How Life Completely Changes When You Listen to Your Multiple Selves
Self-improvement doesn’t need to be a constant battle with yourself. You can learn how to work effortlessly together.
We’re constantly told to overcome our negative patterns, break unhealthy habits, establish new ones, and become a better person. But what if this is all wrong? What if there’s a completely different way of achieving the same results — one that is gentle and relaxed, not harsh and continuously effortful?
The way we’re told to improve ourselves has a metaphor at the heart of it: the self is an object, made out of putty or building blocks, which can be broken down and built up again with effort. Self-improvement requires determined force and effective techniques, like any other kind of building project.
This self-as-object view has its merits. Objects are things we can easily manipulate and control. Sometimes it makes sense to control yourself, especially when you feel out of control. Sometimes it makes sense to control other people too — if someone just needs to get something done, you need to make them do it, no exceptions. But that’s not what life’s like all the time.
We understand that other people are not objects. So why not ourselves?
Here’s an alternative metaphor for self-improvement: the self as a community. Your self is a community of multiple individuals, each with their own motives and experiences, unique thoughts and feelings. As the elected leader of this community, you can make improvements by listening to each of your multiple selves, understanding what they need, and then helping them.
This is a completely different way of becoming a better person. Instead of self-improvement happening through the means of control, it occurs first and foremost as a result of being kind. It’s the same way that a community comes together to make things better. Everyone needs to feel heard — that they’re a valued part of the whole. When done well, it’s a beautiful way to live.
Making time for (slightly weird) conversations (with yourself)
Seeing yourself as a community of multiple selves is nothing new. In her book Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Rita Carter draws upon decades of psychological research showing there’s really no such thing as a unified self. Ever wondered why you sometimes feel like a different person depending on your mood, company, or surroundings? Well, perhaps it’s because different parts of yourself — or different selves —turn up depending on what’s going on.
This way of thinking about ourselves also forms the basis of Internal Family Systems therapy (or IFS, for short). According to IFS, your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are determined by the different voices inside your head. These different voices/parts/selves are often in conflict with each other.
For example, one part of you may want the chocolate bar, and the temporary relief from stress it’ll bring. But another part of you may want to lose weight, and the positive body image that’ll create. If you don’t engage in conversation with these different parts, the one that wins out will be the one that shouts the loudest. And that can change depending on the situation — who has the most energy, who lost out last time, who grabs your attention, and so on.
But this dynamic completely changes when you get inside your own head and enter into conversation with your multiple selves:
“Hey self who wants the chocolate bar. I’m sorry you feel so stressed. I get that, I feel stressed too! And I totally get why you just need some relief right now. Is there anything else that could provide that? What if we took a short break from work, or phoned a friend? If nothing else if possible then let’s eat that chocolate! But I’m confident we can find relief in some other way.”
“Hey self who wants to lose weight. I’ve just spoken to the one who feels like your enemy, but you’re actually not so different, you know? They just need a bit less stress at the moment, and I said we’d help with that. I understand that you want to feel good about our body image, so we’re working on finding other forms of relief that don’t get in the way of that. Any suggestions?”
From personal experience, it’s amazing how just having these short conversations can completely change the way I feel about my situation. I no longer feel at war with reality and the competing forces within myself. Instead, I feel like I’m part of an awesome team, which, despite being pretty flawed and scared as hell, is working together to feel a bit better about life.
3 basic ground rules for compassionate self talk
First, I know these conversations can seem a bit weird! It’s not as if talking to yourself has a good rep when it comes to mental health. But, I can assure you that, as soon as you genuinely start to picture your multiple parts/selves as actual valuable people — and treat them as such — the conversations don’t feel anywhere near as odd. In fact, they can be quite moving sometimes, and often more real than anything else you do with your day.
