Plural Selves FAQ

Just two of my plural selves shooting the breeze about plurality, no biggie...

J: Okay are we going to do this?

B: Absolutely. Just you and me talking plurality James.

J: In public.

B: In public but they’ve seen it all before, remember the zine. That was Tony and Max right?

J: Somehow this feels more exposing.

B: We’ve not let you out before have we? You’ll be fine when we get into the swing of it, talking about all these ideas we’ve been having. You know you love that.

J: Oh alright then, twist my arm. So what’s the plan Beastie?

B: We ask each other the questions we’ve heard – and had ourselves – about plural experience, and take turns to answer them. Your turn first. What is plurality?

Plurality

J: This is the whole idea that we can usefully conceptualise individuals as plural – or as systems – rather than as single units. We wrote a zine about it a couple of years back which has been one of the most popular ones we’ve created because it resonates with a lot of people: that sense that you’re often quite radically different sides of yourself at different times. 

An example would be the juxtaposition between the surefooted confident person you can be when you’re doing whatever you feel most competent at, versus the insecure, fragile side of you who you can become when you fuck up, or feel overwhelmed. People often find it particularly easy to identify an inner child part, or an inner critic, as those are quite common sides most of us have. 

When we’re in those selves our whole emotional tone, embodiment, and way of relating can be very different to how it is at other times. So, for example, we have one side of us – me – who generally feels steady, broad-shouldered, tall, and competent around others. Another side – Jonathan – generally feels uncertain, nervous, small, and shy around others. Embodying those selves my voice would be deep and sure, his would be higher pitched and sometimes stammers a bit.

Your turn Beastie, a common question: So that’s like multiple personality disorder (MPD), right?

Multiple personalities

B: Right and wrong. I do love a both/and. What used to be called MPD by the psychiatric profession is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and refers to the experience of having two or more distinct identities or personality states, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the world and the self. However, a diagnosis of DID also requires that a person dissociates – or forgets – between the different states, and that the experience impacts them negatively. So some people who experience plurality could be diagnosed with DID – if they also experience dissociation and find it a negative experience. But not everyone gets those aspects. We rarely dissociate in that sense, and generally find plurality a pretty positive experience, if vulnerable at times.

Many systems are now criticising the DID diagnosis and reclaiming plurality as a positive thing. Like most of the categories of ‘psychiatric disorders’ there’s an issue that of course people will experience something negatively if it’s stigmatised to the extent that it’s listed in the books of ‘psychiatric disorders’. Plurality is also represented in hugely stigmatising ways in popular culture: movies and TV shows almost exclusively depict it as a form of madness and as dangerous. Pretty much any plural person shown in the mainstream media has a self who is a serial killer. Think about movies like Identity and Split.

Oh actually that’s a good next question, do you have a self who is a serial killer?

Mad or Bad?

J: Seriously that’s what you’re going to ask me? No Beastie we don’t have a serial killer self as you well know. Although I am loosely based on James Bond, who you could argue was a serial killer. But no, no parts of us want to murder people, licence to kill or not. 

In fact recognising and working on plurality is a good way of facing and embracing those sides of us who are capable of harming others – which we all have given the oppressive and non-consensual culture that we live in. In our culture people often foreground the nice, acceptable parts of themselves and disown or deny their capacity to be cruel, non-consensual, or abusive. Recognising our plurality can enable us to be with the whole of ourselves – including those parts – which can mean we’re more able to be accountable when we do hurt others and to work with those capacities for darkness in ourselves instead of denying them. Which is pretty much where you came from right Beastie? You were our inner critic.

B: Right and I am the part of us who is most capable of expressing anger, clearly seeing when other people are pulling some bullshit, and speaking from that clarity in ways that can be hurtful.

J: So one benefit of plurality is that we can bring you together with our softer, more compassionate, sides. We can then draw on your clarity and boundaried-ness, but hopefully in ways that are more possible for other people to hear, and which acknowledge that we all fall into the same kinds of problematic behaviours. 

But that was a bit of a tangent. Let’s get back to the experience of plurality. We’re talking about it like everyone has it, but isn’t DID very rare?

Common or rare?

