A new way to see your self - take a trail ride to a new identity

I've discovered a metaphor that can help you master difficult challenges in a whole new way.  This concept is both very new and very old.  Let's start from the new and then look at the old.

When the voices in our head are colorful

In 2015, Disney's Pixar Animation Studios released Inside Out, a movie about the emotions inside a little girl's head as she moves from Minnesota to a completely new home in San Francisco.  The girl, Riley, herself plays a supporting role; the main characters are the five emotions inside her head personified as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. 

The movie was a hit with viewers and critics alike.  And while a popular movie about a technical topic - like psychology - is often full of inaccuracies, this one did much better than expected.  The most popular reviews by psychologists praise the movie for including a lot of accurate depictions about how emotions work.  The most interesting thing to me about the movie was the interaction of the characters inside Riley's head.  This metaphor can be useful in understanding human thinking and behavior.

But we don't really have different personalities inside our heads that vie for control of us, do we? While most of us don't have multiple personalities, many influences are constantly at work in all of us, conscious and subconscious, affecting our thinking and actions.

An old concept, but still relevant

Now let's look at the old part of this concept.  For ages philosophers have wrestled with the concept of self.  They struggled to understand consciousness, and humans have long tried to make sense of the fact that we are only conscious here, in this moment, but we exist both forward and backward in time.  How is this possible?  And what can we compare this to, to make more sense of it?  

William James was a brilliant thinker.  Wikipedia tells us he was "the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the 'Father of American psychology.'"  In 1890, James published The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking psychology textbook.  To this day scientists still refer to his work in investigating the nature of the self.

James identified some important distinctions about the concept of self.  First of all he recognized that self and identity are intertwined.  A person's identity encompasses her relationships.  It also encompasses the roles she fills. Here are some quotes from his chapter on the consciousness of self:

Nothing is commoner than to hear people discriminate between their different selves of this sort: "As a man I pity you, but as an official I must show you no mercy;" "As a politician I regard him as an ally, but as a moralist I loathe him;" etc., etc.

The past and present selves compared are the same just so far as they are the same, and no farther.

And if from the one point of view they are one self, from others they are as truly, not one, but many selves.

Neither threats nor pleadings can move a man unless they touch some one of his potential or actual selves.

His idea of viewing a person as either "one self" or "many selves" has merit today.  

An old idea that's catching on

As we grow older and gain maturity, we gradually develop a separate sense of self that is less and less tied to group identity and more and more individual.  Since we've reduced the concept of self from group to individual, why not take it a step further and look within the "individual?" There we will find roles that are played by parts of the person. 

There are growing numbers of educated people who are familiar with this concept. It isn't rare for me to hear people talking about inner-personal constructs such as "future selves" or "the experiencing self." On the other hand, if that doesn't match your experience, and this concept seems strange to you, please bear with me.

I believe that after you have become thoroughly familiar with the subject, you'll discover insights that come to the surface, like I have.  In fact there are insights this method can provide that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in another way.

Interestingly, Walt Whitman's poem Song of Myself (1892 version) contains the lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Why does thinking of an individualOr, in this case, a "dividual" as "many selves" make sense?

Events, emotions, social influences, memories, drives and desires, are all in constant flux, meaning that every minute we face will be different than the one before.  Each role we have played, each memory we hold, could be considered a separate "self:"

  • The good selves (the ones we remember fondly)This list is from Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954
  • The bad selves (the ones we would just as soon forget)
  • The hoped-for selves
  • The feared selves
  • The not-me selves
  • The ideal selves
  • The ought selves

Let's take this concept for a ride

In a recent blog post, I likened the mind to a spirited horse.  This is because, like a horse, our minds have tremendous power, but they need to be tamed in order to serve us best.  Today I'm going to take that concept way further.  I warn you, this ride may get a bit wild at first, but it will be worth it.  I'm purposely not supporting the claims I'm making in this post because there will be a series of follow up articles that fill in the gaps.  This article is meant to give a high-level overview.

Here's the metaphor: Not only is your mind a spirited horse, but you are the rider and you have the support of a team of professionals.  These professionals also happen to be you, in different roles.  You'll need a horse handler, a horse trainer, a guide, and a map.  We'll start with the map, then we'll discuss the roles and how they work, and finally we'll address some of the challenges you'll face along the way.

