Developing self-awareness involves recognising the many selves within you, both primary and disowned, and how they affect your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. When you become more aware of which parts of you are running your life, you can then change your life, including your relationships, the choices you make, how you handle the events life brings you. Here’s a summary of what primary and disowned selves are and how they work in the human psyche.
Your primary self is the self or group of selves that you identify with, that you call ‘me’. Most people have a number of primary selves but unless you’ve done some self-awareness work to tease them out from one another, such as the personal growth method Voice Dialogue, you probably experience your primary selves as one homogeneous entity – as one self.
Some common primary selves include the Rational Mind, the Pleaser, the Responsible Parent, the Leader, the Achiever, the Perfectionist, the Caretaker, the Adventurer, the Artist, and the Rebel. But there are many more.
You might use one primary self at work and another at home, or three selves at work and four at home, or you might be one or two primary selves all of the time. How the selves are ‘configured’ in us is unique to each of us.
Disowned selves are those parts of you that are not acceptable in your family and culture and so over time you have repressed them so that they are not included in your sense of who you are. They form what you might know of as your ‘shadow self’.
Your disowned selves are different to how you see yourself and present yourself to others. When you encounter them in other people, you usually feel judgment toward them or you are fascinated by them and believe they are better than you in some way.
When Your Disowned Selves Emerge
Sometimes, however, your own disowned selves emerge. Depending on whether the self that emerges gives you a positive or negative experience, when this occurs, you either criticise yourself about it (which is when your Inner Critic is activated) or you wish you could be like that self more often.
For instance, if you are normally quiet and reserved you might on occasion, maybe after a few too many drinks, let out your inner party animal who dances wildly and flirts with everyone.
If such an instance led you to having a good time, with no embarrassment or post-party humiliation, you might wish you could be so outgoing more often.
But if you had transgressed some boundary which had led to serious consequences, such as job loss or relationship breakdown, you would probably be critical of yourself for your behaviour and would try to be even more reserved and cautious in the future, thus disowning your inner party animal more strongly.
Many people needlessly suffer by believing that they should be only one particular type of person, or that they are only one particular self, and they try to suppress the contradictory thoughts, feelings and perspectives of their other selves.
Relationships are a Mirror
The problem is that when you suppress parts of yourself, over time those parts distort and become more extreme, and so when they do break loose they do so with great intensity, often knocking you off your feet, and/or someone you are in relationship with off theirs.
And no matter how hard you try to suppress your disowned selves, you will continue to meet them in your relationships.
All kinds of relationships will bring you face-to-face with your disowned selves – you’ll see them in your partner, in your colleagues and friends, in your family members and children, even in your pets.
If you use relationship as a teacher in developing self-awareness, and you integrate the disowned selves you discover in your relationships, then not only will you become more self-aware, as well as more whole and enriched, but so will your relationships.
And if you need more convincing that it’s worthwhile integrating your disowned selves, keep in mind that their energy doesn’t disappear simply because they are disowned – it finds a place in your body, contributing to various symptoms of physical, emotional and mental ill-health.
Self-Awareness and the Levels of Disowning
I have been asked the following questions many times: “Why is it that when some people describe themselves in a particular way, for example, as being a giving person (their primary self is a giving self), you find that often they are in fact the opposite?”
And “Why are some people aware that they express their disowned selves on a regular basis?”
How can these situations occur if a person’s primary self is meant to have a hold on a person’s psyche?
There are a few reasons for this and they have to do with the fact that there are different levels of disowning the opposites to primary selves.
Some opposite selves are not disowned for the person as a whole, but only when the more primary self of the pair of opposites is in charge. Because as long as you are identified with a primary self, you won’t be able to express that particular primary self’s disowned self. You need some separation from a primary self in order to express its disowned self, which is what having an Aware Ego – the ability to sit between opposite selves – is about.
But if another primary self takes over – and remember, most of us have a few – then there is an opportunity for the disowned self of the original primary self to come out. The taking over by another primary self can happen in different situations in a normal day.
For example, if your primary self is giving in nature, then you will be giving most of the time. Let’s say this giving self is predominant when you are with your family and friends, and so when you are with family and friends you will always be willing to help people out, no matter what else might be going on for you. But when you go to work, even though this giving self is there as a part of you, other selves – such as the rational mind and the responsible worker – become the dominant selves in your psyche.
So there you are at work, being rational and hard-working, and a colleague asks a favour of you. You look up at them, quickly calculate how much time you have left on your project, and say ‘no’, getting back to your work. Your colleague leaves, and then you suddenly feel terrible about refusing them. That’s because your giving self has taken over again as your primary self.
Being non-giving is only the disowned self of the giving self. So when the rational and hard-working selves take over, being non-giving is not disowned for them. They don’t even think in those terms. You are therefore able to be non-giving in such situations.
The example I’ve describe above is how it works when a person has no awareness of their selves and no Aware Ego process going on. When you start to become more self-aware and then separate from your primary selves and integrate disowned selves, then you become able to notice when a primary self takes over and you have the ability to choose differently.
Personal Growth with Self-Awareness Exercise:
Become Aware of Expressing Opposite Selves
- Consider which primary self tends to be dominant in you. Write down who this self is.
- Are you like this self in most situations? Or are there some situations when this particular primary self isn’t dominant? Write down those situations.
- In those situations, do you ever express behaviours or have attitudes which are opposite to those of your dominant primary self? Write these down.
- Now consider them from your dominant primary self’s point of view. Write down the thoughts that come to you.
There may be judgment from your primary self or even denial. That is okay. Primary selves generally do not like their opposites to be expressed and will judge them; that is why they disown them when they are in charge (keep in mind that there was good reason for the disowning in the first place and appreciate your primary self for this).
When you become increasingly aware of which selves you identify with, and how those selves affect your thoughts, feelings and behaviour, you gain the ability to have greater choice in how you experience life.
My self-awareness expanding ebook Which Self Are You? gives you an overview of 45 selves, providing a tool for gaining a greater understanding and awareness of the kinds of selves that might be primary and disowned for you.
My relationship ebook The Perfect Relationship shows you how to develop greater self-awareness through your relationships, particularly in your relationship with your partner.
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