Different authors and several therapies address the existence of multiple selves, as the manifestation of a diversified personality that unravels throughout the days. Additionally, the self-perception of the existence of several personalities is common. For example, when we speak alone, or with ourselves, there is the self that speaks and the self that hears. Or when we self-criticize, there is the self that criticizes and the self that is criticized. These multiple selves are different versions or possibilities of being.
And where do these selves come from? Paul Gilbert is one of the authors who addresses this theme, using an evolutionary explanation to clarify the existence of multiple selves. According to this author, humans have evolved in such a way that they perform specific behaviors that allowed (and allow) for their adaptation to certain social challenges and contexts (such as group life, child care, etc.). These specific behaviors are associated with different motives, emotions, and styles of information processing (i.e., ways of interpreting the stimuli around us – what we pay attention to, what we ignore, and how we give meaning to what happens). The dynamics between these behaviors, motives, emotions and styles of information processing, create, what Gilbert called, the social mentalities.
Thus, social mentalities are innate potentials that allow for the construction of social roles. Gilbert identified five social mentalities:
- Cooperation – establishment of cooperative relationships, in order to deal with the challenges to survival and with the constant aggression and conflicts within the group;
- Competition or social ranking – establishment of relationships based on resources’ competition, in order to resolve conflicts/aggression within the group; it also involves the acquisition and maintenance of social status (dominance) and the subordination to those who have a higher status, i.e., that are dominant;
- Care-giving – establishing relationships, in which the subject invests time and energy, among other resources, thus increasing the probability of that the other, who is cared for, survives, grows and reproduces;
- Seeking care – establishing relationships with others so that they invest time, protection and other resources essential to survival, also facilitating emotional regulation;
- Sexual – establishing relationships for the performance of sexual behaviors.
Depending on the mentality that is active, the person feels different emotions, motivations and intentions, varying also the way he/she interprets the world around him/her (e.g., fair / unfair, safe / dangerous, etc.), the way he/she interprets the people around him/her (e.g., sympathetic / unfriendly, cautious / insecure) and the way he/she evaluates himself/herself (e.g., the self that is loved, the self that fails, the self that conquers, the self that helps, etc.).
In this way, Gilbert affirms that the assessments we make toward ourselves (our self-concept) are coordinated by the performance of the various social mentalities, so that the failing self is as real as the self that overcomes, or the self that is loved, etc., because all represent potential selves, which are innate and shared by all humans, being part of our evolutionary heritage.
Thus, it is as if the self is not only a person, but the integration of five (or who knows more) people, each with different emotions, motivations, desires, needs and even self-esteem. As might be expected, these multiple selves, who act and feel differently, sometimes clash, and can generate distress and frustration. These internal conflicts are the result of the activation of different mentalities and, consequently, the manifestation of different motivations to play different roles, in order to obtain different social results.
The more a person is able to integrate and combine these various selves, without ignoring or rejecting any of them, the more healthy and stable he/she will be. This does not mean that we must fulfill the desires of all of them (because this, apart from being impractical, would not be possible, since there are incompatible desires), but we can recognize those desires as well as the conflicts that may arise, and decide, in the presence of the various selves, what to do.
And in the face of these conflicts will we make the right decision? In fact, we make the best decision that we can in the stage of life we are in. It is through the conflicts that we change and transform. It is through acceptance and recognition of our potential selves that we grow and mature.
“Human nature is like the keys of a piano; it is difficult to play a good tune if you can only reach a limited number of keys.”
(Gilbert, 1989. Human nature and suffering, p.334)