“I still love my dad,” the young woman tearfully proclaimed after learning he murdered her mom twenty years earlier. From all accounts, the convicted suspect of this heinous crime loved his children. His dark secret was hidden for a couple decades before his gruesome crime was discovered. This young woman exhibited great maturity in her ability to accept two very conflicting images of her dad. We are complex. We can be loving in one environment, spiteful and mean in another. Self complexity creates wiggle room for subjective interpretations of self. Sometimes this is beneficial; other times harmful
Most of us struggle with processing the conflicting traits in others and ourselves. When we don’t like a single aspect of someone, we assume they are ‘bad’ in all aspects. A common psychological response is to deny or reject conflicting information. Unlike the previous cited mature example of complex and difficult acceptance, we often experience denial. Mothers often proclaimed in response to criminal accusations against a child, “I know my son. There is no way he committed this crime.”
Our inability to accept human complexity limits and taints judgements.
We don’t know people as well as we believe. We typically know someone within the restricted confines of our relationship with them. That is, we only know them within a personalized context and limited information.
People act differently in different roles. Some characteristics, values, and proclivities bleed through role boundaries but in many ways, our personalities transform, absorbing characteristics that fit the particular social role. In psychology, the ability to make distinctions between our varying self-aspects in different roles is referred to as self complexity.
The greater the extent to which a person makes distinctions among the attributes or features associated with various self-aspects, the greater the person’s self-complexity is.~iResearch Net
Multiplicity of Self and Self Complexity
We are complex. I have often run across a tweet that encourages followers to describe themselves in five (or some other small number) of words. These tweets are nice, encourage self-reflection, and a sweet socially biased response. A five-word self description woefully betrays our complexity.
For those of us unlucky enough to have a period of singledom during the modern era of internet dating, know very well that written descriptions have little to do with the person you will meet at Starbucks over your Nitro Cold Brew.
But here’s the thing. The impression of the person you meet on that first coffee date is also limiting. The “first date” aspect will vanish. After you start dating, you begin to see another aspect of that same person. And, when you enter a committed relationship, this, again, is a different aspect of the same person. The context of the relationship changes and so does the behavioral responses of the people involved. and all of these transforming aspects in the dating relationship may have little semblance to the same person in their professional setting.
Self-Aspects and Self Complexity
Self complexity is the array of multiple aspects underlying our self concept. We are a beautiful mosaic of many pieces. These pieces include social roles, personality traits, histories, psychological habits, preferences, and relationships—to name only a few.
Our sexual preferences, careers, political party, and sensitivities becomes part of who we are as a whole. Rarely (never) do we view ourselves from a collective view of all the different pieces at the same time. Our minds just aren’t capable of this. We independently view ourselves from which ever aspect that is most salient in the moment.
If you ask me to describe myself at a family gathering, my attentional focus will be on family related characteristics. This description will differ from a description I provide during a job interview.
Neither description is wrong or deceptive. The descriptions flow from a self aspect more appropriate for the situation.
Organization of Self-Concepts
With infinite possible aspects that build our self concepts, we have flexibility to structure a diverse and dynamic self.
During the late seventies and throughout the eighties, researchers proposed a variety of models of self organization that we use to simplify the many aspects to create a uniform and cohesive picture of ourselves. Patricia Linville proposed the self complexity model (Koch & Shepperd, 2004, p. 728).
Overlapping vs. Non-Overlapping Traits
Linville’s self complexity is achieved through the cognitive organizing of the many distinct aspects of self, minimalizing the overlap. Lineville’s model doesn’t suggest we are ‘fake’ because we behave differently in different roles. We can have great clarity in our self-concept within each of our varying and different roles.
My wife manages many people. She sits near the top of a large organization. However, this managerial aspect is not the role she plays at home and her role in our relationship is different than the role she plays in the life of our grandchildren. She maintains great clarity in each of these different aspects without creating confusion with her own self-concept.
We can organize different self aspects without confusion. The police officer, the drug addict, the CEO may be unrecognizable in their family roles, with each role having minimum overlap.
Roles often hold different dimensions of strengths and weaknesses. When roles are sufficiently differentiated—non-overlapping—weakness in one aspect doesn’t spill over into the other aspects. A man may lack motivation at work but perform his role as father with gusto. A woman may succeed in an executive role, carrying herself with confidence, but suffer anxiety and doubt in romantic relationships.
While Linville’s model suggest a degree of differentiation, an overarching theme benefits self-complexity by leaning on values and priorities to hold each aspect together.