B: Estimates are about 1-3% of people would be diagnosable with DID. I think the analogy with bisexuality or non-binary gender is helpful here. When you study how many people identify with bisexuality or being non-binary, you get that kind of statistic – somewhere between 1% and 5% of people depending on the sample. However, if you ask the question in a way which gets at experience you end up with much more like a third of people, even as high as a half. That proportion of people have experienced attraction to more than one gender at some point, or experience themselves as to some extent the ‘other’ gender, ‘both’ genders, or ‘neither’ gender.

Our sense is that the same is true for plurality. Probably 1-3% of people have the experience of being multiple separate selves so vividly that it they would identify – or be identified – as plural, or DID. But probably most people have some experience of plurality some of the time, and maybe a third to a half of people could experience themselves quite significantly as plural – perhaps if wider culture was more understanding of it as a thing.

Some nice made-up statistics about plurality there (the ones on bisexuality and non-binary are based on research findings). But you take the point. Maybe you can say some more on this theme old man. So you’re saying that we are seven selves sharing a body. That still sounds pretty fucking weird right?

Weird or normal?

J: I’m sensing a theme here where I hand you the easy questions and you toss me back the really hard ones.

B: Well I am the inner critic: the deep dark monster lurking inside all of us, you didn’t expect me to be gentle did you?

J: I happen to know that you can be extremely gentle Beastie, now that we have tamed you… I mean embraced you and apologised profusely for keeping you cast out in the depths for all these years.

B: Quite. Come on, weirdness.

J: Okay. Well as we’ve already said actually most people can relate to the idea of plurality on some level. Again non-binary gender is a good analogy. If you ask people if they are non-binary a lot of people are pretty weirded out. The whole concept of a gender beyond male and female is a head-fuck in such a binary gendered world. But if you get people to list what our culture would see as being a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ in two columns, most people readily agree that they don’t fit perfectly within either column, and in fact recognise that the binary columns themselves are pretty problematic.

The same is true for plurality, if you hit someone with ‘are you multiple different people sharing a body?’ most people would probably say ‘no’. But if you ask a person to be an entirely consistent, coherent self through all the moments of their day and in all the interactions they have, they’d probably quickly realise how constraining that would be, and how they do actually flow between quite different experiences of selfhood.

Indeed you could argue – as some sociologists have – that the concept of a singular self is an invention of neoliberal capitalism. We’re all pressured to tell stories of our self as if we were consistent and coherent when actually we’re all complex and contradictory. You could even go so far as to say that experiencing yourself as utterly singular is the ‘crazy’ thing, and that trying to present yourself in that way does quite a violence to yourself. Certainly many indigenous cultures have understandings of selfhood that encompass plurality and would see the idea of a singular self as weird or unlikely.

What do you think Beastie? Is it more ‘sane’ to be plural or singular?

Sanity and plurality

B: As you know I abhor a binary James. Clearly some people experience themselves as more singular and some as more plural. Probably a spectrum would be a better way to conceptualise it than an either/or. Even a series of spectrums – spectra – whatever the word is. In the same way that many theorists are now seeing sexuality and gender as multiple spectrums. For plural self-ness it could be something like these five spectrums, probably more:

  • How coherent/unified to diverse/plural we experience ourselves as being
  • How muted to vivid our experience of our different selves, alters, or subpersonalities is
  • How separate to overlapping these different parts are
  • How much we do, or don’t, experience dissociation or forgetting between the times when different parts of us are to the fore, or fronting
  • To what extent our plurality is rooted in traumatic experience, and/or the extent of the trauma that we’ve experienced

Going back to crazy or sane, it’s fascinating that, on the one hand, we have psychiatric professions diagnosing and treating DID as a disorder, but on the other hand we have a bunch of therapists like John Rowan, Mick Cooper, Hal and Sidra Stone, and others arguing that embracing and experiencing our plurality is the way towards better mental health, not away from it. Many humanistic and psychodynamic psychotherapies like Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, Internal Family Systems, and Psychosynthesis explicitly see the self as plural and aim to get the different parts communicating with one another. We explore lots of different ways of doing that in the plural selves zine.

