Do I contradict myself? Very well then - I am large, I contain multitudes. - Walt Whitman
I want to share an idea about being human that can make a big difference in how we relate to ourselves and others.
The idea is that we are not one uniform ‘me’ - as many of us like to think - but that we are made up of a multitude of ‘parts’ or ‘selves’.
As one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, expresses it:
We each have brave parts of ourselves, and terrified parts, and ashamed parts, and stubborn parts, and hopeful parts, and cynical parts, and ambitious parts, and self-destructive parts…and all of them have a voice (and all of them USE that voice).
The way I see this is that we each have our own internal village and this village is made up of different villagers who make us who we are.
This multitude of villagers is what makes us the unique, complex and sometimes very confusing humans we are.
Let’s look into what happens around making a decision.
One villager could be very vocal about the need for security. This villager wants to make sure our internal village has consistency, safety, stability. This villager will be very vocal about options that allow for these needs to be met and will favor what is already known.
And while most of us have a need for security and stability, we also often have another villager who is all about variety, surprise, newness. This villager will be attracted to options that allow for a sense of adventure and will be attracted to the unknown.
Just to make things more complicated, perhaps another villager steps in and wants to take the more conventional option, to make sure we fit in - and this sets off another villager who DOESN’T want to conform, who just wants to be free - maybe even to rebel.
This dynamic - the fact that we have all these different parts of villagers in our internal village and that they are all so vocal - is behind much of our behavior.
These seemingly contradictory parts - the cacophony of villagers we all have - does not mean there is anything wrong with us.
It simply means we are human.
Here is the tricky part though: Each of the villagers thinks they know what is best for us - that they are protecting or motivating us in some way, even when this looks self-destructive.
Often a villager showed up at a time in our lives when they were needed, when we were young and needed to adapt to the the environment in which we grew up. For example, if we had a parent who was very critical, we might have a People Pleasing Villager who evolved to shield us from further pain by trying to please our parent and avoid criticism in this way.
These sort of ‘adaptations’ enabled us to survive situations when we were young and they often explain why we react the way we do, even when this feels like self-sabotage or ‘I should know better’.
It’s because that particular villager hasn’t gotten the memo that we are now adults and no longer need them to take over the village to protect us.
And yet, we cannot ignore these villagers. All the villagers are here to stay and we need to learn to get along with all of them, without necessarily allowing them to take over.
Other villagers are there as part of how we evolved as humans - with needs and motives that are sometimes tricky for our modern world.
So with all these villagers who want different things for us - what do we do?
A very simple yet effective way to start working with our villagers is to simply notice and name the different villagers - to see what we are feeling or wanting as one part of us - but not ALL of us.
Once we start acknowledging the different parts of ourselves, we can communicate this to ourselves and others.
Being able to acknowledge and even name these villagers in our communication can make a huge difference - for example:
A part of me is really angry at you right now - and another part of me also understands your point of view.
A part of me really wants to do this and another part of me is really scared.
We can hold different parts of ourselves - different emotions or needs or points of view - all at the same time.
Being an adult means being able to hold several realities at the same time: We can be both angry AND sad AND grateful AND anxious about something all at the same time. There is even a nifty word for this: Emodiversity - and this has been shown to be linked to better psychological health.
So next time you feel stuck, or confused or want to communicate something seemingly contradictory to someone, try breaking it down into parts and simply notice what this is like.
When we no longer expect ourselves to feel only one thing and realise that it’s OK and even normal to feel a full range of seemingly contradictory emotions or needs or desires, we can respond to ourselves and others in a much more nuanced way.