Who Am “I” Anyway? (Book Snippet 25)

When we describe a person we often depict them having a certain character. What we label as their character seems to be a stable set of personality traits influencing that person’s thoughts and actions. However, the model of a fixed character does not explain why we are at times so out of character. We observe others behaving in ways that are just not like them (‘I don’t know what got into her. She was not being herself!’). It is even more irritating when we catch ourselves thinking or wanting things that are in direct opposition to the things we really think or want. This leaves us with the puzzling question of Who am ‘I’?

The explanation Voice Dialogue offers is that there are different selves, parts, or voices in all of us which influence who we are at any given moment in time.

Most of us will be able to attest to not always being exactly the same person, with the same consistent reactions, beliefs, or moods. We can feel and behave very differently, depending on the context we are in or the people we are with. A person can be loving and patient with their child one moment, and in the next aggravated and judgemental with their spouse. We often become aware of the presence of different voices or selves whenever we have an important decision to make. Faced with a consequential choice, it can feel as if we are literally being pulled in different directions; one part of us wants to turn left, and the other wants to turn right. In the end, the cacophony of the voices in us can grow so loud that we are left confused, depleted, and incapable of moving forward.

Imagine that all of humanity originates from the same ‘pond’ or source. Within this pond, you will find all human needs, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

As children, our connection to the pond or source is undisturbed, and we access and express the full spectrum uninhibited; one moment we are giggling with joy, the next we bump our knee and are in a world of pain — until we see a butterfly passing by and follow its movements mesmerized. When we don’t get what we want we are sad, angry, or stubborn. We give gifts of love abundantly. We are envious, generous, mischievous, funny, coy, loud, and quiet. We are everything a human being can be. Life flows through us and we never hold onto any thought or emotion for very long.

Eventually however, we learn how the expression of some of these qualities leads to being more loved, praised, or rewarded, and the expression of others leads to rejection, shame, or punishment. Wanting to be loved and accepted, we begin to mould ourselves into the shape most likely rewarded by our environment. Like our environment, we now label behaviours, thoughts, and feelings into good, bad, right, and wrong. Which qualities fall into which category is thereby heavily influenced by our cultural and socio-economic background. We might learn that being friendly, courteous, studious, and quiet are good qualities; whereas being loud, angry, envious, and self-centred are undesired by the people around us. Thus begins the journey of disassociating ourselves from the unwanted qualities and identification with those that best guarantee the attention and affection of our primary caregivers.

In effect, out of the limitless pool of possibility, we assemble a small army of selves with qualities bearing the highest likelihood of fulfilling our needs.

This process of adaptive learning is automatic, barely or even completely unconscious. Each self ultimately stands for a distinct strategy of how to fulfil our needs, buffer us against fear, attack, or failure, or let us experience joy and connection. In our adult reality, the different strategies we employ are more or less effective, healthy, or even rational. Rarely do we take care to upgrade our strategies based on newer events and situations, instead we continue to exercise particular ways of thinking, feeling, and acting which are based on realities that have long passed.

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