The map: your identity

The guide creates the map with the help of the trainer. The trainer knows the horses (your past selves) and uses this knowledge to get them ready for the trail (your future selves). The better the map, the more effective the guide will be in using it. Unfortunately, there are other riders who want to make changes to the map.

The reality

Your identity doesn't appear in a vacuum. It includes:

  • A larger sense of self involving your relationships and affiliations
  • Your physical self: abilities, disabilities, attributes
  • What you do: occupation, avocations
  • "Salient attributes" (physical and personality traits evident to others)

Self and identity are crucially connected concepts, because it's impossible to have one without the other. Other critical components of a self-identity are goals, values, and ideals.  To the extent the individual chooses these for himself, to this extent he has a truly unique identity.  We don't exist in a vacuum so to a greater or lesser degree, others help us write our identity.

Why it matters

A healthy identity is one where you do most of the writing yourself.  A clearly differentiated self concept is necessary for high self esteem. It's also very difficult to take action without a strong identity to serve as a base.  And a strong sense of identity (ego strength) is crucial when facing challenges.

The roles you play

The rider: the present self

The rider is you, but like Riley, you also have other characters inside your head.  We'll delve into these in later articles, but for now it's enough to say that you, the rider, have just one consciousness.  Oddly, you share the consciousness with the horse, but a good horse and rider act as one, so it's not really as strange as it may seem at first.

The horse: the experiencing self

With a horse, you can travel farther, see more, and go faster, than on foot. The horse is an animal so it doesn't have any goals of its own other than its instinctive desires. It thrives on excitement and carrots and is easily spooked. You have to keep the horse happy or you'll get nowhere. But if you give free rein to the horse, you'll be sorry.

The reality

The experiencing self is based on the hedonic principle: seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is our default mode, and it's easy to give free rein to our desires if we're not careful, with the resulting regrets as a consequence. Many people struggle with their desires daily. They don't recruit a guide, and they let anyone who wants to train the horse. But you and I are not like that. We're looking for the best trainer and guide available. It so happens we also get to be the guide and the trainer, but that's good because we can make sure we are doing the best job in all of our many roles.

The trainer: the narrating self

The narrating self is the horse trainer. He is mostly dependent on the handler to supply him the knowledge he needs to train the horses. However the narrator has a higher level view than the handler. He's not just interested in the individual horses; he wants to keep the herd working together as one. He provides information to the guide so the guide will be prepared to lead the rider to the right trail.

The reality

Our narrating self looks for patterns in our memories. It isn't able to see everything equally, because memories are stored in ways that distort their appearance. The narrating self generally tries to form a story that's coherent and consistent. This story becomes the identity, and it is used as a guide for the future. The guide, the planning self, uses the narrative identity as a starting point for decisions and a limiting factor for determining possible paths to follow.

The story matters

We have influence over our narrating self, because we can choose our own identity to a degree. We can decide which of our past selves will define us. We can rely on memory, or, more wisely, we can leave a breadcrumb trail of information (for example, journals and photographs) to help us understand our past better than relying on memory alone.

The narrating self is one of the most important, because without identity there is no self. To the degree that we become skillful in identity building and life story narration, to that degree we can improve our relationships with others and our own mental health.

The handler: the remembering self

The handler spends the most time with the horse. He works with the trainer to advise the rider how to handle the horse.

The handler and the trainer act with complete sincerity. But they don't always give you an accurate picture of the horse. Sometimes the handler will give instructions to the rider that are in the handler's best interests, not the rider's. The rider depends on the handler to help him deal with challenges successfully, but a savvy rider learns to monitor the horse and to mark waypoints along the trail to verify he is not getting false information.

Not only is the handler somewhat selfish, he is highly influenced not only by the trainer but also by others who don't work at the horse ranch. Sometimes he's just wrong for no reason.

The reality

We are dependent on the remembering self, that is, the role memories play in our decisions. Our memories are often faulty, and they are subject to being influenced or even rewritten by our other selves, or by other individuals. The narrating self works closely with the remembering self, like a horse trainer with a horse handler, and the roles can be so similar that one is easily confused with the another. When making decisions regarding future experiences, the remembering self usually takes charge. Our experiencing self, the one who will actually live through those experiences, is frequently left out of the process.

