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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