In each of us can be found all instincts, all vices and virtues, all tendencies of mankind.
– Hermann von Keyserling, philosopher (1880-1946)
If you’re like most of us, you’ve felt conflicted about a decision in the past. Perhaps you’ve been confused about your sentiments towards some person or thing. The theory of subpersonalities offers an explanation for the confusion: it’s the result of divergent needs from several of your personalities.
According to the theory, we each have a multitude of subpersonalities in our minds. A subpersonality is characterized by its psychological elements: habit patterns, traits, and others. At any time, one dominates over the others. This results in a single stream of thought in our minds that we refer to as our inner voice. In an excerpt on subpersonalities from Synthesis Volume 1: The Realization of the Self, author James Vargiu writes:
There are in each of us a diversity of these semi-autonomous subpersonalities, striving to express themselves. And when any of them succeeds in doing so, we then play the corresponding role. But during that time the other subpersonalities are cut off. Yet they are still very much present – even though we may be unaware of them – and they are likely to create a lot of inner conflict.
This idea isn’t completely new. Sigmund Freud framed it as the id, the ego, and the superego. Carl Jung extended that idea to include the collective unconscious. Paul MacLean suggested the triune brain theory, describing the reptilian, limbic, and neocortex parts of our brains.
What’s unique about subpersonalities is that it offers an elegant general framework for understanding our multifaceted selves. Vargiu writes:
[O]ne of the easiest and most basic ways to facilitate our growth is to get to know our subpersonalities. As we understand them better, we can regulate and direct their expression according to our own needs and goals, making them our helpers and our allies, and bringing them increasingly close to each other, toward greater harmony and integration.
We don’t have to accept the inner conflict that arises when we satisfy only one personality. Instead, Vargiu suggests that we get familiar with all of our subpersonalities – especially those we’ve disowned in the past. From there, we can decide how to act, strengthening the personalities that serve us best and deemphasizing the ones that don’t.
Examining your subpersonalities
Which personalities exist in you? In Vargiu’s experience, most people have a common set of characters within them. His students and clients have identified dozens:
[…] The Mystic, The Materialist, The Idealist, The Claw, The Pillar Of Strength, The Sneak, The Religious Fanatic, The Sensitive Listener, The Crusader, The Doubter, The Grabbie, The Frightened Child, The Poisoner, The Struggler, The Tester, The Shining Light, The Bitch Goddess, The Great High Gluck, The Dummy, to name a few.
I examined my own, and found a few others:
- The Curious Child
- The Quiet Introvert
- The Immature Joker
- The Controlling Perfectionist
It’s important to realize that it’s possible for two seemingly opposite personalities to coexist. The existence of The Frightened Child doesn’t contradict the existence of The Pillar Of Strength. The existence of The Shrewd Businessman doesn’t invalidate the existence of The Mystic. These personalities exist in a connected web, not in silos.
It’s also possible for you to examine the relationships between each of these identities. Perhaps your Controlling Perfectionist triggers your Frightened Child, and by loosening the former’s iron grip, you can avoid the latter altogether.
Integrating your subpersonalities
Through a gradual process of acknowledging and examining our subpersonalities, we begin to develop an integrated personality – one that exists at the centre of all of our subpersonalities.
The integrated personality gives us the freedom of choice. Without it, we’re constrained to acting in favour of whichever subpersonality happens to be dominant at the time. With it, we can choose to express any quality of any subpersonality that serves us best, because we know which expressions are possible. Whatever vice, virtue, and tendency of mankind that exists in us can be actualized.
- The full article on subpersonalities, excerpted from Synthesis Volume 1: The Realization of the Self, by James Vargiu.
- An article from author Brian Whetton on inner voices, from The Huffington Post.
- Wait But Why’s article that suggests we have five conflicting personalities, which makes weighty choices like picking a career difficult (search for “The Yearning Octopus” in the text).