Most people would probably agree with the statement that their ‘I’ is the sum of their thoughts, beliefs, emotions and physical sensations. We believe that this ‘I’ is consistent in itself and stable over time and makes our personality. However, our inner experience, just as in the experience others have of us, confronts us with a great variance of feelings, thoughts and behaviours. We have so many different facets that the concept of a coherent ‘I’ is of little use in our lives. Instead, we could see ourselves as a person consisting of many different selves, parts, or voices, which interact to form what we call ‘I’. We hear our inner parts argue and debate and comment inside our head all day long:
‘You should have done the shopping before work – I knew it was going to be too late to get this done in time before dinner. Now look at the mess. We’ll have to do frozen pizza again, and this is exactly what you promised you wouldn’t do anymore.’
‘She hasn’t called... I can’t believe she hasn’t called: the paper wasn’t good enough. You didn’t go the extra mile – you just had to cut corners, didn’t you!’
What we call ‘I’ is the combination of all of these voices or selves and the interactions among them. It is this multifaceted nature of personality that Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone, the creators of The Psychology of Selves, explore with the methodology they coined Voice Dialogue (Stone, 1998).
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 aggravated and judgemental with their spouse the next one. 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.
Before you get concerned that speaking in ‘voices’ could mean you’re schizophrenic, or that acknowledging different selves could trigger multiple personality disorder, let me assure you that Voice Dialogue has no such power. The different selves as explored through Voice Dialogue are metaphors.
Evolution of Various Selves
Early Phase of Life: Using a metaphor, 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 without inhibition; one moment we are giggling with joy, the next we bump our knee and are in a world of pain. 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.
Identification and Association: Eventually however, we learn how the expression of some qualities leads to being more loved, praised, or rewarded, and the expression of others leads to rejection, shame, or punishment. By wanting to be loved and accepted, we begin to mould ourselves into the shape most likely to be rewarded by our environment. And like it, we now label behaviours, thoughts, and feelings as good, bad, right, and wrong. How we sort these qualities into the different categories is 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 considered undesirable by the people around us. Thus, begins the journey of disassociating ourselves from the unwanted qualities and identifying with those that best guarantee the attention and affection of our primary caregivers.
Formation of the Army of Selves: 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 – nearly or even completely unconscious. Each self ultimately stands for a distinct strategy for how to buffer us against fear, attack, or failure, fulfil our needs, 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. Our selves have a strong preference for pre-emptive strikes. Sadly, the very behaviours they inflict on us with the intention of keeping us safe often make us even more vulnerable and out of control and remove us further from the state we desire.
An Example: Mother Maria
About 10 years ago, I experienced first-hand what it was like to be hijacked by one of my selves. I was travelling to a client in Luxembourg with my colleague, Peter, a very handsome man with a boyish energy and a contagious smile. When we arrived at the front desk of our five-star hotel, Peter immediately started to joke and flirt with the receptionist – who clearly enjoyed the attention. With a raised eyebrow I observed their banter. Then Peter made the move; he leaned on the desk, and with all the innocence he could muster up, he asked the receptionist if there was any way she could upgrade his room to a higher floor of the hotel with a view of the old town of Luxembourg. After all, it was his first time in this beautiful city and after a long day of work nothing would make him happier than to enjoy a gorgeous view with a drink in his hand.
At this point, I was livid. I could not believe the blatantly obvious and unashamed manipulation of the ‘poor girl’ behind the counter. When the blushing receptionist finally handed him the key to one of their suites on the top floor, I had lost all faith in and respect for humanity, and women in particular. Tight-lipped and cold as ice I took my turn at the check-in desk and, with what I felt was a very dignified look on my face, received my key – to my second-floor room. Opening the door to my room, I found that my window not only lacked a view of Luxembourg but faced the parking lot at the back of the hotel.
As I was unpacking my suitcase and playing out in my mind all the things I would like to say to Peter and the naïve receptionist, Peter rang: ‘You have to come up and see this! I have two rooms and a spectacular view! It is so cool, let’s have a drink together.’ Needless to say, I turned down the generous offer to celebrate the fruits of his unethical seduction and instead settled into a restless night, tossing and turning to the sounds of the parking lot traffic.
At the time, I didn’t know what had hit me. When I observed Peter and the receptionist, I was completely overtaken by a sense of self- righteousness and indignation. Although I believed I was right to be appalled, even I could not understand why Peter’s behaviour triggered such a strong response. During a Voice Dialogue session a few years later, I found my answer: I discovered one of my parts, that called itself Mother Maria. My inner Mother Maria was in fact modelled after Maria, my late grandmother. She had always credited her long and healthy life (she passed away a few months after turning 100) to her Prussian virtues of self-discipline, humility, and prudence. My grandmother had exercised daily until she was 96 years old and had cared for old people (all 20 years her junior) until she could no longer walk. She had been the most Protestant Catholic I ever met. As with many women of her generation, my grandmother had seen the little she had grown up with dwindle into even less with the start of World War II. Her life was marked by a tight regime of hard work and little compassion for herself or for her four children (amongst them my mother). My grandmother had nothing but disdain for people who acted entitled, who manipulated others for favours, or who felt it was their right to cut in line.
She had been one of my main caretakers while growing up, and I copied many of the values my grandmother exemplified. I owe much of my success to her role model. I was surprised to discover that I had apparently made her immortal by creating my own internalised representation of her: my internal Mother Maria. When I got to know this part through Voice Dialogue – her views on life, her values, and her wishes for me – I discovered that Mother Maria’s moral high ground was only half of the story. During one of my Voice Dialogue sessions, Mother Maria revealed how much she envied people who were not ashamed to try to better their conditions. Since she had never felt that this had been an option in her life, the only thing she had to her name was at least to be morally superior to everyone else. Understanding the qualities Mother Maria brought to my life – as well as her secret desire – allowed me to invite her energy more consciously, instead of being hijacked by it. One of the gifts she brought was the lesson I learned during the Luxembourg incident: dare to be like Peter more of the time. Ask for what you want. And enjoy what you may receive.
The process of voice dialogue, of speaking with the selves, can bring astonishing insight into the what and why of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. 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. We need to remember, I have my selves but I am not my selves. I am not the voice in my head. I am whoever is witnessing the voices in my head.