I read Oprah Magazine, because I’m a sucker for self-improvement, even when it’s the self-improvement lite I often find there. But among the women’s magazines on the bookstore shelf, what else is there for someone like me? Nothing, really . . . Anyway, the author Elizabeth Gilbert has a column in Oprah now, and I think she’s a smart cookie. Even when I disagree with her, I like reading what she has to say. Several months ago, she wrote a column about the three selves she has inside her, and I thought, I could do that too: break myself up into three fairly distinct selves. I’ll call them Thea, Dora, and Theodora.
Theodora is my public self. It’s the one that teaches at a university, that answers interview questions or sits on convention panels, that gets dressed in the morning in something appropriate for work and puts on lipstick. Theodora is the me that most people encounter, even when I tell them to call me Dora. She’s polite, knowledgeable, hard-working.
Dora is my private self, my ordinary daily self when I’m alone or with family and close friends. Dora cleans the bathroom, does dishes, mends clothes. She is the one who binge-watches Poldark. She’s the one who eats half a pint of mint chip frozen yogurt and worries about calories. She’s the one who wears sweatpants and tries to get a tangle out of her hair in the morning. She is as ordinary and necessary as bread.
Thea is my very private self, that even family doesn’t see. She’s a sort of paradox, because on the one hand I am Thea mostly when I’m alone, so no one sees her. On the other, she’s probably the most visible to the extent that she’s all over my writing, because she’s the one who does it, or most of it. She’s there in the stories, in the poems. Thea is the one who is in touch with something completely different, something that isn’t ordinary life at all. She’s the one who knows the way to the Other Country. (That’s from a story of mine published recently called “The Other Thea.” And yes, it’s about having different parts of oneself, as well as other things like magic.) Thea is the one who, asked what she would do with her one wild and precious life, would tell you she’s doing it.
But Thea can’t exist by herself. She needs Dora, because otherwise who would clean the bathroom? Who would sew the buttons back on her sweaters? Who would cook? And who would read Oprah Magazine? Because I can tell you that Thea doesn’t. She reads poetry — she just bought a book by Carol Ann Duffy. And Theodora wouldn’t. She’s reading the books she will need to teach next semester. Dora is the one who reads books on decorating. So if my taste in books seems eclectic sometimes, it’s because there are three of me, and we have different tastes in reading material, as we probably have different (although overlapping) tastes in a lot of things. I mean, I’m pretty sure we all like flowers. But we probably all like them for different reasons, and Dora is the one who buys them, cuts their stems, makes sure they have enough water. Thea just writes poetry about them.
I think we can, potentially, understand ourselves better if we see our selves — the multiple selves we have inside us. It even helps to name them. The thing is, they sometimes want different things, and that leads to conflict. For example, when I’m at a convention, Theodora wants to socialize, because after all that’s what she’s there for. Dora wants to get to sleep not too late, because she knows otherwise they’re both going to be tired in the morning. Thea — well, when I’m at a convention, when I’m teaching, when I’m doing what I think of as work, she’s not there. She’s been left at home. She doesn’t like to go to such things. She just wants to walk in gardens and nature preserves. She just wants to read Willa Cather or write novels, stories, poems. She has very little interest in practical life.
I don’t think there’s any need to unify them. They’re like three sisters, living happily together in one house. This morning, Dora made breakfast, and now Thea is writing this. She’s the one who writes these sorts of things. Theodora is getting a much-deserved rest. She taught all semester, and she really, really needs some time off.
Who are the selves that live inside you? I bet there are at least three of them. The key to a successful life, I think, is getting them to live in harmony, like siblings who love each other even though they quarrel sometimes. And knowing which one to be at any particular time, because Dora can’t do what Theodora does, and Theodora can’t write the way Thea can, and so on. The key is being able to move smoothly among your selves, and to accept them each and all as part of who you are — they are all you, even though they are different.
The key is being able, and willing, to accept your own multiplicity and contradictions. Which I, I think, good training for life itself.
The image is Summer Clouds by Charles Courtney Curran. I thought it fit the theme of this post very well . . .
Thank you for writing this lovely description of how human “personality” works. As a psychotherapist who occasionally works with a client with “Dissociative Identity Disorder” (which used to be called “Multiple Personality Disorder”), I have long felt that there’s nothing particularly “woo-woo” about the diagnosis. It is perfectly normal to have different parts of self and to have to work a bit at harmonizing them. DID is just what happens when trauma makes it hard to think flexibly, makes the forgetting/remembering an issue, and interferes with communication between selves.
Back when I first started learning about what we then called Multiple Personality Disorder, I think I might have been at a loss if I had not previously had the experience of writing fiction. I am a very planful, thinky person, so when I discovered that I didn’t have to think at all about what one of my characters would do, I realized there was a whole new layer to personality/identity or how the mind works.
Thank goodness we have diverse internal resources to help us through life!
An excellent springboard for internal scrutiny; the kind one suspects is vital, but dreads to explore. Most women, I suspect, know very well there is a FOURTH counterpart, the unspoken, undreamed, unmentionable one who looms in the darkness around us.
“Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise”. A quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Very insightful and something I will happily mull over with myselves.
This is lovely. Thank you for posting.