How well do you think you know yourself? You may have to think again because, in truth, personal identity is much more complicated than most people understand.
Who you are is much more than your name, age, family status, education, occupation, ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or any other demographic. It includes your personality as well as your different moods. You also have to take into consideration the different ways you present yourself in diverse environments—like home, school, work, church, around relatives, at parties, and even in the bedroom. These are all aspects of your identity. And there’s more still. What about the changes that occur when under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medications, and changes that come with age. Even your DNA changes over time!
Psychologists are supposed to be the experts on identity, but we can’t tell you who you are, either. We can measure your intelligence and personality traits, analyze you in therapy, and offer you our clinical findings, but we still cannot define who you are. The reason is simple: your identity, rather than being a singular entity that remains fixed over time, is a complex collection of different parts that constantly interact and change.
You’ll be able to get a fuller understanding of your identity once you understand the concept of subpersonalities existing in your subconscious mind. More than 140 years ago, Freud introduced a basic model of subpersonalities consisting of the id, ego, and superego. Many other theoreticians have developed more elaborate subpersonality models since then. Today, Richard Schwartz’s popular Internal Family Systems (IFS) describes a whole family of subpersonalities in the psyche. Even the popular Pixar movie Inside Out portrayed the subconscious mind of an 11-year-old girl populated by the emotional personalities of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Theories about subpersonalities are among the most enduring in the history of clinical psychology.
Why does your mind need so many different subpersonalities in the first place? The brain is wired to serve a wide range of functions, and these functions are programmed with value systems that have different characteristics that resemble different personalities. It’s not important how many subpersonalities there are or what they’re called. That said, I have my own classification of the major subpersonalities that my clients typically need the most help with, and this list will serve to better illustrate the concept of subpersonalities. Below is a descriptive list of their names and functions:
- The Judge – the inner authority responsible for having us conform to the rules, ethics, and values of society.
- The Nurturer – responsible for providing physical and emotional comfort to those we care for.
- The Child, or Heart – the emotionally sensitive part of our nature that needs to be loved, protected, and comforted.
- The Warrior – responsible for protecting us from threats.
- The Ego (not Freud’s) – responsible for maximizing our social status.
- The Rebel – responsible for establishing our freedom, independence, and permission to put our own interests ahead of others.
- The Romantic – the seeker of intimate love.
- The Sexual Self – serves our instincts for pleasure and/or procreation.
As you might imagine, such a diverse set of personalities inevitably have conflicts with one another, just as Freud suggested. This explains an entirely new dimension of your identity that is determined by the relationships among all your different parts.
The personalities of families and individuals both vary according to how well their separate personalities get along with each other. We tend to feel more comfortable relating to those who have peaceful natures and peaceful relationships with others. Where there are bad relationships, there will be bad vibes.
Understanding that our psyches have subpersonalities that have relationships with one another comes with good news. This is something that you can change. Changing the nature of your subpersonalities relationships is by far the easiest way to change your nature. You’ll still remain who you are, but you’ll be a much more comfortable version of who you are. Improving your inner relationships will also change your relationships with others for the better.
The most common way for people to transform their inner relationships is to work with a psychotherapist trained in a subpersonalities model like Internal Family Systems. My own forthcoming book, Whole Mind Healing: A New Path for Changing Your Life by Healing Your Mind (Summer 2019), offers a do-it-yourself method for accomplishing this.
Now that you have a fuller understanding of your complex identity, you can proceed to the next question, “What type of person would you like to become?”