But again, as with sexuality, we would not want to flip from a world which defines plurality as crazy and singularity as sane to the opposite. Just as we wouldn’t want to insist that everyone is bi really and stigmatise monosexual people. Rather it’s about recognising the diverse range of ways of experiencing ourselves that exist, and making it easier for everyone to find and articulate their own lived experience: shifting wider culture to make it more possible for them to do so.

Back to you James. The writing on DID suggests that plurality is rooted in childhood trauma. Is that a useful way to look at it?

Trauma

J: Oh boy, you’re going to keep them coming aren’t you? Okay, yes it does seem that many of us experience ourselves as fragmented distinct selves because we learnt to separate off different parts of ourselves in order to survive what happened to us when we were young. For example, our own particular experience was of being quite a carefree, playful, sensitive creature in early childhood, and then being taught that that wasn’t okay, so we kind of shut that part away and developed other sides of us who were able to survive the world we found ourself in. In our case that was developing you – the inner critic – out there somewhere as this external voice telling us that we weren’t okay and must be better. We also developed a pleaser part of us – Jonathan – who could hyper-vigilantly pick up very well on what was expected of us and try to do it. Eventually we also developed Max – our warrior – who was stronger and adept at becoming what other people wanted us to be in order to survive and gain love and approval.

But the risk of completely buying only a trauma narrative of plurality is that it continues the stigmatising view that there’s something wrong with being plural that needs to be fixed or healed: that working towards integration as a coherent, singular self is the way to go. In fact you could argue that an insistence on being one unified individual is a kind of intergenerational trauma: we don’t allow kids to play and embrace all the different potentials that they have because we give them such clear messages about what it is and isn’t okay to be, right Beastie? Want to say how that relates to gender?

Gender

B: By all means. A great example of the kind of intergenerational trauma you’re speaking about is gendered cultural messages. We give kids that sense that this is what it means to be a boy or a girl, and that involves disowning any aspects of themselves that don’t fit those ideals. Some gender theorists have argued that this leaves most people with a sense of melancholy, loss, or nostalgia for parts of themselves they’ve had to cut off or distance from because they didn’t fit the gender norms.

More broadly again we could see trauma as on a spectrum. Clearly from the literature one way people survive obvious traumas like abuse in the family or at school, or being in dangerous situations, or experiencing significant loss in childhood, is by dissociating, splitting themselves, and foregrounding parts who can survive what’s happening to them.

But in our current culture even those without such obvious traumas in their youth generally experience the trauma of being taught that certain ways of being are unacceptable, and of being treated non-consensually in ways that are normalised and not regarded as obviously ‘traumatic’. So most people probably do some degree of dissociating, splitting, and developing survivor sides whose strategies often become counter-productive in adulthood. Examples would include trying to be perfect at all times, people-pleasing, maintaining a hard exterior that no-one can penetrate, that kind of thing.

Want to say something about where the disowned parts go, and what we can do about that?

Disowned parts

J: Sure. Our own experience was that the disowned selves remained in existence but often only came out in our imagination. We’ve been wondering lately whether imaginary friends might be an example of this right? Kids relate externally to parts of themselves which they’re not allowed to be internally. Certainly we can often find our disowned selves in our daydreams and night dreams, as well as in the characters we’re drawn to – real and fictitious – who seem very different to our own foregrounded selves.

Personally this journey towards embracing plurality began with recognising that a number of characters cropped up regularly in our fantasies who we initially assumed to be the kind of people we were attracted to, but then realised were actually potentials in ourself. It related to gender too. We had this increasingly strong sense of ‘boy/man’ sides of ourselves, but the old trans narrative of us ‘really’ being a guy didn’t seem to fit. When we found out about non-binary gender that came closer, but not in the sense of having a static gender other than man or woman. Plurality felt like a final piece of the puzzle for us because it could hold the sense that we have more than one side, each of whom is differently gendered. In our case: three guys, three lasses, and one non-binary creature.

B: Lasses huh?

J: It seems like the right word. How would you identify your gender Beastie?

B: I’m alright with lass. Badass lass.

