You are large, you contain multitudes | #60
In response to the advice to "be yourself", perhaps the answer should be "which one?"
26 March 2023 :: I missed a couple of weeks, but it’s never too late to get back on track. I’m consistently surprised (and yet not) at the effect that the condition of my body has on my mind. Well, the body is improving now, and so is the mind—let’s go.
I often find myself thinking about authenticity, the idea that it’s possible to ‘be myself’, or not. Although I’ve encountered many people who scoff at this, I think it points at a real thing that’s well worth digging into.
“Be yourself” is common advice, but it’s easy to get stuck when you try to follow it. Trying implies doing, and being oneself isn’t something that can be done. It’s something that happens, something that emerges of its own accord. Children, up to a certain age, don’t try to be themselves. They cannot help but be themselves, because they lack the kind of self-consciousness that tangles the rest of us in knots.
Once we become aware that it’s possible, through conscious intervention, to be other than what we naturally are, we lose that child-like state of grace. And, although it’s impossible to get it back, another version beckons to us. I’ve written in more detail about the journey of rediscovery elsewhere, but in summary, I see five stages:
Stage 1: Unconscious naturalness. The spontaneous child who can only be as she naturally is, but lacks the awareness of her own state.
Stage 2: Conscious unnaturalness. The self-conscious teenager who tries on many different masks in an attempt to fit in. No longer spontaneous, but increasingly ‘held’.
Stage 3: Unconscious unnaturalness. The adult who has long forgotten that she ever put masks on. To try to be herself is only to put on another mask.
Stage 4: Conscious unnaturalness, revisited. The adult who starts to see the masks once again, but doesn’t know how to take them off. She knows she is not herself, but the final move remains inaccessible.
Stage 5: Conscious naturalness. The child’s spontaneity has been rediscovered and is able to express itself through the conscious direction of the adult. The adult is herself once again, but fully aware.
In my view, one crucial skill that allows the transition between conscious unnaturalness and conscious naturalness is being able to stop doing something you’re already doing, but without doing something else instead; to take off a mask without putting another one on. Said differently, the way to be yourself is to stop doing all the things that aren’t yourself. Create a kind of void into which ‘you’ can show up and express whatever is authentic in that moment.
Here’s an older YouTube video I made on this idea, if you’re interested.
I wonder about the self that emerges when you get out of the way, particularly as it relates to the question of agency. If there is a spontaneous self that acts according to its own sense of authenticity that is appropriate to each moment, does that mean that having conscious naturalness implies one single way of being, making life fully deterministic?
I keep finding myself avoiding digging too deep into the literature around 'free will’, because most educated people seem to think it doesn’t exist, and I don’t want their strongly held, well-articulated arguments crowding out the confused, nebulous whispers of mine (and articulating why I think this is good, actually, is a topic for another time).
Perhaps I am clinging to an illusion, but I maintain that agency is a thing and that life is better with it. We just need to be clear about exactly where the agency shows up, because it really seems like this thin veneer of consciousness on top of my biological organism of unfathomable complexity must be useful for something beyond just watching it all happen.
In fact, my view, for now at least, is something like this: there is no one, single spontaneous self. There are multiple ways to respond in any given moment and the expression of any of them would be fully authentic, as long as it is allowed rather than ‘done’.
As Walt Whitman puts it in “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The role of conscious agency, then, is to select between one among the multitudes of available authentic responses. In the context of a heated argument, going quiet, asking questions and launching a tirade may all be perfectly valid ways to be yourself, but you may consciously decide that some are more constructive than others. Like a conductor who wants to bring out the sounds of the violins and hear a little less of the brass section, you have the power to choose which parts of you gets a say, moment by moment.
This is importantly and emphatically not the same as putting on more masks, where you would actively impose your conception of “respond reasonably” on your own behaviour, as opposed to allowing the part of you that naturally wants to respond reasonably.
The first, putting on a mask version, requires cognition and simulation, and the idea of what ‘correct’ behaviour is has to be generated from somewhere. The second, allowing yourself version, gives access to all the wisdom of that aspect of you to flow of its own accord. This is like the difference between thinking about and trying to hit a baseball versus just letting your body move itself in response to the ball.
I want to acknowledge one potential area of confusion I may have that I will need to work through, which is how similar this model is to that put forward by Internal Family Systems (IFS) and other parts-based frameworks for your internal world. Am I just rehashing and misconstruing that? I don’t think so.
In IFS in particular, the framing is that there are different parts (managers, protectors, exiles) inside you that can take you over in service of their own aims and learned functions. They have good intentions for you (says the model), but they are not your capital S Self—that which is left in the absence of the parts. Much of the work of IFS is to ‘unblend’ from the parts to access the positive qualities of Self.
Looking at this, I think that what I am proposing here is that there are multiple authentic expressions of what IFS calls Self, and I’m not just describing the landscape of ‘parts’.
Going back to my example of the heated argument, on one hand it’s possible—and likely, for most people—that different parts, in the IFS model, will be triggered. One might make you go quiet, another might get you to lash out, and another might want to drop emotion completely and go fully analytical. All of these could be considered self-protection strategies.
But what I’m pointing at here is another level that looks similar, but in reality is very different. In the absence of parts taking over, it seems possible that Self, while unencumbered by parts, can still express itself in many different ways, any of which would be ‘authentic’.
Consider that you are the water of a river with many branching distributaries, where the river splits into smaller rivers. Trying to be yourself is like asserting that there is a new branch, that the river does and will flow that way. An IFS part taking over is like all paths but one suddenly disappearing, such that you can only flow that one way. Often you’ll also forget that there were many routes you could take.
But the ‘multiple authentic selves’ model would leave all the distributaries open and give you conscious control about which one you decide to flow down. In the language of Daoism, you’re still ‘going with’ the natural flow of the river, but you’re also gently using will to affect the way in which you go with it.
Perhaps there is a link to multiverse theory, where in another universe you flow down a different path, and there’s no free will after all, but that’s too esoteric even for me right now—maybe another time. And of course I’m still playing with this idea, so if you have any thoughts, please let me know!
§ Get out of your own way at work
For those who subscribe to Every, here is my latest piece: How to get out of your own way at work (paywall)
§ Mini podcast: you can only respond to what you notice
I recently had a recorded conversation with River Kenna specifically on the idea that you can only respond to what you notice. If you’re interested, here it is!