The guide: the planning self

The horse trainer works with the guide to make sure he understands the terrain and the horse. The rider has to be patient and allow the guide to do his job instead of giving in to the temptation to gallop off on her own, which can obviously lead to problems.

The reality

The experiencing self would rather go through life cruising, shopping, and surfing Netflix but low self-esteem is sure to follow (not to mention other bank account deficits). It costs something in time and energy to activate the planning self. The planning self relies on the narrating self to determine what trails to follow. On top of this, at every turn in the trail the planning self will need to reappear to course correct, or the rider can get lost.  I mean, you won't reach your goals.

Train the guide, don't fight him

Realize that your plans are only as good as your narrative identity will allow. A poorly crafted identity will sabotage productive planning. Keep in mind that your future selves will need to have access to the same information your planning self has access to right now. That means it's probably not a good idea to rely on the unreliable remembering self. We'll cover a lot more ways to improve this process in the future but here are a couple:

  1. Write down your plans as much as possible. This way your ideas will be transmitted to your future planning self more effectively.
  2. Take the time to work with your narrating self to craft a reliable long term plan.

By following more tips that we'll cover later, you can craft your identity in a more helpful way.  We'll also consider how understanding our "many selves" can help us plan for the future more effectively.

Let's go for a ride: meet your future selves

The trail's end(s): your hoped-for selves

The trail is long, and there may be multiple trails branching off it, and all of them are exciting destinations. But it's important not to get lost along the way.

We may have a vision of our ideal future self, but most likely there are several options that appeal to us. We must neither lose sight of the destination nor be unwilling to take a side trail if it turns out to be a better option.

The reality

At different times in life we'll have different visions of the kind of person we'd like to become (possible future selves). It's important to regularly stop and take stock of where we are headed. Failure to plot the course and stay on it can lead to disillusionment and depression.

The snakes: your feared selves

Like snakes along the trail, fears are the possible selves we want to avoid. Rather than pretend there are no snakes or avoid the trail in constant fear of them, we need training to learn how to identify snakes and avoid them.

There are fewer snakes along the trail than we expect, but the horse will think it is seeing them everywhere. We need to learn how to calm the horse and how to make sure it doesn't actually run into a snake or get spooked by one, throwing us off.

The reality

Rather than constantly feeling anxious or trying to ignore problems, we need to:

  1. Accept the problems we are facing
  2. Have a strategy for dealing with them
  3. Make use of the strategy
  4. Continue the process, stay in practice

Other riders

High level view: horseback riding experiences can vary from a nose-to-tail trail ride to a free ranging gallop. An inexperienced rider on an untrained, spirited horse can get injured, or worse. Also, a horse is best trained by one trainer but it's possible for others to throw their hat in the ring. Not only that, others on the trail may grab the reins and try to steer your horse.

The reality

We are heavily influenced by others from day one. When we are young this is generally in our best interests, but as we grow up we need to take charge of our own path. This is a team activity involving the planning self, the narrating self, and the rider herself. All along the way we need to determine whether the choices we are making are our own or the result of influence from others. Not only that, the rider herself needs to keep an eye out for ego which often grabs the reins when she's not looking.

How to avoid clashes with other riders

Learn how to recognize the source of each of your intentions. Are you fully involved in the decision or did someone plant the idea in your head? Are you taking action to avoid disappointing someone else? Further, we need to learn how to recognize when ego is holding the reins and what to do about it.

Not just a fun analogy

I hope you enjoyed my little comparison of managing the many challenges we face in life to horseback riding.  Like horseback riding, life can be fun and exciting, and it can also be dangerous.  And both require training and coordination with skilled professionals for the best results.  Future articles will take a deep dive into the science behind these concepts and the valuable lessons we can learn.  I am confident you'll learn things you might not learn any other way.  Things that will improve your life.


  • "Many selves" is an old concept that's catching on today.
  • A horse riding metaphor can help us understand our "selves."
  • Having a strong sense of identity boosts self-esteem and helps us cope with challenges.
  • Some examples of benefits of the many selves metaphor:
    • Understanding our experiencing self helps us live more purposefully.
    • Becoming a more skilled narrating self will improve our relationships and well-being.
    • The remembering self is unskilled but often takes control anyway.  Being aware of this is important.
    • Understanding our many selves can help us plan for the future more effectively.
    • Understanding our possible future selves will give us a brighter outlook.
    • The horse ride analogy can improve our relationships with others.