Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rita Carter: Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self

I've been blogging about subpersonality theory for years (see the sidebar). Psychologists have been writing about it for more than 75 years. But all it takes is one book and a good marketing scheme to make it seem as though the author, Rita Carter in this case, has just come up with the theory on her own. Carter's new book, Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self, makes it seem as though no one had ever thought of this before.

Roberto Assagioli developed his Psychosynthesis model in the early part of the 20th century. One of the key elements of his model -- which was the first truly transpersonal psychology -- was the notion of subpersonalities. His friend Carl Jung also worked with parts of the psyche that may be considered unique personalities, which Jung called complexes. In the 1970s, Hal and Sidra Stone were developing their Voice Dialogue model, which was influenced by both Assagioli and Jung. For more than 20 years, Richard Schwartz has been developing the most sophisticated "parts" model ("parts" is another word for subersonalities, as is "ego states") that I am aware of, called Internal Family Systems Theory. Schwartz expanded the existing subpersonality theories to include family therapy models and systems theory.

So, you might understand my displeasure with the misleading word, "new," in the title of Carter's book.

Dinesh Ramde, an Associated Press writer, reviewed the book and that review has been picked up by most newspapers that still carry book reviews, including the local paper here in Tucson. Here is a piece:

In "Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self," Carter describes the concept of a personality and explains how one's multiple personalities interact. Carter's professional credentials aren't given, and it's unclear whether she's summarizing conclusions from peer-reviewed journals or simply producing her own hypotheses.

Her arguments sound logical. After all, we can all relate to acting differently at different times. Carter's point is that each actor is a different personality, and how we think and feel depends on which personality is taking center stage at that moment.

For example, suppose on Monday an acquaintance invites you to a weekend party. You accept because you're genuinely excited about the event. But by Friday afternoon you might feel so uninterested that you wonder why you accepted in the first place.

It's not that your mood has changed, Carter would argue — your Likes-to-Party personality was dominant when the invitation was accepted, but it later got bumped off stage by your Keeps-to-Yourself personality.

Because we think of ourselves as single personalities, we can't understand why our feelings have changed. But instead of berating ourselves for the change of heart, Carter says, we should focus on controlling the personalities that cause problems. In other words, persuade Keeps-to-Yourself to step back and allow Likes-to-Party to replace it for the night.

Can we really choose which personalities to keep active and which to confine to the background? Certainly, Carter writes. She spends the second half of the book walking readers through simple exercises designed to help them do just that.

But here's where the book begins to lag. The exercises may have value for readers willing to invest the time and mental energy, but a skeptic may remain unmoved.

For example, one exercise has the feel of a tea party among imaginary friends. Carter suggests that readers gather their "personalities" for a discussion: Set one empty chair per personality, visualize each personality sitting there and command the self-destructive personalities to ease up.

This exercise may very well help some people, but it's hard to imagine any but the most hardcore readers actually trying it.

There might be value to rethinking who we are, and the idea of multiple personalities jockeying for temporary control of our brains does help explain those times when we look back and think, "Did I really do that?" or "That was really out of character for me."

But "Multiplicity" promises more than it delivers. To her credit, Carter writes with simplicity and wit, and her anecdotes are engaging. But unless readers are willing to fully immerse themselves in Carter's exercises, the book will be more academic than therapeutic.


I hope this book doesn't find a market because it sounds as though Carter doesn't have the slightest idea how to work with parts.

One does NOT "command" parts to do anything. Nor do we "control" or "persuade" them. Parts exist for a reason. Each of our major parts originated in response to some form of trauma or pain. When those parts were "born," they worked to disown or exile other parts of our psyche that were seen as too vulnerable or dangerous. [See here and here for more complete explanations of how parts develop.]

When we work with our parts, we need to treat them with respect and approach them with curiosity and an open mind. If we are adversarial with them, they may pretend to relent, but they will quickly reassert their presence, usually even more powerfully than before.

Dick Schwartz gives an example from his early work with abuse survivors, who generally have the most destructive parts -- ones that lead to eating disorders, addictions, cutting, and even suicide. One woman, who was a persistent cutter, wasn't making much progress with the family therapy model in which he was trained. So, in desperation, he began to ask her about the cutting, which the woman described as a part.

Feeling a bit too egoic (a big mistake when working with parts), he decided that the woman would not leave the office until the "cutter part" agreed not to hurt her anymore. After a few hours, he and the client convinced the part not to cut her in the following week.

When the woman showed up for her next session, rather than the usual cuts on her arms, she had a large gash on the side of her face. From this painful experience, Schwartz learned that parts like these have to be negotiated with, respectfully, not coerced.

While most of us aren't cutters and don't have these extreme types of parts, nearly all of us have critics, pushers, or perfectionists (among others) that control our lives at times. These parts can be just as defiant when threatened. They think that they are protecting the psyche from pain, humiliation, shame, or whatever, and that if they go away the psyche will be damaged. Most often, these parts are also keeping exiles suppressed, those parts deemed too fragile or vulnerable or dangerous to allow into consciousness.

Back to Carter's book. In what appears to be an advertorial for the book, Carter has an article in the March issue of New Scientist in which she explains the distinction between DID (dissociative identity disorder, which used to be called multiple personality disorder) and multiplicity. This is useful for the lay reader who may have read Sybil or seen The Three Faces of Eve at some point and doesn't want to think of himself as "insane."

It's time for a real book on subpersonalities and multiplicity -- one that is psychologically accurate and capable of grasping the subtlety of work with parts.


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