Many Selves, One Mindful Direction



I walk around with a crowd inside – so many selves wanting to go in different directions. Too many voices are talking all at once, and it’s hard to pick out the one I need to listen to right now. Here’s the intuitive talker, waking up with the big picture and the ideas for what I’ll get done on my blogs today – he’s the one I want. Then that anxious kid, unready for the day, prickly at every detail, tries to noise the others out with TV static.

But here’s my writing, creative buddy, who pours peacefulness into a cleared space he holds open for me. But that physical guy is pushing me out the door to stretch all those muscles and finish the undone, hard work in gardens and fields. Always, of course, the damn depressive self, is trying to get back on top and sit with invisible weight on all the others, telling me I’ll never get anything done – so why try?

I am struggling to push aside the intruders shouldering into this moment and sit with the intuitive, creative me in my study. Right now they’re pushing me to get this blog post into shape, and it’s getting easier to hear what they’re saying. Of course, a worrying, list-maker keeps dragging my thoughts to the other 25 things I need to start doing. I tear up the latest scrap of paper he’s pushing in front of the computer screen.

However unruly and full of fight these competing selves may be, they have to stay together, and a gathering mind, always insisting that I’m just one man after all, manages to keep them in the right formation. They’re like flights of birds in migration – either they fly together behind this binding me, or, one by one, they fall by the wayside and are lost.


Paul Bloom, a psychologist, wrote in a recent Atlantic article about research that reinforces the idea that we consist of different selves. This could be much more than a metaphor for inner conflict. Instead of a single self that tries to fight desires pulling in different directions, he sees something closer to what I feel goes on within me: multiple selves in tension with each other:

The view I’m interested in … is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

These selves aren’t really popping in and out of existence. They’re all familiar companions who compete for my attention, but I’ve known them well for a long time. I’m always working to keep the positive ones foremost and push the negative ones aside. That’s one way I’ve come to think of recovery – I’ve learned how to deny power to a depressive or anxious or addictive me and fill with energy the creative, spiritual and loving beings.

This may sound like a dissociative personality disorder, but it’s not. These different selves are not compartmentalized and out of touch with each other. They’re interacting all the time. They tell stories, some grim, some hopeful and become parts of the living narrative I put together to form the single sense of who I am. It may not be the most consistent narrative, since, as the lead character, I’ve often changed direction and spoken with many voices. But I learn how to live – and find meaning in what I go through – by working hard to put each self into the order that will keep me sane and functioning.

When I’m well, this happens without much thinking, almost effortlessly. Even when I’m well, though, the dialogue, the arguments, the pushing and shoving for control among them still go on, however muted they might become. I have to remain mindful at all times, especially about the quiet moves that depression is making. He’s the most artful one of all, as well as the most dangerous.

Mindfulness for this purpose has a special meaning. It is not so much the detached observation of thoughts racing through my awareness until they are all still and a different consciousness is achieved.

More commonly, the flow I’m listening to consists of coherent voices pushing me in one direction or another. The peace and harmony I achieve comes when I can listen calmly to them all and detach myself from their tension. Then suddenly they are in the places where they need to be, their struggle is a sideshow, and I am filled with a sense of life and openness that is more than the sum of all those parts.

You could say I’m in the lead again, working hard in this endless flight, heading toward a home that’s still out of view.

Have you thought of an inner battle in this way? How does the struggle feel to you?

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14 Responses to “Many Selves, One Mindful Direction”

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  1. Kathy says:

    I like this piece. It fits as a description of me and my varied interest and not so interesting pieces and parts of me. What I miss the most right now is my intuition. When I am in the midst of depression or following too many of my interest at once (no time to be still) my intuition disappears.

    • john says:

      Hi, Kathy –

      I know what you mean about losing intuition in depression. Most of my ability to focus on anything or see beyond what’s right in front of me disappears when I’m depressed. Jumping from one thing to another is completely frustrating.

      I hope that changes for you soon.

      My best — John

  2. Ellen says:

    Hi John,
    Oh that Mr. Wrong is a problem, but I shall overcome! (That is my warrior voice speaking 🙂 )

    Thanks I am passably well, just complaining a bit on my blog.

    The book was still on my shelf – there are two actually, both by Hal and Sidra Stone – 1. Embracing your Inner Critic – Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset
    and 2. Embracing Our Selves.
    The Inner Critic one was my favorite but I believe they were both helpful to me. The authors advocate letting the various interior ‘voices’ have their say in a more conscious way and not being influenced blindly by their destructiveness. They write with a playfulness I enjoy.

    I’m enjoying your perspective John on having recovered, as opposed to being in recovery. You seem to feel that the recovery is due to internal shifts, as opposed to the ‘Finally I have found the right med cocktail’ sentiment that is more common. Whether meds are part of your regimen or not, you emphasize the interior landscape. It gives me hope and encouragement, so thank you.


