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Many I's and Aim

5 min

In order to uncover the authentic self and to sustain aim, we need to see through the false self and its “many I’s”.

Hi friends,

The essential idea I'm discussing here is that each of us contain "many I's" and until we learn to observe our multiplicity we will remain divided against ourselves, struggling to sustain consistent aim in life.


There are many I’s in each of us. [1]

For most people, which “I” is active at any given moment is a combination of habit and accident.

Some “I’s” like the morning, or come up when our partner is angry, or when it’s raining outside, or when the leaves change colors, or when the sun starts to set, or after 1-2 drinks.

These “I’s” have different thoughts, feelings, sensations, worldviews, desires.

They often can be understood through which images motivate them. Images that reflect either what they strive to be or what they are committed to avoiding.

For a long time I had this internal image of a “full-of-shit-life-coach-type that peddles inane motivational advice and preys on the insecure”. While I could sense that I am attracted to serving as a guide to other people, I felt a constant internal struggle to NOT be like this person. It created much unnecessary tension and a need to prove that I wasn’t “one of those people”.

We are full of these barely conscious images that exert tremendous influence over how we live our lives. Most of them are essentially accidental, picked up from people and media we’ve encountered. Most of them also tend to be one-dimensional or black-and-white, not reflecting the actual dynamism of life.

The successful business person,
good mother,
clever intellectual,
tough guy,
happy-go-lucky type,
and on and on.

We have positive and negative images for these various archetypes. We strive to realize the positive images and avoid the negative ones.

These archetypes get into conflict with each other.

The artist wants me to play music for hours each day.

The good partner wants me to ensure the house is in order and my partner is in good spirits.

The entrepreneur wants to maintain and grow a successful consulting practice.

The child wants to relax and play all day.

We tend to move between these different I’s without noticing it is happening.

Our multiplicity is evident when you look at how much energy is spent trying to get yourself to do things.

We pledge to be better, do better, and align ourselves with a particular image. We feel full of determination and conviction. A week or two later we are chastising ourselves for failing to live up to this image.

A common example of this is in physical appearance. We conjure some self-image of being fit, vital, eating well, and exercising regularly. Some set of I's rally around this image and vow to realize it. A few weeks or months later we are back where we started.

If you take a step back from this internally, it’s obvious that such an approach cannot sustainably work.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Instead of taking time to intimately know the many I’s within us, and mediate an alliance among them, we identify with one of them or a coalition of them and try to push their agenda forward. But because we are not really in control of which I’s are active (again, this is mostly habit and accident), the various other I’s will regain sufficient internal power to derail our efforts.

In order to have “aim”, we must first resolve our internal struggles. We don’t do this by collapsing complexity/blocking out wants. We do it by simultaneously holding in awareness our conflicting desires and sorting out the signal from the noise.

People with the most vitality and aliveness are full of nuanced and diverse desires that are continuously being harmonized. They don’t reduce the tension by ignoring conflicting desires. They evolve larger and more complex internal systems for holding tension and mediating it in realtime to produce effective behavior.

In theory, we ought to be able to declare an aim and then follow through on it without wavering: "X behavior is what 'I' want, so I will do this behavior."

In practice, this is not how it goes.

This is complicated by the fact that there are many people and organizations that want to influence your behavior. Most people do not declare that they want to eat unhealthy foods, abuse drugs and alcohol, gamble, or waste hours playing video games or scrolling social media. And yet these are all billion dollar industries that consume people’s lives.

An indication of maturity is the capacity to do what we know to be in our best interest.

It’s a bit surprising to me that most people do not endeavor to clearly understand why there is such a wide gap between intention and action.

Or why doing things that are in your best interest is so hard.

In my view, most people are insufficiently curious about why and how this is true. Why am I unable to do what I want to do? What are the mechanics of this? How does it unfold across time? What are the patterns of thought, feeling, and action that underly this? Why do I have to force myself to be good? Who is forcing who?

Other people become resigned. They stop wanting the good stuff and settle for mediocrity. This is one way to relieve the tension of struggling with yourself.

The first step out of this situation is to get to know the many “I’s” within you. To cultivate the inner observer that can be aware of the “I” without being identified with it.

From here, we can start to let go of various distorted images that have made their way into our psyche [2].

In order to uncover the authentic self and to sustain aim, we need to see through the false self and its “many I’s”.


[1] While the concept of psychological multiplicity is widespread, I first encountered the term "many I's" in Gurdjieff's Transformational Psychology: The Art of Compassionate Self-Study by Russell Schreiber.

[2] An extraordinarily common example of this distortion is inadequacy and shame. Many of us have “I’s” that carry self-images of being worthless, inadequate, small, helpless, etc.

We also will have “I’s” that compensate for this by creating self-images of grandiosity and superiority.

They are distortions of the form “I am inferior” and “I am superior”, and they wreak havoc in our lives.

This one-up or one-down dynamic is central to psychological suffering and the operation of our many I's.

The inability to just be where you are without agitating against it is the root of most suffering, and beneath this agitation is a sense of inadequacy. This may not be obviously true to you. If so, investigate it for yourself.

Who each of us is beneath all of this agitation is so much more beautiful, creative, potent, and alive than these false identities.

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