People with multiplicity have many different understandings of the origin and function of other personalities, alters or ‘selves’ – here we’ve called them parts. For some common terms and language about multiplicity, please see Language, definitions, and common terms.
Of course, each part may have their own understanding of the multiplicity (or be unaware of it, or reject it) and these may contradict each other. It’s extremely important to make room for these contradictions and respect the right of each part to understand and articulate their experiences in their own way.
Multiplicity is a very broad term meaning any experience of more than ‘self’ in your mind or body. People have very different understandings of what it means to experience this ‘more than one’. In some cultures these experiences are considered sacred and valuable, in others they are seen as extremely negative and dangerous. People’s experiences vary widely from extremely distressing and life threatening through to deeply precious and life saving or enhancing. Some people’s experiences includes both extremes. Some people may see these selves outside of their body as people they can talk to, but others do not. Multiplicity may be a temporary situation but for some it is enduring – this can be a good or bad thing. It can be confusing to become aware of the many different ways people can understand experiences of multiplicity, but it can also help to broaden our understanding and connect with others with a diversity of meanings and experiences.
Some people hear voices. Some have different genders on different days. Some connect with angels, ancestors, spirits, or ghosts. Some people experience possession, feel or believe they are haunted or have a connection with the spirit world. People with multiplicity may be shamans, madmen, disordered, Otherkin, disabled, traumatised, Soulbonded, or simply experiencing a natural diversity in humans (such as being gay or left-handed). It would take a large book to describe all the difference ways people understand multiplicity! Here at the DI it’s not our intention to tell anyone what they should believe. We think that diversity is normal and we wish to respect the range of understandings people have. We also want to honor and give voice to both extremes of experience with multiplicity – the terrible suffering some people endure, and the hope and enrichment others share, as well as the middle ground of mixed experiences.
Here in Australia (where the DI is based), most of us are more familiar with the clinical psychological ideas about multiplicity, which are exclusively internal (ie all parts come from the same mind, rather than possibly spiritual or other ‘outside’ sources). Unfortunately the clinical perspective is embedded in ideas of disorder that don’t suit everyone. There are no clinical terms for people who experience dissociation or multiplicity but are not distressed or impaired. Technically these people should not be diagnosed with any illness as distress and impairment are key aspects of the diagnosis but unfortunately that aspect of diagnosis is frequently overlooked. Conversations about multiplicity are often dominated by ideas about Dissociative Identity Disoder (DID) which requires not only distress or impairment, but a high level of multiplicity and amnesia between parts. Many people with multiplicity do not have amnesia, and there are many experiences of multiplicity that are less distinct than the total independence of parts required for a diagnosis of DID. These people are often given other, non dissociative diagnoses, or a non specific diagnosis such as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder, which can feel very invalidating if all the resources about multiplicity are written for those with DID or there is an emphasis on proving you are a ‘real DID’ with a lot of concerns about ‘fakers’ or people who ‘aren’t multiple enough’. Some people reject the idea of a single, fixed identity without finding the idea of multiplicity particularly relevant. Here at the DI we do not exclude anyone on the basis of your diagnosis or level or type of multiplicity. If you are finding the resources helpful or the frameworks useful you are welcome.
Unfortunately most of the clinical framework and language has been developed on the basis of things learned from the most distressed, overwhelmed, and floridly presenting people who have come into a lot of contact with the mental health system. While these people’s experiences are extremely important they are not the only experiences of multiplicity. People with ‘lesser degrees’ of multiplicity also suffer when they have no language to talk about their experiences, people with all kinds of multiplicity suffer when they are presented with models that frighten them, don’t fit well, or predict severe suffering and incapacity. Everyone needs a voice, a language, the freedom to explore what works for them, and access to peers and possible role models.
From the clinical perspective, multiplicity describes a form of dissociation that happens in the area of identity. Dissociation can happen in many different areas, of which identity is one.
To start with a broader understanding of dissociation read our page About Dissociation. Dissociation describes a disconnection of some kind (not always negative). Disconnection in the area of identity can occur in a very mild and commonly experienced way, or be quite extensive and distinct. We tend to think of multiplicity as being a category of its own, something you either have, or don’t have, but dissociation occurs in degrees of severity in any area, including identity. Even within the clinical framework, a wide range of experiences can be found on this spectrum!
People often use the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as a shorthand term for the concept of multiplicity. DID describes very high levels of dissociation in the areas of both identity and memory. It is possible to experience multiplicity without memory loss, in fact, this is sometimes part of the goal of therapy for people who have DID. People with multiplicity may also be diagnosed as schizophrenic, psychotic, bipolar, borderline personality disorder or other conditions, or not given any diagnosis or framework to make sense of their experiences. Of course, it is possible to experience multiplicity as well as other conditions such as deafness, autism, depression and so on. Some people with multiplicity spend many years in the mental health system and are given many diagnoses and try many treatments and frameworks that don’t work, partly help, or only help sometimes. Other people have never seen a mental health clinician.
