I came across a great example this morning in a paper by my friend and colleague Trevor Butt which I thought could be very usefully applied to relationship conflict.
Trevor is writing about the personal construct psychologist Miller Mair who came up with the idea that, rather than the usual sense that we have that we are one coherent self, we are actually all more like a ‘community of selves’ who have conversations with one another. This is an idea that I explore in the chapter on ourselves in Rewriting The Rules, suggesting that it is important to recognise that we are actually plural rather than singular: that different sides of ourselves come out in different situations and relationships.
We can easily see that this is the case when we think about who we are with two different important people in our lives. We may well feel that we are ‘being ourselves’ with our best mate and our sibling, but find that the selves we are being are quite different (e.g. outgoing, fun-loving and silly with our best mate; quieter, more serious and responsible with our sibling). Similarly we are ‘ourselves’ first thing in the morning, during a work meeting, out with a friend, and going through a crisis, but the selves that we are often feel pretty different.
The example that I found so helpful in this article by Trevor is as follows:
[Mair] takes the example of when he was asked to join an interview panel looking for a senior clinical psychologist. He found that he had a wide range of reactions to the candidates when he read their applications. He makes sense of this by separating the different selves he found himself assuming. He named these:
- Anxious; feeling uneasy at the task in hand
- The Teenage Rebel; wanting to kick out the clear favourite
- The Reformer; taking a long view about the role of clinical psychology
- Mr Fair Minded; wanting to hear all sides of the arguments
- Mr Let’s Get This Done With; saying that establishment candidates always win – be pragmatic and get the job over with.
The point of the metaphor is that it helped him to both inhabit and detach himself from each player in the community. He installed Mr Fair Minded as chair of the group, insisting on balancing the other voices. So through reflection, he was able to take a superordinate position from which he could, as it were, own but not be driven by any particular position.
How might this be useful when we’re in relationship conflict, or facing difficult dilemmas or decisions in our relationships?
I think that it does two things:
First, realising that we are a community of selves with different needs, feelings, and perspectives on the situation, helps us to explain the horribly tangled and uncertain emotions that we often feel at such times. This, in itself, can offer a big sense of relief.
Second, if we can consider the different selves who are in play – in the way that Mair did in his example – then we might gain a sense of increased agency and control over the situation as we realise that we can decide who to put in charge of the group, committing to listening to all of the different voices without trying to silence any of them or rushing to determine one which is the ‘truth’ at the expense of the others.
For example, reflecting on how I can be in situations of relationship conflict or tension I might identify the following selves:
- Baby: scared and confused by conflict and wants to run to wherever feels safest
- Defeatist: has been here before and figures any conflict means the writing is on the wall and we should just break up
- Hopeless romantic: believes love conquers all and perfect relationships are possible
- Mindful me: knows that the thing to do in scary situations is to lean into the fear rather than trying to escape it, to embrace uncertainty, to practice compassion (towards self and others), and to find what can usefully be learnt from the situation
- Duty bound: feels obligated to relationships and committed to not changing anything
- Easy life: wants to do whatever is simplest to get me back to an easy life where I can get on with what I want to do without this struggle
- Angry blamer: wants to make it somebody else’s fault entirely so I don’t have to take any responsibility
- Relationship realist: knows that all relationships are tough at times, that this is normal, that conflict is in the dynamic (rather than one person’s fault), and that the way forward is open communication rather than withdrawing or blaming
Simply writing these out in this way engenders a sense of relief. No wonder I feel warring emotions and massive uncertainty about what is best to do when many selves are in play with different needs, desires, fears and hopes. Also, I can see more clearly where some of the feelings are coming from and treat myself a little more kindly, recognising that all these positions are understandable given that I am (a) a human being, and (b) somebody who has had the life I’ve had which has developed these particular selves.
Also, this kind of reflection offers me a way forward which feels clearer and calmer than what I was doing before (getting lost in the tangle or rushing to isolate one ‘true’ self to listen to and follow).
I can look through the selves and pick an appropriate one or two to ‘chair’ further discussion (I’m thinking that mindful me and relationship realist are the best bet!). I (or perhaps more accurately ‘we’!) can go forward with a determination to listen to all positions with the commitment to hear them and to understand where they are coming from. Listening instead of attempting to silence the more scary selves means that I am less likely to miss anything vital, or to find that one self gets louder and louder in an attempt to be heard. Also, recognition of the full community of selves means that I won’t become overly invested in one or more selves over the others. And putting selves that I trust most in the chair means being able to have faith that I will act in the most constructive and compassionate ways when I do act.