The Many Selves of Personhood

The autonomous and rational self, singular of mind and driven by will, became a central idea of the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, and it still influences how we experience personhood today. However, this Western model of the self has never been truly unitary. The idea of rational, autonomous selves depends on a bifurcation with what humans should not be: overly emotional (irrational), excessively embodied, and interdependent with other beings. Nevertheless, by creating the ideal European man (and it was European man who Enlightenment philosophers had in mind) as autonomous and rational — distinguishable and superior to people of color, women, and animals who supposedly couldn’t escape their ‘irrational’ attributes — a new elite was formed. Because they were rational, they therefore deserved the inalienable rights of equality, justice, and freedom.

For centuries, the potential rewards — power, status, resources — were enough incentive to conform to such an odd understanding of human nature, one that anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted, “however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”[1] But there was a price. A rational, autonomous self is only possible through the fragmentation of the psyche. This is true of those denied equality, justice, and freedom. It is also true of those who retain these values for themselves while ignoring their own feelings and embodiment, along with the suffering their elitism caused for others. Instead of personhood as “a distinctive whole,” as Geertz described the Western ideal, the reality was, as Nikolas Rose wrote, people “fractured by gender, race, class … element[s] in circuits of power that make some of us selves while denying full selfhood to others….” [2]

Rose’s observations apply as well to the sexually abused, for whom the mind and body are fragmented by the need to either survive conditions of ongoing abuse or to avoid memories, emotions, beliefs, and body states connected to a painful and degrading past. Dissociation in such circumstances is a way to keep sensations, emotions, and memories out of conscious awareness. Dissociation is also how experiences that might upend societal norms and expectations remain unarticulated. By fragmenting personhood, the survivor splits off inner experiences that threaten her stability and also threaten the cohesiveness, if not complacency of her community. Historically, when women brought forth their split off parts and memories of abuse, they have been at risk of being pathologized, further victimized, or abandoned and alienated.

Criticisms of the Enlightenment, often made by postmodern scholars, point to the erosion of modern institutions as evidence of a dying philosophy. Rather than stable and autonomous selves, like the institutions that once shepherded the fortunate from womb to tomb, many places around the world require a different sort of personhood — multiple and changeable — ready to meet the unexpected in volatile economies, communities, environments, and online worlds.

Whether modernity or postmodernity, those of us with histories of sexual trauma are casualties of societies guided more by politics, ideologies, and economies than compassion and caring. Along with everyone else, we share a world in which survival itself may depend on all of us becoming adept at critically yet compassionately listening to the multiple voices within and around us. How else will we develop the personal and social responsibility necessary for saving our planet?

In high-risk societies, we all benefit from the capacity to adapt to uncertain and unreliable conditions while being aware of when stress is too much and dissociation has become a central coping mechanism. Like psychological first-aid, it helps to know how to reclaim dissociated parts and seek psychological integration, just as mental well-being requires continually integrating with community.

From the perspective of neurobiology, personhood is dependent on both conscious and unconscious processing. Conscious processing tends to be selectively focused, and involves a sense of self as unified and oriented in time and space. In contrast, unconscious processing is made up of multiple emotional and memory systems that react to stimuli without discriminating between past, present, and future. In effect, we are both autonomous and multiple.

You may recall the neuroaffective model of emotions presented in “Working With Emotions.” There are at least seven emotional systems, which through experience become associated with specific images, memories, body sensations, and movements:

SEEKING — emotional states of expectancy that drive exploration

FEAR — emotional states of anxiety

RAGE — emotional states of anger

LUST — emotional states of sexual excitement

CARE — emotional states of nurturance

PANIC/GRIEF — emotional states of pain and sadness associated with separation and loss

PLAY — emotional states of social joy

We are always susceptible to one or more emotional systems being activated by inner or outer stimuli that cause unanticipated memories, sensations, ways of processing information, and ways of being embodied. All of this is quite natural, and often contributes to adaptation, if not survival. However, many of us have grown accustomed to preferring our conscious selves, and being valued for them, uninhibited by unanticipated emotions and body states.

To be sure, dissociation is not the problem. To be awash in feelings and memories, and attending to every emotional fluctuation or flashback, would be unsustainable, if not a horribly traumatic life. Dissociation is a normal way our brains ‘choose’ not to react to both internal and external stimuli. Dissociation becomes problematic when the psyche organizes defensively against particular emotional and memory systems, and there aren’t opportunities to integrate and fully develop as persons.