At the ‘universal’ end of this spectrum, we all have ‘parts’ if you want to look at things that way. (not everyone does! this is just one way of looking at things)
We all play different roles in different areas of our lives. We show different sides of ourselves in different relationships – with our co-workers, our friends, and our children. Some theories of personality and identity development conceive of the idea that everybody is an integrated network of sub-personalities, united by a single sense of consciousness. So, to a certain extent, we can all relate to the concept of multiplicity. We know what it feels like to be in two minds about something, to have conflict between aspects of ourselves “Part of me wants to go out tonight, and part of me wants to stay home.” We may also have experienced spending time with a new friend, who bring out a side of ourselves we hadn’t known was there. We may feel like we leave parts of ourselves behind – perhaps the part that loves to study and research is left behind as we throw ourselves into parenthood, or our fun and silly part is forgotten about as we try to manage long hours at work. We may also recover and reconnect with these parts later in life. All of these parts are ‘us’; they are all facets of a single personality, and there is a high degree of connection and cohesion between these parts. A single sense of self unites them. Psychological ideas such as Jungian archetypes reflect this idea that all people have the capacity for many different ‘types’ within ourselves. Some forms of neuroscience explore the idea that a singular sense of self is in fact an illusion created by different brain processes operating quite independently.
With the clinical understanding of multiplicity, there are dissociative disconnections between these parts, like walls that disconnect them from each and keep them separate. The degree of multiplicity is determined by the extent of this disconnection – or if you will, how high these walls are. More separation – higher walls, can be related to less information being passed between parts, and more differences between the parts. Where a person with a single sense of self might have an inner child, a parent part, a wild reckless part and so on, a person with a high level of multiplicity may have parts of different ages, gender, sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, skills, and interests. Degree of separation between parts does not indicate ‘severity’ of condition or degree of dysfunction. Parts who are more connected and blended may be more chaotic and lack internal leadership and clarity of purpose, for example. Number of parts is likewise not related to disability or chances of recovery – some approaches are different between very small or very large groups, but equally there are challenges and hope.
Even within the clinical framework it is possible there may be more than one ‘type’ of multiplicity. There are many mental processes that identity may ‘gather’ around and become linked to, such as different emotions, different states (alert, asleep, resting, receptive etc), different modes or roles (home, work, secret addiction, tennis fiend), and different memories. This may explain why some people gain relief through fusing a fractured state back to a whole one, and others experience their multiplicity as ‘whole’ and intact in itself and suffer losses such as skills or memories when they try to fuse. For some the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, for others the reverse is true.
So, what are some ways multiplicity might present?
This is a really common form of mild multiplicity, particularly for people who have come through some kind of trauma. People talk about ‘the me that’s talking to you now’ and ‘the me that went through that’. They are both the same person, there is a single sense of consciousness and a unified self. However, there can be a sense of living in two worlds, and that even when the trauma is over, part of them is still stuck in the trauma world. For example, some people describe themselves as having been ‘the day child and the night child’, when child sexual abuse at nights split their sense of self and the world. This is not DID and does not necessarily mean you have a mental illness or need to feel worried. It’s a common form of disconnection and many trauma recovery approaches seek to reconnect and strengthen the sense of self.
The Doubled Self does not only occur in a trauma setting. Sometimes when a particular side of ourselves is dominant for a long time in a particular setting, we can experience this sense of multiplicity when we go to a new setting. For example, a person who lived as a studious, focused, intellectual during college but has become immersed in extreme sports since leaving may experience their ‘student self’ as quite different to who they are now, and be surprised to find that revisiting college brings that part back again. People can experience conflict between these parts or feel lost or relieved when a part goes away (such as a reckless teenage self). Sometimes our sense of identity is very bound up with one aspect of ourselves and if this is taken away, we feel empty and confused.
Another really common mild form of dissociation in identity is when people experience a disconnection between their ‘mind’ and ‘heart’. For example, they can remember the facts, dates, information about a traumatic event, or they can feel the emotions associated with it, but not both at the same time. (this is not to reenforce the myth that thinking and feeling are independent processes, they are actually very intertwined – such as the use of strong emotion for assisting us in prioritising talks or encoding memory) Depending on how this presents, it may be dissociation in the area of emotion, but where it is associated with feeling like there are two distinct parts of you then it may be more useful to consider it a form of mild dissociation in the area of identity.
