ColumnThere’s an entire community inside you. Why fight it? Here’s a case for the more the merrier and why you shouldn’t let internal demons dis your Multiple Personality Order.
Some years ago, one of my dearest friends invited me to a Halloween party. It was an annual event at his place and, being seriously costume-slow, I went into curse-his-name-for-making-me-do-this-again mode. I finally decided on what I thought was a simple and pretty cool gotcha plan—to go as him. But as is often the case, simple became elusive as it quickly dawned on me that this wasn’t something I could do alone. My pal is, as much as anyone I have ever met, several people in one.
Equal parts doctor, art connoisseur, sports junkie, intellectual, party pal and erotic photographer, the costume would require my recruiting about a half a dozen people from our tribe of comrades. One of us would dress in a lab coat (with stethoscopey bling), another in a black turtleneck (avec le béret), another in an old Michigan football jersey (Go Blue!), and so on. The finishing touch was equipping each “personality” with a life-sized cutout of our friend’s face (we used an old close-up of him with a cigar dangling from his mouth) attached to a Popsicle stick to use as a mask. Voila! Off we went, finally positioning ourselves in a line-up in the hallway outside his apartment door.
We scared the shit out of him.
Looking back, I think what attracted me to this friend in the first place was not only his eclectic nature, but how each of his “selves” is so vivid and fully formed. We’re not talking Sybil here, it’s just that whichever one of his personalities you encounter on a given day isn’t just a little of this or a little of that—each is robust, well-developed and sometimes even extreme. He’s kind of a jack of all trades, master of many.
Of course, most of us can lay claim to multiple personalities.* But unfortunately, this boon all-too-commonly results in an internal dissonance that’s at best uncomfortable and at worst a powerful angst driver. Part of this unease comes from the fact that our culture is so wound up with us finding our “one true self.” (Thank you Deepak, Oprah, et al.) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to beg for a binary solution, as in “I am this, not that.” The search for authenticity has become about discovering “that certain something”—not those certain somethings—with everything else thrown overboard, or at least diminished.
Moreover, various aspects of our personalities may seem destined to be mortal enemies. This plays out on many levels, from the domestic to the professional, and even in the bedroom (or wherever you like to play). What’s a devoted father to do with his inner party boy? A corporate-ladder climber with her free-spirit artist? Straight-laced missionary lovers with their desire for kink? And there’s this: being on the fence is considered bad form, so we must have a winner. As I once wrote in these pages, whether it be Ginger or Mary Ann, the Stones or the Beatles, or whatever other clash our culture serves up, we’re pushed to choose, lest we risk seeming uncommitted, apathetic or even flaky.
Of course, these challenges can fuel some significant inner turmoil—and, as with any conflict, conventional wisdom suggests two clear options: negotiate a settlement or go to war. Personally, I know that I have a number of inner selves going at it at any given time, and indeed they’re often engaged in either a struggle to compromise or an ongoing blood feud. Recently, my fight card has featured two heavyweights—the public me vs. the private me. Step right up and see the battle of the century (well, half of one in my case): The socialite vs. the homebody. The writer vs. the reader. The exhibitionist vs. the voyeur.
But is internal shuttle diplomacy or coming to self-inflicted blows really our only choice? How could it be when there are people like my friend (though they are few and far between) who seem to not only have multiple selves, but selves that are simultaneously uncompromised and at ease with each other? Do we really have to choose? In my case, can I maybe be both an introvert and an extrovert? (Note that this link goes to a test that will supposedly determine if you are one or the other. Bah!)
Battle Fatigue – or It Takes a Village
When it comes to reducing internal dissonance, there are many problems with the “negotiate or fight” model. Let’s start with the first part—the compromise, or the give-and-take method. This involves one “you” surrendering something to another, and vice versa. (“I’ll stop doing this if you stop doing that.”) The danger here is a form of dilution, with neither impulse being purely or fully explored. Of course, there are many situations in our lives where we have to make tradeoffs (I’m a father—I know that some life compromises are not optional), but perhaps it’s not a good idea to surrender everything to the half-this/half-that technique. That’s the Jack that we don’t want to be, right?
As for the fisticuffs approach, well, ouch! The fact is, no one part of you is going to offer full-scale, unconditional surrender (short of your employing some sick “Clockwork Orange” approach), so something inside you ends up doomed to live in indefinite torment. Call it beating yourselves up. On top of that, the search for a singular authenticity seems to me plagued with the square-peg/round-hole problem. It’s simply not based on an accurate assessment of who we are. There are so many roles to play, so many tastes to consider, such a quilt to be woven. In the end, we not only are different things—we have to be. At least if we’re going to stay sane.
All this raises a favorite question: Who says? Who says we have to dumb down our different selves? And who says there has to be a winner? Isn’t it possible for each of our internal players to simply behave and take turns? Here’s a thought: rather than bringing your inner selves to the negotiating table (or the battleground), why not bring them to the round table? Serious clinical issues aside, multiple personalities don’t have to suffer from disorder. Like with any diverse set of folks trying to inhabit the same territory, if they dial down the judgment or need to dominate, they just might end up being solid citizens in a wonderfully varied universe—with experiences to match. Hell, they might even inspire each other.
As for the charges of being flaky or hard to pin down (or even a bit schizophrenic), I call bullshit on that too. While those who embrace their multiple selves without (too much) compromise may be uncommon, I find them to be interesting, strong and attractive. I recall what I refer to as my “Last Tango” moment. It was, I think, the first time I realized I possessed a fetish for what I have since lovingly termed “Walking Dichotomies.”
I was apartment hunting outside Boston at the beginning of my third year of undergrad and exploring (alone, I thought) what would turn out to be a perfect place to hole up for the winter. I was in the kitchen (nice stove), when a vision appeared in the hallway—she wore patent leather designer red pumps and carried a splendid handbag that must have set her back more than a month’s rent. Her ears, neck and wrists boasted jewelry more lovely than I had seen on just about anyone, let alone a student. And this: a well worn, but still bright Grateful Dead tie-dye tee (gloriously braless) and an old pair of bright red sweatpants. There was a chic-meets-hippie air about her and a smile that accepted it all perfectly. And I was in lust. And she turned out to be brilliant and fascinating (and a great roommate)—as well as a lifelong friend.
While it took some time to get what I so dug about this person so many years ago, today I can honestly say that—almost to the man and woman—the people I’ve most respected and been enchanted by have in common the ability to pursue and enjoy multiple, seemingly conflicting internal impulses. Whether it be the doctor/fine-art photographer/football geek, the champion skier/immigration activist/über-intellectual, the mother/neuroscientist/talk-show host, the writer/wrestler/dominatrix, my all-over-the-map kids or my wonderfully multifaceted life partner, the cast of characters within characters in my life has been riveting—and it happily marches on.
When all is said and done, the special ones aren’t half this or half that. They’re this and that. And they’re all that. The truth is our culture makes bank on giving us false choices. But when it comes to what’s inside, it’s we, all of us, who get to decide—or not.
Scott Adelson is, among other things, EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
* Disassociate Identity Disorder (previously know as Multiple Personality Disorder) is serious mental-health diagnosis. The author is in no way making light of the actual condition.
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Images: Papa Lima Whiskey (top) and David Goehring(cropped).