What is the Evidence that You Are Plural?

A Review of “Many Minds, One Self” By Schwartz and Falconer

Image from IFS Institute

I have an image of being a practical, no-nonsense kind of therapist to uphold. A certain sort of underserved clientele flock to me because they think the mental health world is glutted with flakiness. Should I really be telling them that they are inhabited by multitudes and get them to talk to themselves? I, personally, don’t have a problem talking to myself, but I would feel partly responsible if a client left my office saying, “I knew it. They’re all the same. These shrinks are nuttier than their patients,” and went back to beating his wife.

People almost always think that being divided is less desirable than being whole. They worry that, if they admitted they had parts, the parts would take over. There is a fear of dissociative identity disorder and the fractured state of schizophrenia. Many therapists agree. They believe it’s dangerous to encourage inner multiplicity. They call it colluding with a delusion. They view multiplicity as pathological and set right to work at making divided people whole.

Almost no one sees the advantages of being plural. It can enable you to be more accepting of yourself and others. It can help you adapt to certain environments without committing your whole self. Your subpersonalities can preserve valuable, divergent points of view and provide a laboratory for psychic innovation. Well, the authors of Many Minds, One Self, Richard C Schwartz and Robert R Falconer are not no one. Their book is an unapologetic apologetic for the existence of many minds within your one self. Schwartz is the originator of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy and Falconer, who appears to have done most of the writing, is his devoted disciple.

In reading this book, I had a hard time getting past Falconer’s pious tone towards Schwartz and IFS. I’m more persuaded by rigorous science, compelling art, and logical arguments than expressions of loyalty. Be that as it may, my distaste has nothing to do with the point the authors make. I happen to believe them, mostly, and find that a lot can be gained by taking another look at the self and keeping an open mind about the contents therein.

So, what is the case for many minds within one self? The authors take us on a tour, going all the way back to shamanism and the classical world, to Jung, Gestalt, and contemporary approaches to psychotherapy. Schwartz was not the first person to regard the self as plural. Taking that stance has resulted in important insights. At the same time, there’s been resistance. Many have viewed multiplicity as an out of control psychopathology rather than the natural state of affairs. They assume what they call fragmentation of the mind is the consequence of trauma. The resistance to multiplicity continues to this day when the media spread fear about people who hear voices or have dissociative identity disorder.

The next section of Schwartz and Falconer’s book is devoted to the scientific evidence of multiplicity. They point to our own bodies which are really communities of cells. There is evidence in neuroscience that the brain is divided into sections that operate with some independence. They cite systems theorists who state that complex systems work best when components are differentiated and moderately linked. They quote evolutionary biologists who view the brain as something cobbled together from organs that originally had some other purpose. They give us a vision of independent subconscious parts of the mind taking control, one after another, while the conscious mind is nothing more than a harried press secretary making up stories to explain it all.

To me, though, this foray into the harder sciences does not prove that my mind is multiple, so much as it shows that it could be multiple. I don’t know how we ever could get to the bottom of it, anyway, for the mind is persistently difficult to study. When the mind tries to study the mind, it can’t find any objective ground upon which to stand.

The whole thing reminds me of the controversy in physics over whether light travels in waves or particles. Physicists don’t know. All they can say is that sometimes waves make sense and other times, particles do. The same could be said of the mind. Sometimes we can be thought of as multiple minded, but sometimes we can’t. Schwartz and Falconer could have adopted this approach, but they do not. They are committed to believing the brain is structured just the way they say it is. They are curiously single minded for people who say they believe in multiplicity.

If anyone is afraid that having multiple selves would result in chaos, Schwartz and Falconer give you the Self, which they conceive as a kind of conductor of the orchestra of the parts. This is very confusing, because their word, Self is used to mean something different from how it’s usually used. Fortunately, they capitalize it to indicate their distinctive meaning. Some people use self to mean the public face of an individual. Others take it to be the private essence, like the soul. Still others conflate it with the Ego. In this article, I’ve used self to describe the whole shebang, the collection of all the parts, including the conductor, who to me, is just another part. Schwartz and Falconer survey all the major religions and a few minor ones, who all use the word differently, including Buddhism, which holds that the self is a delusion. I would go with the Buddha so far to say that the self, in any sense of the word, is a useful fiction. I would also say the same about the parts.

To me, the best evidence of multiple selves I find is from observing my own mind. When exposed to crusading enthusiasts like Schwartz and Falconer, I automatically go into critic mode, picking apart everything they say and exposing the flaws. Then, if I come across someone who says the multiple self is pathological, I become a version of Schwartz and Falconer. Both critic and enthusiast coexist in my brain. There is also another hidden part that seems to create these characters and sponsor these debates. That is not to say that any of these are real beings, though. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the players on the stage or the playwright behind the scene. They are all people of the mind. They are quite literally all in my head.

Where then, does this leave me when I come across a client who’s uncomfortable with the idea that they’re inhabited by multitudes? With them, I’m in therapist mode. I don’t need someone to see things my way before I can work with them. I always try to inhabit their own way of looking at things by constructing in my head a simulated version of the person sitting before me, asking all the questions necessary for me to do so. This is often enough to get people to examine what they really think. I definitely would never trot out the arguments Schwartz and Falconer do, for that disproves the very thing they’re trying to prove. I would be more persuaded by Schwartz and Falconer if they showed parts of themselves that doubted their own model of the mind and weren’t so sure they had the answer that eludes everyone else.

If Schwartz and Falconer do any service at all, it will be to enable people to be more open-minded about multiplicity. Then they may be more accepting of parts of themselves they don’t like and more patient with the parts of others that cause problems for them. Identifying divergent parts in the mind is analogous to giving rights to minorities and instituting democracy in a society. We usually think that’s a good thing, most of the time.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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