The quest for integration of a fragmentary self is a central task of spirituality, and recovery from trauma and the spiritual quest are much alike. Both share the realization that suffering is part of the human condition, and perceive identification with the conscious part of the self as an obstacle to self-awareness. Rationality doesn’t have to be discarded; excessive individualism does. Everything that interferes with compassion for self and others also interferes with reaching wholeness, or in the case of religion, oneness with God.

Just as there are many religions, there are many ways to seek integration following trauma. In many methods used today, central to the task of integration is creating representations of fragmented parts. The imagination is central to this process. By consciously working with the imagination, we can join body states, images, memories, emotions, and beliefs to create an integrated experience of personhood. These self-representations have been described in many ways, including sub-personalities and the inner child (or children). However, if we are to learn from past attempts to control the nature of personhood, first deciding what the self is may not be as important as the willingness to explore one’s inner world in ways that increase self-awareness and self-compassion. According to creators of the model of structural dissociation:

“Because parts of the personality are representations, they may take an infinite variety of forms, limited only by a person’s experience and creativity…. The characteristics of a part are informative but are not the important focus of therapy, and they should not be taken literally. It is the meaning and function of what they represent that is essential for you (and your therapist) to understand.”[3]

One of the first efforts to integrate fragmented parts of the self was conducted by psychiatrist Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947), a pioneer in studies of the unconscious. Janet thought sub-personalities were images or ideas in the unconscious. Many of his patients were classified as hysterics, which he understood to be suffering from early life traumas that caused hysterical fits and delirium. These symptoms, he believed, were defenses against remembering traumatic experiences.

Janet used hypnosis to identify the origin of his patients’ traumas, and then interacted with them while they were in a hypnotic state to alter their memories. One patient, Marie, believed she suffered from congenital blindness in her left eye, but Janet thought she could see and that the origin of her felt-sense of blindness was a traumatic event. Using hypnosis, Janet discovered that at the age of 6, Marie had been forced to sleep in a bed with a child who had impetigo (a bacterial infection) on the left side of her face. Since then, Marie believed she was blind on the same side of her face.

During Marie’s hypnotic state, Janet altered how she remembered what happened:

“[I] put her back with the child who had so horrified her; I made her believe that the child is very nice and does not have impetigo (she is half-convinced. After two re-enactments of this scene I get the best of it); she caresses without fear the imaginary child. The sensitivity of the left eye reappears without difficulty, and when I wake her up, Marie sees clearly with the left eye.”[4]

According to psychologist Mary Watkins, author of Waking Dreams, the goal of Janet’s work with sub-personalities was ultimately to destroy or change them. “The imaginal structure of action and image were radically disrupted according to the wishes of an ‘outsider’.” She cautioned, “It is important to think about what is lost here and what is gained.”[5] For some, the outcome Marie experienced — regaining her sight — justifies the intervention. For others, relinquishing one’s inner world to the manipulations of another would be too threatening.

All knowledge has the capacity to discipline, as Michel Foucault would say, shaping our thoughts, emotions, and bodies to conform to ideas and expectations. Perhaps more than any other approach to recovery, working with parts of the self in the construction of an integrated experience of personhood carry the values of their creators, along with dominant societal norms.

I have benefitted from having more than one model to draw from as I worked with the different parts of myself. Knowing more that one approach has helped me identify underlying assumptions about human nature and develop my own style for relating to my parts. The approaches I have relied on most are CG Jung’s analytical psychology, imaginal psychology, and the model of structural dissociation. Furthermore, my experiences with EMDR also utilized a ‘parts’ approach. There are other models as well, however, over the next several weeks I will be focusing on the benefits and limitations of these models and how they promote recovery. My hope is to support your unique creation of personhood.

Questions to ponder: Do you think we should commit to being rational most of the time? What do you think of the idea of multiplicity being the nature of personhood? Do you think the outcome of Janet’s work with Marie justify the methods he used? Have you done any therapeutic work with your ‘parts’? If so, what has that been like for you?


  1. Quoted in Rose, Nikolas. (1996). Inventing our selves: Psychology, power, and personhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 5.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Boon, Suzette, Steele, Kathy, and Van der Hart, Onno. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 29.
  4. Quoted in Watkins, Mary. (1976). Waking dreams. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, Inc., p. 36.

  5. Ibid., p. 37.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).