"Who am I?"- there's a complex question if there ever was one! You might find yourself sitting with this question after a significant life change, stressor, or accomplishment. You may revisit this question only to discover the answer is one so different from when you last asked it. You might discover that the answer can be felt in your mind, body, and soul, but that you are at a loss when you attempt to put it into words. Recognizing the different parts that make up your cohesive sense of self, appreciating how these parts developed, and relating to each of these parts with compassion and openness can be an exercise of self-exploration and understanding.
1. What are the different parts of you?
I like to imagine the inner self as being comprised of different parts, different voices. The movie Inside Out provided people with great imagery for this concept- in this case, the self was made up of emotions (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Anger), each of which approached change and challenges differently. We often have an inner dialogue running through our minds throughout the day- an inner voice providing commentary about what we witness and experience on a moment to moment basis. Perhaps there are times when this inner dialogue is dominated by a critical voice, a vulnerable voice, an uncertain voice, a confident voice, a sad voice... and on and on. Take a moment to consider the parts of yourself that makeup your cohesive sense of self. Another image that I have come to use when thinking about this is the image of a long table- a boardroom table, a dinner table, whatever works for you! What are the parts of yourself or versions of yourself that have a seat at this table? This is a highly individual experience and process, so use whatever language or imagery feels most fitting for you.
2. How did these parts develop?
Our sense of self does not develop in a vacuum. There are aspects of your temperament and personality that are influenced by genetics, but your sense of self and your understanding of who you are are heavily influenced by and developed in the context of relationships. Refer back for a moment to the parts of yourself that you identified in the previous question. Our inner voices, our inner selves often mirror our history of interpersonal relationships- it is not uncommon to adopt the voice of another as our own. Perhaps the critical voice that has become such a significant part of your inner self developed in the context of a critical relationship, in the presence of and interaction with another who voiced or implied messages that you were not, and could not ever be, good enough. Perhaps your own nurturing voice grew in the experience of having another person comfort and accept you during difficult moments. On the flip-side, perhaps you find that it is incredibly difficult to offer yourself a nurturing voice and, upon reflection, realize that a nurturing voice was not a significant part of your early relationships. While we must take control and responsibility for our own sense of self, it can be helpful to explore how these parts of ourself developed when and if we contemplate questions like "Why I am so quick to be critical of myself?" or "Why is it so difficult to comfort myself when things have gone wrong?"
3. How do you relate to these parts?
To return to our table metaphor, you might be beginning to realize the parts of yourself that are present and where these parts came from- now I must ask how you view and interact with each of these parts. Which parts do you welcome to the table, and which parts do you try and pretend don't exist? Do you find that some parts easily dominate your core sense of self, while others are left with little influence? When that voice of fear or sadness begins to speak, does it get squashed by the voice of anger? Many of us experience parts of ourself that are more challenging to accept than others; however, I find that a greater sense of cohesion and peace can begin to develop when we acknowledge all the parts that make up who we are, rather than practicing selective rejection or acceptance. Begin to slow down your inner dialogue and take inventory of all the parts of yourself, knowing that it is all of these parts- not just our favorite parts, or most admirable parts- that make up your full and human experience.
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Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation