In 1943 a man wrote in a letter to his wife, “I am so sorry that I forgot our wedding anniversary for the first time but I was so busy these past few days”. In another letter home he wrote, “My dear mummy. A few quick lines. Enclosed are two packages and a piece of fruit cake.” The man in question who had written these words of affection and love for his family was Heinrich Himmler the Nazi leader of the SS and head of the Gestapo. Heinrich Himmler was also the man who gave the order to destroy the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the people involved in the Holocaust in which six million Jewish people were killed.
What are we to make of these uncomfortable contradictions in one man’s actions and behaviour? His ability to both love and hate in equal measure? When I am confronted by these extreme and varying facets of the human psyche I have found it immensely helpful to view the perspective which suggests each of us are polyphonic. That is to say, we made up of many different voices, impulses, attitudes or parts. We are not just one thing.
The idea of the human psyche being multifaceted, even split in some cases is not a new one. Since ancient times man has been aware of multiple personalities within himself. In ancient Greece, in Plato’s book ‘The Republic’ he spoke of three parts of the psyche: ‘The rational’, ‘The appetitive’ and ‘The spirited’. We also find examples in 20th century literature and in Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘The Waves’ her character Bernard said, “I am not one person: I am many people, I do not altogether know who I am”.
In 1910 an Italian Psychoanalyst called Roberto Assagioli began to create a new system of Psychotherapy called Psychosynthesis in which he explored a model following on from Carl Jung making use and understanding of what he called ‘sub personalities’. His idea was that a range of these sub personalities existed within us and wanted to express themselves. We might come to meet within ourselves ‘The Mystic’, ‘The Hag’, ‘The Materialist’, ‘The Sadist’ and ‘The Frightened Child’ amongst many others and by recognizing that at times a sub personality can take over, it can be a helpful way to understand our somewhat contradictory behaviour. Learning to understand and recognize our inner landscape and the figures or creatures that inhabit it can be helpful. Though listening to all these various voices can sometimes feel like trying to conduct an unruly orchestra and can leave us feeling split or divided. For example, how many times have I been consumed with anger and acted from that state, believing it the right thing to do only to find myself several hours later feeling a sense of regret that I have acted in this way? It might be a helpful perspective to consider that the one fuelled by anger is not now the one feeling the regret.
After these realisations, we can begin to accept those aspects of ourselves and move towards phases of integration. We are then able to hold and stay conscious within ourselves from a place of disidentification where we are less likely to be hijacked by our sub personalities, who may wish to cause us harm or even inflict suffering onto others.
By understanding ourselves and these sub personalities within us, by making conscious and working with both our darkness and our light, we are given a larger, richer context in which to examine what it means to be human.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large – I contain multitudes.”
(Walt Whitman, Poet)