look good at all costs keeps trying to push it aside and dismiss the anxiety as unimportant. In response, the anxiety increases–partly because it’s trying to be heard, partly because now I am at war within myself.
Every part of self is part of my wholeness, and by accepting and listening to these parts I can begin to shift these inner relationships to one of greater integrity and depth. I don’t need to be afraid of the part of me that gets depressed because I also have the part of me that keeps me engaged in life. Every part has a voice and a vote, and none have the run the show. The ego can keep managing my life and thinking of being an “I”, but a more democratic, inclusive “I”. That is why, in some sense, the Self is not unitary but a system of relationships; in another sense, the Self is an individual being that includes all of these relationships.