Our many selves
Do you ever hear yourself say, "A part of me....", as in: “A part of me wants to tell people exactly what I think, but another part is scared I’ll upset them and stops me from saying anything at all."
On radio and TV you will often hear people using expressions like: "A part of me", “I push myself”, “I’m in two minds”. Ads are constantly encouraging us to develop our inner Warriors, Lovers, Geeks, Adventurers - and more! In each of these words and phrases there is an implicit understanding that our personality is made up of many different parts or “selves.”
In the late 1970's, ground-breaking therapists, Drs Hal & Sidra Stone, developed an original and highly transformational approach to personal growth they called Voice Dialogue. This safe and simple process enables us to tune in to our different selves and allow their voices to be heard more clearly and distinctly. So, where do these selves come from?
No matter into which culture we are born we all share a common human experience: vulnerability. The human baby is born vulnerable and must be taken care of by others in order to survive. This means each of us has to develop a personality that will get our essential needs met from the adults around us. These needs can be summarised as:
Attention - notice me and physically take care of me
Approval - show me that you like and accept my way of being and doing
Affection - love me
The three "A’s" never go away. Our Vulnerable self remains with us our entire life and much of our adult behaviour is unconsciously driven by its core needs. Just think how you would feel today if you walked into a room and nobody noticed you; or if people told you that they disapproved of your behaviour, style, or way of being; or if someone close to you said that they didn’t care about you or even hated you! Ouch!! Your vulnerability would be touched, causing you to feel intense emotional pain.
To handle our vulnerability and get these basic needs met we begin to develop a personality made up of a group of protecting selves. These dominant or primary selves look around and notice what behaviour is rewarded and what is punished. They figure out the rules of our specific family, environment and culture, and have us behave in ways that are most likely to get the adults around us to satisfy our needs.
Our primary selves - which can shift and change as our life circumstances change - are unique to each of us. However, generic examples might be:
Pleaser: “You must always be nice to others.”
Pusher: “You must work hard to succeed.”
Responsible: “You must act appropriately.”
These primary selves - each with it’s own voice - form a powerful operating system. They run our lives and determine our values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. As we grow up they colour the way we see others and also how others see us. They determine what we like and dislike and what we judge and don’t judge. For most of us our operating system is us. We are identified with it. It is who we think we are. But that is only half the picture.
There is no up without down, no fast without slow, no happy without sad. Life is full of these dualities. So for every primary self that we identify with there has to be an opposite self that we have more or less hidden away, buried, or disowned. Opposites of the above examples would be:
Me First: “You must put your own needs before that of others.”
Easy Going: “Relax, kick back, things will take care of themselves.”
Rebellious: “Don’t do what is expected of you.”
The more strongly we identify with a particular primary self, the more deeply we have to bury its opposite energy. Remember: the job of our primary selves is to protect our vulnerability. They are terrified that their opposites will come out and cause problems. Their worst fear is that people around us will see these disowned selves and withdraw their attention, approval and affection from us. People will say for example, “How could you be so selfish / lazy / disrespectful?!”
Using attraction and judgement to learn about our selves
Most of us are so identified with the primary selves that run our lives that we have no idea that these opposite selves are alive and well and living somewhere inside us. Imagine a woman who has developed a very strong Pleaser self. She always feels driven to be nice to other people, help them in any way she can and make sure that they are happy. This was what was demanded of her as she grew up in her original family. If ever she was not nice to other people and put herself first she felt the intense negative judgements of the adults around her.
Typically she might meet a man who is the opposite of her. He will be more self-centred and be able to say “no” to the demands of others. He will be able to set clear boundaries and be able to ask people to do things for him without worrying about their feelings all the time. She may be irresistibly and mysteriously attracted to him. Or she may feel very judgemental towards him for being so selfish, self-serving and insensitive to others. She may even marry him and spend her life alternating between attraction (a positive bonding pattern) and judgement (a negative bonding pattern)!
What is going on in this example? There is an old proverb that says, “When we point the finger of judgement at another person there are three fingers pointing back to us”. Judgements come from our primary selves. It is the woman’s Pleaser who judges those “selfish” people. Whenever we feel a judgement towards another person we need to pay attention to the particular trait or traits that we are judging because this will tell us what selves we are identified with and what selves we have therefore disowned.
In a Voice Dialogue session we can learn how to separate from our primary selves and find out the rules they have for running our lives. We can learn and understand their demands, hopes and anxieties. This means that we need no longer be overly influenced by their default attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours. Only then are we able to become more aware of the opposite disowned selves within us and, most importantly, find a space to stand between them where we can apparently exercise more conscious choice. This space the Stones called the Aware Ego.
The Aware Ego process
Every time we access and then separate from a primary or disowned self we enter into and strengthen the Aware Ego. For example, if you are strongly identified with your Pusher and then you separate from it, the “you” that began the Voice Dialogue session is no longer the same “you” because you are no longer identified with your Pusher. You are then free to go to the other side and access your Easy Going self, understand its motivation and then separate from it. When you come back to centre you are again a new “you” - one that is now no longer identified with your Pusher or with your Easy Going self. Resting between these two is this Aware Ego.
According to the Stones, the Aware Ego is constantly in process - a process of learning to stand in the space between opposites. Since we are all made up of literally hundreds of different selves, this process is a dynamic one and continually evolving. There is always something new to learn about our selves. It is truly a path of compassion for every aspect of our psyche in which none are judged as good or bad and in this respect it can profoundly affect our choices in life.
A question still remains
When I first encountered Voice Dialogue I was understandably fascinated to discover more and more of my selves. Then after a while I became intrigued by the so called Aware Ego which the Stones often described as a kind of coordinator of the selves, bringing one or another of their energies into play as appropriate. But doesn't this just makes the Aware Ego into another self - one that through the Voice Dialogue methodology seems to gain more control over the multitude of inner selves? I found my self dissatisfied with this explanation and was left with a deeper question:
What is the nature of the awareness in which all the egoic selves arise?