Like all forms of dissociation, these are not necessarily pathological. In fact some therapeutic interventions, such as the mindfulness approach of developing the ‘observing self’ may be conceived of as a form of mild functional multiplicity that supports and enhances people’s ability to gain useful perspective on themselves and their situation.
For some (not all!) people with gender diversity there can be some experiences of multiplicity. Gender fluid people may have a single sense of self and sometimes experience themselves as more male, female, asexual, and so on, or they may feel these different parts of themselves co-exist and have a separate sense of ‘self’. People who transition from one public gender identity to another may experience a sense of overlap between these two ‘selves’. For more on this topic, please see our page Transgender & Multipicity.
Some people who hear voices understand their voices as being parts. This is particularly so when the voices have stable, consistent personalities of their own. The framework of multiplicity is not appropriate or useful for all voice hearers! There are many other ways of making sense of voices. (see the Hearing Voices Network of SA for more information and resources around voices) But for some people, it helps to think of their voices as parts of them-self, or parts their mind has created. For these people, their relationship with their voices is often the key to whether their voices are comforting assets or disabling and destructive. There is a common idea that how people experience voices is diagnostic; that people who hear voices in their mind have a dissociative condition, while people who hear them through their ears (as if someone else is standing next them talking) have a psychotic condition. This would be a simple and convenient distinction but research doesn’t support it.
Parts that Affect My Mind
These parts have the ability to affect how someone thinks and feels. They may be able to block memories, take away words, flash images into the person’s mind, block or trigger emotions. These kinds of experiences are often considered to be part of the Schneiderian First Rank Symptoms (FRS), and to mean that the person has schizophrenia. However people who do not have schizophrenia may also experience FRS, and some research suggestions that FRS are actually more common for people who have DID than people who have schizophrenia. The person in this illustration does not have DID, as they do not switch (ie their parts do not come out and run the body) and they do not experience amnesia (dissociation in memory). However, their experiences can be understood as being a form of multiplicity rather than psychosis. Their parts may talk to them (as voices) or be completely outside of their awareness and only interact with each other or talk to other people. For some people with voices like this, understanding them as parts is a very useful approach to living well with the experience.
Parts that Affect My Body
These parts have the capacity to affect the person’s body (another FRS). People who experience this may describe watching their own hand write in a different handwriting, or having a voice that can move their body and make them safe when they freeze in dangerous situations. This can also be really frightening and people may feel possessed and like they are fighting for control of their own body. They may or may not hear these parts as voices, and may or may not be aware of them or know what they are fighting for control with. If people interpret this experience through a spiritual framework, such as demons possessing them, they may become extremely distressed. (This does not mean that all spiritual frameworks for parts or voices are distressing or unhelpful. For some people they are extremely important and respectful spiritual interventions may be very helpful.) There are also neurological conditions that involve involuntary body movements, such as epilepsy and alien hand syndrome.
This person has a high level of multiplicity with at least one self contained, separate part who at times ‘switches’ and operates the body with complete control. Even when the other part is out, this person is still aware of what is happening, or they are filled in on what has been going on. This kind of awareness is called co-consciousness, it means there isn’t amnesia (dissociation in memory) happening for them. This awareness can be very helpful but it can also be frightening and confusing for people with multiplicity. For some people it may make them very anxious that they are pretending or faking having parts. Dissociation and identity stress can be very confusing, and people can struggle to understand or accept what is going on for themselves. People can also misunderstand or be misdiagnosed which can be highly distressing and make them feel very ashamed, confused, and hurt. It’s very important to make room for uncertainty and ambivalence and support people in respectful ways.
Amnesiac switching means that when a person experiences another part switching out and controlling the body, then they are not aware of what is happening. They don’t experience themselves as switching, their perspective is that they ‘lose time’ or have blackouts. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even years may go by without them knowing what is going on. When they come back out they may discover small changes such as wearing clothes they would never choose, or that major life changes – house, job, partner, have happened while they were gone. People who experience amnesiac switching may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Where there is more than one other part in a system, there may be different levels of awareness and multiplicity between the parts. For example, imagine a person with multiplicity where there are four parts; Greg, Graham, Greg 2, and Pearl. Greg is amnesiac when Greg 2 or Pearl are out, Pearl is amnesiac for everyone else and doesn’t know she has other parts, but Greg 2 is aware of everyone and what is happening all the time. Graham never comes out, he is a part that speaks to Greg or Greg 2, but he doesn’t know about Pearl and Pearl can’t hear him. These things may not be fixed either, perhaps if Pearl was in a situation of terrible danger she might suddenly be able to hear Graham telling her to run to safety. Over time things can change. It’s not uncommon for levels of amnesia to fluctuate and be different day to day according to stress levels or triggers.