Second, you really do have to be genuine. It’s no good talking to your multiple selves if what you really want to do is get them all in line — that’s control, not connection. For example, if you just want to resist eating the chocolate bar, don’t pretend you’re being all self-compassionate by asking the self who wants the chocolate bar if that’s okay. That’s more like a passive form of aggression than genuinely asking them what they need.
Third, as you might have guessed already, this whole process takes time. You need to be prepared to take out time from your day to genuinely listen to your multiple selves — their problems, their worries and concerns, their feelings. It can seem much easier to simply control your behaviour using your willpower or another self-control technique. As I said above, sometimes it makes sense to do just that. But, in the long run, I can assure you the process is worth it.
When you make time for having these slightly weird conversations with your multiple selves — I suggest once a day, if possible —the result is that things start to effortlessly change. Not only that, but you also start to like yourself. You no longer see yourself as a battleground — forces you need to overcome, hide, or get rid of. Instead, you start to care for every part of yourself.
Put simply: you can improve your life while building a positive relationship with yourself in the process.
How this method of self-improvement goes well beyond your self
So far, I’ve explained how this method of self-improvement helps you change your life in ways that are gentle and relaxed, not harsh and continuously effortful. I’ve also shown how it helps you like and care for yourself, not see different parts of yourself as the enemy. But that’s just the beginning.
Essentially, making time to genuinely listen to your multiple selves works because it’s an act of care. When people are listened to, they’re more motivated and supported to change. You start to like yourself more because you’re actually caring for yourself. Genuine care— which takes a lot of time, and a lot of slightly weird conversations — is a powerful thing.
Acts of genuine care —that is, prioritising connection and understanding over manipulation and control — are just as powerful in your relationships with others. In fact, I wouldn’t have even know how to care for myself if it wasn’t for my experiences in relationships with romantic partners and close friends. When it comes to deep listening, they’ve taught me everything I know.
Here’s the thing: the better you get at genuinely caring for yourself — listening to you multiple selves — the better you get at genuinely caring for your loved ones. And the better you get at genuinely caring for others — listening to their multiple selves — the better you get at genuinely caring for yourself.
It’s a wonderful reciprocal relationship, one that’s driven by connection, not control. Life completely changes when you get into this rhythm — cycles of deep care and connection, between yourself and your loved ones, each one mutually reinforcing each other. The more you understand yourself, the more you’re able to understand those you love. And the more you understand your loved ones, the more you’re able to understand yourself.
I’m still surprised at how far this way of approaching life can take me. I used to think the only way of making my life better was to take control — to achieve the outcomes I wanted, like being productive or having a good relationship. But more and more, I’m realising just how narrow this controlling attitude is. What about the things my partner wants? Or my friends? Or the other parts of myself, who have very different ideas of what makes life worth living?
Listening to my multiple selves, and the other people in my life I care about, has shown me just how rich life can be. Previously, self-improvement had always felt like a battle with myself — especially the annoying or unacceptable parts. In the same way, relationships had always felt like a battle with others. But there is another way. It’s remarkably simple and endlessly complex at the same time: engage in genuine conversation and start working together.
It’s amazing how different life can be when you’re on the same page with both yourself and others — when you’re all part of the same team.
Summary — How Life Completely Changes When You Listen to Your Multiple Selves
Traditional self-improvement methods view the self as an object —building blocks, which you must effortfully break down and build up.
Alternatively, psychologists view the self as a community —made up of multiple individuals, who you can listen to, understand, and help.
Self-improvement doesn’t need to be a battle with yourself. Through understanding your multiple selves, you can learn how to work together.
Engaging in conversation with your multiple selves 1) can feel weird, 2) must be genuinely caring, and 3) takes time — but the process is worth it. Not only do things effortlessly change, but you also start to like yourself.
The better you get at genuinely caring for your multiple selves, the better you get at genuinely caring for others. And the better you get at genuinely caring for others, the better you get at genuinely caring for yourself.
The result: you can improve your life while building a positive relationship with yourself and with your loved ones in the process. So give it a go!