    • john says:

      Thanks, Ellen –

      I’ll look for those books right away. – On getting beyond recovery, you’re right – I gave up a while back on finding the answer in meds. The internal changes are the key. I am on a couple of meds now, but they’re losing effectiveness (as well as side effects). I’m no longer bothered by that – I’m not going to chase the latest drug.

      It’s great to hear that my experience is encouraging. I’ve been through countless moments of hope only to feel them disappear again. All I could ever do was get back up and keep at it.

      All my best to you — John

  3. Ellen says:

    HI John,
    This is not quite the sense you mean it, but I read a great book years ago about the inner critic and other internal voices, broadcasting from the station CRAZY…. The idea was that the critic constantly comments on every move we make by criticizing us mercilessly. There were other characters, like the pusher, pushing us to achieve, and others that I can’t remember. These are basically negative voices, though they are trying to protect us in fact. So mostly, I have thought of inner voices like that, in a negative sense.

    It’s cool that you have detected these positive inner selves, like the creative one….Right now, to tell the truth, negative voices are totally keeping me down. I’m going to hunt for a creative useful one…


    • john says:

      Hi, Ellen –

      I’d love to know the name of that book so I can track it down. The whole idea of separate selves and voices has been helpful for me as a way of getting some distance from all the negative beliefs about myself that I’ve been taking too seriously for too long. It’s one way to organize the often jumbling rush of thoughts and feelings, and for me it really works. I have other ways of doing this, but in a sense we can only speak in metaphors about inner experience. Separating out the good from the bad inner influences has helped give a sense that the depressive voice isn’t the whole story, and that’s been critical to recovery.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope you are OK – all power to you re Mr. Wrong. 🙂


  4. Evan says:

    Thanks John. Well written as ever.

    I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of many selves. I do like that they are all in contact. I think I still have much feeling/thinking to do about this.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Evan – The many selves concept can be taken to extremes, as Paul Bloom points out in the article I mentioned, but there seems to be some neurological process behind it. The use of the term selves, though, is just a metaphor – and I’ve used several in this blog to capture the different dimensions of who we are. Yes, lots of thinking and experiencing to do about this!

      By the way, I finally caught up with your blog post on the speed of life, loved it and stumbled it.

      All the best — John

  5. airey says:

    John, I love this post.
    This is my first time visiting your site and I was instantly compelled to subscribe. I felt as though I was reading my own story however you have managed to put it so much more artistically and articulately than I could have. I awake every morning in a cloudy medication filled haze with the same thoughts running through my head as you’ve described but have never thought to look at them as “personalities” as you have so very well described.
    Thank you for shedding some light and a new way of thinking on an otherwise clutter filled mind.

    • john says:

      Thank you, airey – That’s what I hope for – to think in a new way about all this, and I’m glad it helps you. It’s a key part of recovery for me – I’m just sorry you’re in that hazy state each morning. Meds shouldn’t do that – but I’ve no idea what got you to this point. I’ll check out your blog right away.

      Wishing you so well — John

  6. Melinda says:


    I used to be very torn by the various selves I have inside (as we all do). This battle was terrible when I was undergoing dramatic psychic changes–and often, I was confused by what direction I should go because I was in the process of such change, it was hard to really know which voice to listen to. These days, it is much better.

    Whenever I am faced with any dilemna, I make lists. This sounds simple but for me, it is really helpful. I write down all the pros and cons of one choice, as compared to the other. Then I read them over and think each aspect through very carefully. And most importantly, I try very hard to listen to my heart because it is my firm belief that if we listen to our hearts, we will never be led in the wrong direction.


    • john says:

      Melinda – Thank you for these insights. I admire your list-making method. I often try to do that about a pending decision, but I usually go either with a feeling of excitement about a certain choice (very unreliable guidance) or an intuition about the rightness of it at that point in my life (much better). Your method has been put to so many hard tests, and you seem to know yourself well enough now to stay tuned to your heart. You struggled so hard to listen to the right voice – it’s no wonder you’ve learned how to keep your focus on what matters most. You’re always an inspiration.

      Thanks so much for being here and telling so many powerful stories — John

  7. Sean says:

    Hi John,

    I must admit to being a lurker of sorts on your blog for the past few months. This is mainly because I have been putting some pieces of my life back together recently and naturally have set out to understand this blessed curse that one calls depression.

    My own story – The illness itself I believe has been a part of my life longer than I have consciously been aware, however since rearing it’s ugly head, it has forced me to look deep inside and seek some hard answers. This aspect of the illness I am somewhat grateful for. I long to strive to be in a place of congruence and peace within myself.

    I really can’t say how much it means to have a resource such as yours to use as a compass of sorts to find direction again when I seem to lose my own.

    I promise I will no longer remain such a stranger :).


    • john says:

      Hello, Sean –

      I’m glad to meet you and hope that you will contribute often to this site. Many people come to the same conclusion you have that depression has probably been with them longer than they were aware. I’m sorry you have to deal with it at all, but your response to it could lead to some positive life changes.

      Let me know how I might be helpful to you as you deal with depression.

      My best — John

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