Some people with multiplicity are in fact highly fluid, with such constant changes among the parts that system mapping is impossible and pointless. On the other hand, some people with multiplicity are so fixed that they find their parts are all playing roles and trying to manage people and circumstances that have long since changed. The best functioning – as with all people – seems to be a balance between flexibility (adaptation, growth) and stability. Highly fluid and chaotic systems are easily mistaken for Borderline Personality Disorder, or may even be a type of the condition.
As with all other experiences of psychological distress and diversity, different things can be causing them, including physical illnesses and problems. If you suddenly develop any form of dissociation it is important not to presume that a psychological process is always at work. Symptoms may in fact be due to an infection or neurological problem, for example.
Dissociative disorders can be both under, over, and misdiagnosed, as with all psychological conditions. There are other psychological processes that can seem similar to multiplicity – such as rapid cycling Bipolar, (where mood changes may be mistaken for different parts) or chronic identity instability as part of Borderline Personality Disorder (where the issue is more a disconnection from a sense of coherent self rather than the division of the self into parts). People who have a high level of adaptation to different environments may seem to ‘change personalities’ in different situations but this relates more to ego boundaries or dissociation rather than multiplicity. Other forms of dissociation can be mistaken for multiplicity, such as when people experience high levels of amnesia and it is assumed that this must mean that another part has been out, whereas they may not have any multiplicity at all, but extensive memory issues. Ego states are a way of describing ‘normal parts’ and sometimes these will be mistaken for DID when inexperienced people think that feeling like a child again when you’re around your parents, for example, means that you have DID. For some people multiplicity is a helpful framework for these ‘normal parts’ and some books and resources have been directed at all people to understand and connect better with parts of themselves.
Multiplicity is only one framework among many, if it doesn’t fit or isn’t helping, keep looking! There are many other ways of understanding your experiences; spiritual, social, mood related, biological, and so on. It is also possible that more than one thing is going on, for example you may have multiplicity and bipolar. In that case bipolar symptoms may occur across all your parts, or perhaps only 2 parts have bipolar and the rest do not. If the idea of multiplicity fits but the clinical framework doesn’t, you may want to explore alternative frameworks, or simply ignore everyone else’s ideas and start to develop your own! Of course, you can do both – look at other people’s experiences and beliefs to help broaden your understanding and recognise your own, but also be willing to speak for your own unique situation and give credibility to your own insights.
It is really common for people struggling with multiplicity to be given many different diagnoses and spend many years in the mental health system before somebody considers dissociation as a possibility. A lack of training and awareness about these issues, as well as sensationalism and controversy have unnecessarily clouded this field and made life a lot more difficult for many people. People with multiplicity are not more special than anyone else, and although multiplicity can seem startling at first, it is really no stranger than the experiences of people who have psychotic episodes, mania, people who are highly creative, or those on the autistic spectrum. Multiplicity is part of the diversity of human experiences. There is a high level of stigma and freak factor around multiplicity that can cause a lot of problems for people who experience this or have been diagnosed with it, and can make it very difficult to think clearly about. If you’re trying to work this out it can be tough, hang in there and be nice to yourself. You may find it helpful to read How do I know I’m multiple?
Whatever is going on for you, there is hope for recovery from distress and impairment. What that looks like is different for different people, rather the way it is for people who hear voices – when ‘well’ some don’t hear voices any more, other still hear voices but they are positive, others still hear difficult voices but have learned to manage that situation. Some people with multiplicity work on improving communication between parts to be more of a team, or rebuilding connections to function in a less divided way. Some people merge/fuse some parts, where separate parts connect into a single consciousness. Some people fuse all the parts, where dissociative barriers come down so that every part is ‘out’ all the time. Some people have parts die, go away or be contained inside. There’s tremendous variety in the way people choose to navigate multiplicity, and no one path is necessarily right for everyone. To read more about some possible outcomes for people with multiplicity, see What’s the deal with Integration?
A person with very high levels of multiplicity may function better than someone with none at all. A disability model may fit better than the medical ‘mental illness’ framework, where people with multiplicity may live differently to other people but are part of the diversity of human experience rather than ‘sick’ or ‘impaired’. Having said that, multiplicity can be extremely challenging, distressing, and disabling, especially when there is significant trauma or other major challenges such as ongoing abuse, un-supportive families, poverty, and shame. Some aspects of what can make living with multiplicity painful and difficult are more about being in a non-multiple world, with non-multiple-friendly services, and lots of stigma, fear, and myths to deal with. (see our page Why are we needed?) There is tremendous need for more information and support to help reduce fear and discrimination and promote health and hope for people with multiplicity.
You can find more information about multiplicity in a free brochure you can download or print: A Guide to Multiplicity. For more online information see a list of Sarah’s other articles in Multiplicity Links, or scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity on her personal website.