Positive and Negative Traits
The differentiated self aspects provides emotional stability by preventing emotional carryover from one aspect to another. Linville explains that the impact of any one negative event diminishes as it mentally travels across differentiated self aspects. When we possess many non-overlapping aspects of self, a single event should not disproportionately impact the entirety of our life (Linville, 1985).
Self -Complexity Theory and Emotional Stability
According to Linville’s self complexity theory, greater self-complexity potentially buffers differentiated aspects from stress. Many studies support this conclusion, showing that people scoring high in self-complexity fare better to stress, negative feedback, and other negative events than people who score lower on a self complexity scale (Linville, 1985, 1987).
However, some studies found no association between emotional reactivity and self-complexity, and a few even found a negative relationship between the two.
Self-Complexity and Focus of Attention
Our complexity evolves. People with a larger variety of experiences across different social contexts likely will develop more complex and varied self representations. As we continue in each context that particular aspect evolves.
David Epstein in his interesting book Range wrote that “personality changes more than we expect with time, experience, and different contexts.” He continues, “each ‘story of me’ continues to evolve” (2021, location 2397).
These stories sometimes evolve in different directions. We may become more confident at work while insecurities in social situations grow.
We can derive strength from high levels of self complexity by purposely shifting attention to the most functional self aspect for the current context. If we have a degree of clarity of multiple aspects of ourselves, we can draw upon strengths from the wider array of possibilities.
Jessica Carson wrote in a fabulous Huff Post article on self complexity that as we age, we develop “a more differentiated, heterogeneous self concept.” We become more interesting, more complicated (2017).
By a conscious interaction with different parts of ourselves, we begin a process of integration. Diana Fosha explains “reflecting on experiences…leads to the representation of experience that then can be translated into structure. The work of integrative linking is done post-experiencing: learning can be enhanced if one can put what happened into words, articulating the essence of the experience” (2000, location 3254).
”However, the more intricate you consider yourself, the more resistant you will be to the negative effects of life’s ups and downs.”~LA Times
Differentiation and Integration
Perhaps, the benefit from self-complexity is from having a large pool of aspects to draw from as needed. When we consciously accept that we are complex, with multiple aspects and roles, we can gain clarity of self from many angles. The conscious recognition is the beginning of integration. We can accept our complexity and not be baffled by it.
Daniel Seigel wrote, “integration leads to optimal regulation” (2020, location 6127). He suggests that failures to integrate differentiated parts creates emotional dysregulation. He wrote that “emotion ‘dysregulation’ can be seen as impairments in this capacity to allow flexible and organized responses that are adaptive to the internal and external environment,” continuing he expounds on this, “when integration is impaired, coordination and balance cannot be achieved, and the system moves toward chaos, rigidity, or both” (location 6135).
Integration is the core mechanism in well-being and optimal living. Our wellness increases as we move towards complexity. In Siegel’s words, “the most adaptive flow of a system arises when it moves toward maximizing complexity” (location 7598).
While Siegel’s theories of integration speaks of integrating information from multiple sources—both internal and external, brain and body, self and others—he specifically includes multiple aspects of self in his concepts of integration.
Siegel explains, “we all adapt to the many worlds in which we reside, with direct impacts on our sense of self” (location 7867). He calls these multiple aspects ‘self-states.’ He wrote, “integration can also help us understand the notion of ‘selves’ within a given individual. For some adults, their developmental path has led to a coherent set of interactions with the world—interactions that have enabled the emergence of various self-states, which perform their functions with relatively minimal conflict among themselves” (location 841).
”The richness of self-complexity and self-differentiation develops over time, through experiences in varied roles, relationships and situations.”~Mantas Bolys
Self-Complexity and Wellness
Many tools for improving wellness are consistent with theories of self-complexity. We can optimize flourishing through flexible approaches, understanding our multiple roles, characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, none of us will be asked to integrate drastically conflicting information such as loving father and murderer. However, as we acknowledge our complexity, instead of fighting it, we find peace in our complicated existence.
Our complexity softens rigid judgments, allowing joys from divergent paths. Our acceptance of complexity can then motivate pursuits in varied fields of expertise, creating a rich and full flourishing life.
Carson, J. (2017) “You’re So Complicated” The Upside to Self-Complexity. Huff Post. Published September 10, 2010. Accessed June 28, 2021.
Epstein, D. J. (2021). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Riverhead Books
Forsha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Koch, E., & Shepperd, J. (2004). Is Self‐Complexity Linked to Better Coping? A Review of the Literature. Journal of Personality, 72(4), 727-760.
Linville, P. (1985). Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity: Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket. Social Cognition, 3(1), 94-120.
Linville, P. (1987). Self-Complexity as a Cognitive Buffer Against Stress-Related Illness and Depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(4), 663-676.
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.