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Many Voices; One Self

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

So, I'm reading through a stack of recent therapy journals and find, to my delight, an article by Giancarlo Dimaggio, who works at the Terzo Centro di Psicoterapia Cognitiva, (somewhere in Italy, not sure where), titled, "Changing the Dialogue Between Self Voices During Psychotherapy" (Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 2006, Vol. 16, No. 3, 313-345). This article is what you might call a theory piece, rather than a research article. The author is arguing in support of a model of how to think about identity and psychotherapy, and is not presenting data from a study.

The position that Dr. Dimaggio has written in support of is something called Dialogical Self Theory (or DST). I'll let the author explain by quoting the article abstract:

According to Dialogical Self Theory (DST) the self is composed of various characters, each of them portraying an aspect of an individual, and these characters, starting out from their various separate positions, enter into a dialogue and negotiate the meaning of events with each other. This theory is helpful in explaining the discourses that patients produce during psychotherapy and the way in which treatment alters the dialogical relationship between characters.

Multiple characters? Multiple voices in each person's head? Is he talking about multiple personality disorder? Is he talking about hallucinations such as occur in Schizophrenia?

Well, no. Not at all. Near as I can tell Dialogical Self Theory is an effort to describe the normal experience of identity. Dr. Dimaggio is suggesting that normal people have interior voices that argue with one another; that these voices have distinctive points of view; and that the process that normal people go through in forming opinions about things involves these various voices getting together and seeing what they can agree upon. If you think carefully about your own experience (assuming you are not yourself subject to hallucinations, or multiple personality disorder), you may find that there is wisdom in this assertion.

Ever seen that old movie, National Lampoon's Animal House? There is a memorable scene in Animal House where Larry (one of the fraternity brothers who live in the Animal House) is faced with the dilemma of having to decide how he will act towards a lovely young coed named Clorette, who has just passed out drunk in front of him, on his bed. What happens in the scene in question is that a little angel and a little devil appear on Larry's shoulders and urge him to be honorable, and to take advantage of the situation, respectively.

The Animal House passage is a great comedic illustration of how the multiple voices that Dr. Dimaggio is talking about work in a regular person. Larry's Angel is the voice of society, his super-ego or conscience, while his Devil is his sexual desire personified; his id; his desire for immediate gratification. These two voices literally offer different perspectives on what to do (The angel voice is not even Larry's own perspective – it is more like what some moral bystander would urge him to do which has inserted itself into Larry's mindscape) and yet, they are not experienced as different people giving advice – just different parts of Larry's sense of self arguing about what to do.

This normal multiplicity of voices in the self needs to be strongly contrasted with the hallucinations characteristic of schizophrenia (where the voices are literally experienced as coming from a different entity), and from the disjointed experience of multiple personality (e.g., dissociative identity disorder) where each different part of self experiences itself as fundamentally distinct from the other parts. The normal state of affairs inside a healthy mind is to have many different perspectives represented (and at least grudgingly accepted), but all of which recognize themselves to be essentially and ultimately part of the same self.

There is another interesting way that identity gets structured sometimes that also needs to be differentiated from the normal experience of identity; the case where someone has a very rigid identity structure, and they have only one perspective from which to judge things. Think of the very repressed, foreclosed sort of personalities you might be aware of who are so very uptight and over-controlled that they cannot, will not allow themselves to acknowledge the diversity of voices that naturally occur inside themselves. Think of the Roy Cohn types (1950s power-broker, lawyer and gay man who could not accept his own homosexuality and instead viciously persecuted other homosexuals as a (IMHO sick) way of attempting to exorcise himself) in this world who are so fundamentally ashamed of themselves that they cannot allow themselves to recognize legitimate aspects of themselves.

If you've stuck with me this far, you'll perhaps see why I love reading and writing about the nature of identity so much. This literature offers us an under-appreciated set of conceptual tools for understanding how to explain exactly why (from a mechanical point of view) someone's mind might be said to be healthy or troubled.

By way of analogy, we might liken the operation of a healthy mind to how a healthy democracy operates; A diversity of opinions are present and voiced, and though not all ideas get acted upon, everyone present recognizes that all who speak are at the very least countrymen and women; fundamentally part of the 'nation' and needing to be at least taken seriously. Divergence from this "democracy model" of identity tends to show up as mental problems. The experience of multiple personality disorder is more like civil war (where opposed factions cannot agree that they are fundamentally part of the same government); the experience of Schizophrenia more like invasion and colonization; and the rigid, repressed "Cohn-like" mindset is more like a tyranny (where one voice suppresses the other legitimate voices).

How is your identity governed? What does your identity sound like from the inside?