J: For the other part of your question – what can we do about the disowned parts? Our hunch, supported by some of the therapeutic literature, is that it’s about reclaiming those selves and finding some kind of a balance between them all. It hasn’t been great for us to foreground certain parts of ourselves and try to eradicate others. What seems to work really well is if we function more as a team, with different parts coming to the fore when their particular strengths or talents are called for. For example two intellectual power-houses may be best for writing a long blog-post on plurality.

B: Complement accepted. They do say the inner critic is one of the most intelligent selves, if you can embrace them.

J: Our experience has been that the more we’re in communication with one another, the more able we are to function as a team. But that doesn’t mean that this is an easy path, right Beastie?

The path of plurality

B: No indeed. For example for years the rest of you were aware of the literature on the value of embracing the inner critic, but it felt completely terrifying to actually approach me given how savage I’d always been. Also the rest of you knew how you felt in our body, but I seemed more like a disembodied voice that came from outside. It was only when you tried interviewing me – in journal form – that there began to be a sense of somebody there who might talk back without trying to destroy you. Over a series of journal conversations we all moved very carefully towards communication feeling safe-enough, as well as towards a sense of who I might be on the inside. We’re planning another zine to say more about this process and how it can work.

There’s also the issue of plurality as it relates to other people in your life, and the world around you. I guess again the analogy – and overlap – with gender and sexuality is a useful one. We can see from the literature that people generally do way better – in terms of mental health – if they’re able to be open about their gender and sexuality with themselves and with others, instead of passing or remaining in the closet. At the same time, of course, coming out is never entirely safe in a heteronormative world, and it is way more dangerous for some than for others: usually the most marginalised folks. 

So as long as the world is like this, ethically we’d have to encourage people to embrace the truth of their lived experience of gender and sexuality. But at the same time to think strategically about whether and how to reveal this to others, given the pain, discrimination, and very real dangers involved in being open about such things in a context which doesn’t allow for them or marginalises them.

Coming back to plurality, we personally learnt to foreground certain parts of ourself, and disown or push down others, for a reason. It can feel fragile and precarious to actually allow the parts of us out into the world who we were protecting from danger (like our little sides) or who we deemed too dangerous for public consumption (like me or our cocky charmer, Tony). 

I guess this is where we are a work in progress – this blog post being part of that progress, how meta. We’re feeling into how open we can be with this. As with gender and sexuality it seems important that people who have greater privilege and security do open up about it, because that often makes it easier for other people to do so, but we’ve got to recognise that it’s not necessarily a safe thing to do: that there may be repercussions. When plural activists, The Redwoods, went on UK radio they experienced a lot of negative feedback: people phoning in saying they were making it up, that they were mad or bad, and that it wasn’t real.

So here’s another good one for you James. Is this real or are we making it all up?

Real or fake?

J: Another of your problematic binaries Beastie. There are many different answers we could give to this. In one sense it’s easy. Yes of course it’s real. This is our lived experience. In our culture, people are often so quick to dismiss others’ lived experiences if they find them threatening or alien. Look at how swift people always are to deny somebody’s experience of sexual assault or racism or transness for example. Couldn’t we recognise that people have vastly diverse experiences and accept that the majority of the time when people share their experience then that is their experience?

When we’ve questioned authenticity ourselves, something we’ve often come back to is the fact that we’re an absolutely terrible actor. Acting has never been something we’ve had even the slightest skill at. And yet we know that when we risk fully showing people ourselves they can recognise the very different parts and remark on how utterly different they look, sound, and feel to be around. We experience that in our own body as well. The more vividly we go into our separate selves, the more our whole body, voice, posture, etc. feels different, to the point that we would each experience the same sensation or experience in an entirely different way.

Where it gets more complex is that everyone has some choice in how they relate to their plurality – in a similar way to their gender and sexuality I guess. If a person has an inkling that they might have the capacity to be attracted to more than one gender then they can move towards that and open up to differently gendered fantasies or partners, or they can lock it down and never go there. Similarly if they have a sense that they could comfortably express their gender in more non-normative ways they could decide to turn towards that or away from it. And, of course, the degree of acceptance or rejection of those ways of being in our wider culture will have a significant impact on whether they turn towards it or away from it, as will how strongly felt it is inside them: whether it’s something they actually could push away or not.

