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The Many Selves


Several authors and various therapies address the existence of multiple selves, as the manifestation of a diverse personality that unfolds over the days. And even in ignorance of these theories, self-perception of the existence of various personalities is common. For example, when we talk to ourselves there is a self that speaks and a self that listens. Or when we self-criticize, there is the self that criticizes and the self that is criticized. These multiple selves are different versions or possibilities of being.

And where do these selves come from? Paul Gilbert is one of the authors who address this topic, using an evolutionary explanation to clarify the existence of multiple selves. According to this author, humans have evolved in such a way that they carry out specific behaviors that allowed, and allow, their adaptation to certain challenges and social contexts (such as group life, caring for children, etc.). These specific behaviors are associated with different motives, emotions and information processing styles (i.e., ways of interpreting the stimuli around us – what we pay attention to, what we ignore and how we give meaning to what happens). The set of these behaviors, motives, emotions and information processing styles, the author called social mentalities.

Thus, social mentalities are innate potentials that allow the construction of social roles. Gilbert identified five social mindsets:

  • Forming alliances – establishment of cooperative relationships, allowing to deal with the challenges to survival and the constant aggressions and conflicts within the group;

  • Competition or social ranking – establishing relationships for competition for resources, allowing for the resolution of conflicts/aggressions within the group; it also involves the acquisition and maintenance of social status (dominance) and subordination to those who have a superior status, i.e., who are dominant;

  • Care provision – establishment of relationships, in which the subject invests time and energy, among other resources, thus increasing the probability of the other, to whom care is provided, to survive, grow and reproduce;

  • Seeking care – establishing relationships with others so that they invest time, protection and other resources essential to survival, also facilitating emotional regulation;

  • Sexual – establishment of relationships to carry out sexual behaviors.

Depending on the mentality that is active, the person feels different emotions, motivations and intentions, also varying the way he interprets the world around him (eg. fair/unfair, safe/dangerous, etc.), the way he interprets the people around him (eg. friendly/unsympathetic, cautious/insecure) and the way he assesses herself (eg. the self that is loved, the self that fails, the self that wins, the self that helps , etc.).

Thus, Gilbert states that the assessments we make of ourselves, our self-concept, is coordinated by the action of various social mentalities, in such a way that the self that fails is as real as the self that wins, or the self that it is loved, etc., as they all represent potential selves, which are innate and shared by all humans, and are part of our evolutionary heritage.

Thus, it is as if the self is not just one person, but the integration of five (or who knows more) people, each with different emotions, motivations, desires, needs and even different self-concepts (or self-esteem). As might be expected, these multiple selves, which act and feel differently, sometimes come into conflict and can generate anguish and frustration. These internal conflicts are the result of the activation of different mentalities and, consequently, of the manifestation of different motivations to play different roles, in order to obtain different social results.

The more a person is able to integrate and combine these various selves, without ignoring or rejecting any of them, the healthier and more stable he will be. Which does not mean that we must fulfill the wishes of all of them (because this, in addition to being impractical, would not be possible, as there are incompatible wishes), but we can recognize these wishes, as well as the conflicts that may arise, and decide, in the presence of the various selves, what to do.

And in the face of these conflicts, did we make the right decision? In fact, we make the best decision we can at the stage of life we're in. It is through conflicts that we change and transform ourselves. It is through the acceptance and recognition of our potential selves that we grow and mature.

“Human nature is like the keys on a piano; it's hard to play a good harmony when we've only reached a limited number of keys.” (Gilbert, 1989. Human nature and suffering; p. 334)

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