Some thoughts on the complexity of our minds, by Gideon Killion, MA, LPC, counselor and coach in Denver, Colorado.
Not long ago, a client said to me, “Sometimes it feels like I’m more than one person inside. I worry that maybe I have a little bit of that split personality thing.”
“That’s actually really normal,” I told him. “I often feel that way myself. I think most people do.”
There is a rare, but real, and very serious psychiatric condition called disassociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder. This client had none of the symptoms of that condition. More on that, at this end of this post.
I went on to tell my client that, at least in this culture, we often believe that a mind is, or should be, a single, unified, coherent thing. Sometimes people talk about “figuring out what I really want” or “finding my true self.” It may be an innate way to perceive ourselves, or it may be a holdover from religions and philosophies which have taught us to view the person in terms of body, spirit, soul, and so on.
This view can create a lot of stress when you have thoughts and feelings that don’t fit how you see yourself or the person you want to be.
Yet at other times, we appear to be intuitively aware that there is more going on between our ears. It’s very common to hear someone say something like, “Part of me wants this, but another part of me wants that.” And this awareness is closer to reality.
I recently read a fantastic book by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. The author reveals that our brains are collections of systems that work somewhat independently to process data from our senses and from other parts of the brain.
Most of these systems operate outside of our awareness, have different priorities, and often do not agree with each other. These parts make their votes known to our conscious selves through instincts, intuitions, emotions, and unbidden thoughts. When we have the experience of being stuck, unable to act, or of going back and forth between different attitudes and behaviors, it reflects a real conflict between these systems.
Understanding this can help you. First, it gives you permission to accept parts of yourself that are inconvenient, embarrassing, or dark, because you know that everyone has their own. You can focus on meeting the needs of these different parts in healthy ways, rather than ignoring or disowning them and having these unmet needs make life more difficult.
Of course, as I said at the beginning, “disassociative identity disorder,” aka multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder, is a real thing. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, a person with this condition has more than one personality state that can involve distinct behaviors, emotions, memories, and so on. If you are concerned that you, or someone you care about, might actually have this condition, please contact a professional mental healthcare provider.