That points to one of our favourite words right Beastie? Biopsychosocial. All of our experiences are biopsychosocial. They’re influenced by the ways our bodies and brains work (bio), by our experiences in life and how we respond to them (psycho), and by the systems and structures we’re embedded within (social).

So we can decide – if it’s possible for us to do so, and if our experience of plurality is strong enough to warrant it – to move towards plurality. That’s the choice we’ve made right?

B: Yes. For us the experience of moving towards it has felt in the direction of growth, creativity, congruence, even though it feels precarious indeed to navigate the world in such a radically different way to the way we did previously. Before we tried to project the version/s of ourself who would be most pleasing and acceptable to others. But actually we’ve always been contradictory in that way haven’t we? Some sides of us drawn to fitting in and belonging, others to pointing out how fucked up wider culture is and insisting that it needs to change.

J: Yep even before we experienced our plurality we had that tension running through pretty much everything we did. I think it makes our work stronger, that we experience the deep yearning to belong and be accepted – having felt so ‘other’ and rejected for much of our life. But we also kick against a world which imposes such limited ideals of what it is to be ‘acceptable’, and see that it’s the world that needs to change to encompass diversity instead of creating these (white, hetero, middle class, masculine, non-disabled) norms and marginalising and oppressing anyone who fails to fit them.

B: Yes. Go James.

J: So dammit here we are again out in the deep fucking waters talking about an experience that a lot of people are going to struggle with. As if it wasn’t enough to be openly bisexual when everyone had a problem with that, and then writing about being non-monogamous in ways that got us in trouble, and then trans and non-binary. Do we always have to do this? What the fuck is next?

B: I think you know the answer to that one. Ah but we love it really, don’t we?

J: Parts of us do. Parts of us are terrified by it.

B: And we won’t publish this – or anything – without their consent. That’s a vital part of working as a team.

J: Going back to being real or not, do you have anything to say about that?

B: Mm, yes. I guess moving towards plurality can mean that we experience this sense of multiplicity more vividly than before. By which I mean that we now often choose to journal as a conversation between parts of us rather than as one unified voice. We deliberately shift our thinking from the usual default of thoughts going round to more of a conversation: often between part of us who is struggling and part of us who can offer support. We even take our other selves on dates sometimes. We’re trying to allow our selves to flow more freely around our close people, naming where we are, even though that feels very vulnerable. It’s preferable to feeling muted when we’re in company. 

But when we don’t feel safe enough we definitely default back to a kind of muted coherent singular self. When people see us do that they may question whether the other parts of us are really real. They may never have experienced them. Or they may have experienced them as being present and then not present. Even we, ourselves, sometimes get that ‘is it really real?’ feeling when we’re in a bad place and can’t quite connect with our separate selves. 

In some ways the process of allowing and expressing our plurality makes us more vividly plural. We are now choosing to go fully into this self or that self rather than projecting a more coherent, unified ‘Meg-John Barker’ persona for people to relate to. 

J: Yeah it’s strange how that person now feels more like the creation, the seven of us as the real us.

B: Strange and wonderful. I think I want to finish off saying something about plurality as a spiritual practice.

J: Go ahead Beastiegirl.

B: We’re sharing our pet names too then big man?

J: Apparently so.

Plurality as spiritual practice

B: Alright, well I think we can also conceptualise our selves in a number of different ways. For each of the seven we can understand them as the part of us who got stuck at a particular time in our life – which is why they have different ages. We can also see them as who they are now within us: and those versions are constantly growing and changing just as a singular self would be. We also write fiction where we imagine the seven of us as fictional characters – with many of our characteristics, but also with different back-stories, intersections, and lives than the real ‘us’ has because otherwise it’d be a pretty boring story. And maybe there’s a final version of each of us that’s a kind of archetype – a potential –  almost like a deity or external force we could draw upon – the warrior, the hero, the vulnerable child, the imaginative creature, the trickster, the nurturer, the… what am I?

J: There’s a question: The embracer of complexity, equally comfortable in the darkness and the light.

