Do you ever think about who you are? Do you say you are an introvert, extrovert, creative, energetic, or some other descriptor? Often we speak of wanting to be our ‘best selves’, or we might say we ‘we weren’t at our best’. That indicates that who we are at any given time is not fixed, yet we often give ourselves a label as though we are static. People who recognise that they are more complex than a simple label tend to learn and grow more easily than those that fix their identity. This post looks at the psychology of the multiple self and how it is a far more accurate and healthy to think of ourselves as organisms with complex brain networks that live within context.

Starting with our brains

Recent neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain and the neurological network that operates it are very complex and multifunctional. Out of this complex network comes our thoughts, emotions, memories, perceptions and actions. Importantly this is possible because we make meaning from our experiences. The brain doesn’t have pre-programmed parts that trigger things like emotions, thoughts, or actions. Instead, each of us constructs ‘categories’ that have been formed by the experiences we have. We have many of these categories that are used to predict which one is more suitable for the moments we have. Our brains are primarily a predictive organ that makes sense of each moment and does its best to find the right thought, emotion, or action for this particular moment.

Living in context

It would be more accurate to see ourselves as beings that use predictive categories to determine how we need to ‘be’ in a given moment. Consider your behaviour when you are in your job, when with family, when on your own. Break than down to even more specific events. Think about when you are in a meeting with your boss or when you are with your closest colleague in the office. Do you behave or feel the same in all those situations? Or do you adapt to what you believe is the most appropriate behaviour? That’s your predictive brain choosing a category that best fits that context.

Therefore the situation we are in becomes a central part of who we are. We don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything we do and think has been influenced by who we are with, where we are, why we are there, what put us there, where we want to go next……and so on. Think about it. This is happening without being fully aware of each and every moment of the day. Our brain gathers information, it pays attention to some if it, ignores other bits of it, and makes a judgement on what is happening, whether it is good or bad, and how to respond.

So here is my suggestion. When we think about who we are we need to stop thinking in terms of one identity but ask who we are in each context. This will enable us to build conceptual categories that are more useful for us across our whole lives. We may even stop beating ourselves up for acting in a certain way with some people. If we focus on why we tend to behave in that way with that person we can focus on that part of our multiple self and become more aware of what has occurred in the past that has formed those particular categories. Then, because we have plasticity and learn, we can reform a new self for that context if we so wish.

But what about the concept of the ‘authentic’ self?

Although I would say the authentic self is an important way for you to reflect on your values and ambitions, there can be no one authentic self but many. This gives you plenty of opportunity to think about the different situations that are important in your life, and how you want to be in each of them!

Coaching the selves

There are a number of ways the coach can include the concept of multiple selves in the sessions.

a)     Work with the coachee on recognising the different selves in each context. Don’t try and consolidate them, or make sense of each of them. Allow the coachee to explore them as they are so that they can know them enough to actively shape them.

b)     Be careful when using profiling tools with coachees as some of these assume a single identity. Aim to use profiles that are more flexible and encourage context specific dialogue around them.

c)     It would be useful to use systemic coaching questions and techniques as these recognise that a person isn’t operating in isolation. These can be modified to include the many selves that the coachee activates. How do the multiple selves connect?

d)     Work with the coachee holistically, seeing them as more than their job title but as human beings with a life away from work.

e)     Ask the coachee “who are you in xxx context?” Encourage them to understand their story for their different selves. Move them around into different spaces to observe their many selves.


References: Barrett, L.F. & Satpute, A. (2013). Large-scale brain networks in affective and social neuroscience: Towards an integrative functional architecture of the brain. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3)

Lawrence, P. (2018). A narrative approach to coaching multiple selves. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 16(2)

Lester, D. (2012). A multiple self theory of mind. Comprehensive Psychology, 1(5)

Seligman, M.E.P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (Eds.) (2016). Homo Prospectus. New York, USA: Oxford University Press

Wilson-Mendenhall, C.D., Barrett, L.F., Simmons, W.K., & Barsalou, L.W. (2011). Grounding emotion in situated conceptualization. Neuropsychologia, 49

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