Many Voices; One Self

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

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?

  • LIG

    I just finished reading your article, and it described me perfectly. I never thought I was crazy, but there is a fight in my inner being. Also I feel nervous inside if that makes any sense, I can feel myself shaking on the inside. I will bookmark this page and come back often. Thank You LIG

  • David

    I felt some pain when I read the above article - there was no mention of feelings. I can relate to LIG (nervous inside) that I imagine is, fear. When I am TRIGGERED, 90% of what goes on for me (feelings etc) is my history. If I can take the feelings back & realise that most of what I’m feeling is stuff from my past, then I can function more healthily & have my ADULT to take care of my CHILD. One is either a LOVE ADDICT or an AVOIDER. I am a LOVE ADDICT – I have a conscious fear of abandonment & am very sensitive to be abandoned in most settings. I have an unconscious fear of intimacy. The AVOIDER has a conscious fear of intimacy & an unconscious fear of abandonment. An AVOIDER who is in a relationship with a LOVE ADDICT who is flirting with other woman - her conscious fear of intimacy feels safe because she is not being overwhelmed with the LOVE ADDICT’S, attention seeking. If the AVOIDER senses that the LOVE ADDICT is getting serious with one of his flirtatations, then she withdraws & even might end the relationship because of her unconscious fear of intimacy. I have become aware of this DYNAMIC through years of therapy.

  • Anonymous-1

    I enjoyed your article. It resonates with my experience. Over the last year+ I've been working hard on "internal" listening. This listening has helped me to discern the voices and stop simply reacting and then feeling shame for my actions. I am able to engage my mind with my emotions and consider a variety of courses of actions. I feel MUCH healthier with this practice and much less out of control. M

  • Anonymous-2

    for some thought it might be to much. with so many things going on in ur head.

  • Anonymous-2

    tom here again. the shaking for me never stops but thats ok cos you learn to just hide in the croud on your own.even though no one see you shaking on the in side.i did not have it in me to stop it for my self. but for those who have it do fix it more so when you have it use it for the good of your self...

  • Gerl

    According to my psychologist, I have Complex PTSD with a teaspoonful of DID. I have always thought that the individuals within me were more like parts of me that represented my response to stressful situations. In getting to know them, I realized that they primarily expressed individual emotions. Because I "space out" but don't lose large blocks of time, I don't technically meet the DSM-IV description of DID, but at times feel one character is more able to "take over" than any others. What do you suggest? I feel afraid of the inner ones at times, a little out of control when it comes to them, a little overwhelmed with their noise when they decide to have a confab and make many comments on what I'm doing. I've tried town meetings and discussions which helps for a while, but I always feel like I'm wanting to say to them, "hold on, I'm not ready to hear from you yet." Always feel like I'm teetering on some kind of edge, close to falling in to their world instead of the outside world.

  • S

    I would just like all the voices to stop-period. I'm tired of them, and them disecting me-they take all my energy and spirit and I get very little done when they are occur. Its getting harder for me to seperate the outside with the inside ones, and they are becomeing more and more frequent as I get older it seems. How do normal people stop their voices, and why isn't my medicine working as well as when I was younger?

  • Aslan

    These are my voices, and they seem so real. Not only that but they have on clothes, and hair color, body mass, and specific personalities. They each have things to say and when my pshy doctor calls them by name they come running out. They all want to talk and take control of me. It is refreshing to know I am not the only one out there.