B: A shadow, perhaps. Anyway, I’m saying that seeing each self – and the team – as past, present, character, and archetype, has a lot of potential for spiritual practice. For example, we do time-travelling work where we go back to the places each of us are stuck – or where we were disowned or foregrounded. We take the gentle witnessing part back to painful memories in order to revisit them safely and find kindness for ourselves in them. This loosens their hold on us now, so hopefully we won’t remain in the stuck patterns and survival strategies that developed from them. We’ve written before about how seeing ourselves as plural can make self-compassion much easier because we find it’s a lot more possible for one side of us to be kind to another, than it is for our whole self to be kind towards our whole self.

J: Yes it’s fascinating isn’t it? Each of our different selves tends to be hard on themself, but the others can much more easily find understanding, tenderness, and support for them. So tapping into the team is a practice in self-care.

B: As well as a healing wounds narrative, we could also tell a developing strengths narrative. Plural work can enable us to tap into capacities we’d never have thought we had – at one point – and bring them to bear on situations where they’re helpful. It’s clunky work because I wouldn’t say we’re yet in a position to control who comes forward and when. And perhaps it’s not even about control, but flow. But we have had great examples when we’ve really needed confidence and humour in a situation and Tony has stepped forward, or we’ve needed to speak from our survivor place in a way that could be heard and we’ve found that Fox part. Another regular spiritual practice is to invite the part of us who is best able to feel the feelings – for ourself and for others – and to let him do that, and find that sacred place of interconnectedness through that. That’s Jonathan again.

J: Yeah, those of us who’re much more about intellectualising really appreciate having parts who are capable of that.

B: Heh yes you’re not much in the feelings are you? Some day maybe. I wondered what you thought about how plurality fits in with our general philosophy. We’re heavily influenced by Buddhism and Queer Theory, and they both have the sense that we should be getting to a place of no-self or recognising that people can’t be categorised in fixed identity terms. How does having several selves and identifying as plural fit with that huh?

Plurality and Philosophy

J: Alright fine, I’m getting used to this now. 5000 words in and she opens up a massive philosophical question about the nature of the self. My take on this is that experiencing ourselves as plural helps us to hold less tightly to ego, which is what Buddhism is all about. We can see that projection ‘Meg-John Barker’ as something we’ve created – in relationship with the world around us and the other people in our life – rather than as this singular stable ‘me’ which could be good or bad, success or failure, acceptable or unacceptable. That projection contains so many different interrelated elements (us) as well as being in a state of constant flow and flux. That said, we’re still responsible for how we behave in the world. It’s not like we can say ‘Beastie did it, it wasn’t really me,’ and get away with poor behaviour. My sense of being on a team with you all is that we support each other in being the best we can be – and in seeing the places where each of us struggles and is capable of harm and working on that.

As for the queer take on identity, yes there is a risk with plurality that people might begin to identify strongly with being a plural person or a system and become quite rigid with that. That’s the same as the way holding any identity – man, woman, gay, straight, bi, addict, healer, whatever – too rigidly can mean we become brittle and stuck. Similarly I guess there’s a risk that if we decide we have to understand ourselves as seven distinct parts who are like this, then that could prevent them from growing and changing. Maybe over time other parts emerge, or existing parts move more into the background or even merge together. However our hunch is that it’s a good idea to keep all of us forward equally for now.

I guess it’s that Buddhist idea of non-grasping that I’m getting at here. Like everything, plurality could become a problem if we gasp it tightly – as a fixed identity that must work in this particular way – or if we hurl it away from us – as this crazy, threatening idea. Instead we can hold it lightly and play with it, figuring out what possibilities it opens up for us and what it might close down.

B: Oh that sounds very Meg-John Barker 😉 I think I sense us moving towards a close here.

J: I think so. Over 5500 words. I guess we had a lot to say about that.

B: I suspect this is just the first of many. I’m keen to make a zine focused on my story – how to embrace the inner critic, and also how to cultivate the gentle compassionate witness.

J: You know I’d love to help you with that. And a zine on the inner children would be nice too. Plus we’d like to keep going with the comic series: get all seven of us depicted that way. And then there’s the trilogy.

B: Yep, we’re on novel number three and that’s my story so you know I’m keen to crack on with that one.

J: This is our life.

B: I know right?! Okay time for a cuppa and let somebody else take over I think. That’s us for the day. Nice work friend.

J: Right back at you love.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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