Lesson 1 of 7 - free your true Self to guide you

What is Your Personality?

Who ARE "You," Anyway?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/gwc/personality.htm

Updated  01-13-2015

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One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, worry, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, humor, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thought for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

      This is one of a  series of articles in Lesson 1 in this Web site - free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and reduce significant psychological wounds. This brief video previews what you'll read here: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site. I've simplified that to seven.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

      Do you feel that all infants, adults and kids have a unique personality? Think of someone important to you, and reflect on her or his personality. How would you describe it? How would people who know you describe your personality? How would you describe it?

      Try saying out loud how you would define "person" and "personality" to an average early teen. Lesson 1 in this non-profit Web site centers on assessing and reducing psychological wounds and harmonizing personalities, so clarity on this word and concept is key. In this Web site, "Personality" means...

"The whole ever-changing mosaic of an infant's, child's, or adult's
traits that make that person unique from other persons." 

"Traits" include the core values, attitudes, priorities, preferences, talents, reflexes, beliefs, memories, needs, fears, hopes, spirit, Soul, and self-perceptions (identity), that shape how a person (you) usually reacts to your inner and outer environments. 

       See how you feel about each of these...


      A normal human personality, character, or psyche is not a single monolithic aspect of an adult or child. It is a group of interactive parts or subselves which are probably discrete  brain regions. These regions are like an interconnected net of mini-computers, and have no widely-accepted name yet. Historically, they've been called...


alter egos

small minds





(inner) voices

vices and virtues





higher selves


character flaws
or defects





false selves

modes of Being


sides - e.g. "musical"


personality parts

identity states

internal objects

possible selves


self schemas

streaks - e.g.

(mind) states

See John Rowan's helpful book "Subpersonalities - the People Inside Us" (Routledge, 1989) for an interesting, well-researched perspective on this. Master therapist Virginia Satir's brief book "Your Many Faces" provides a metaphoric way of viewing our many subselves.

      Your many personality subselves evolve from your unique mix of genetic + spiritual + environmental factors. Some subselves are genetically predetermined, and others come from your life experience - specially between conception and your first four to six years of life.

      Your inner family of talented subselves evolves over time through a series of interactive developmental stages, influenced by aging and life experiences.

      Each of our personality parts or subselves has it's own unique talents, perceptions, goals, motives, way of communicating, priorities, limits, tolerances,  developmental age, "moods" and sensitivities - just like physical persons.

      Your talented subselves...

  • are interactive and dynamic - i.e. they can communicate and ally with, ignore, and oppose each other, express and discuss themselves with other personalities (people), and react unconsciously and consciously to others' opinions of them; And your personality parts...

  • are exquisitely interactive with your bodily organs in ways we're (slowly) learning to understand; and they...

  • seem to fall into three or four functional categories:

    • young, reactive Inner Kids, 

    • their vigilant Guardians or Protectors,

    • Managers, and (probably)...

    • one or more "Higher subselves".

  • At any moment, your subselves can experience themselves on a continuum from... 

(chaotic / out of control / disorganized / frantic / panicked / hysterical...) to...

(numb / blah / empty ), to ...

(centered / harmonious / grounded / serene / calm / clear / sure /...) to ...

(enraptured / transcendent / enlightened  / at One).

And subselves ...

  • Are neither good nor bad. The effects of our subselves' behavior on our wholistic health and other living things can be judged as nurturing (promoting wholistic health, growth, and full potential) to toxic or harmful (inhibiting these things).

Personalities and True and False selves

      One universal Manager subself, our true Self (capital "S"), is naturally skilled at harmonizing and leading all other subselves, and making wise wide-angle, long-range decisions if allowed to do so by other subselves. The Self gains wisdom over time, as the host person experiences and learns from life. Kids' true Selves haven't had a chance to learn much, and therefore may be distrusted by other subselves as a competent leader. Ideally, this is offset by the child being raised by adults who are guided by their wise, mature true Selves. This seems to be uncommon, so far.

      When their true Self leads their other subselves, average people report some mix of these feelings: alive, awake, alert, "light," calm, clear, serene, energized, centered, grounded, purposeful, potent, strong, decisive, sure, aware, serene, compassionate, resilient, realistic, focused, "up," confident, and present. They also automatically display common behaviors like these. This gives you a reliable way of answering "Who's running my life right now (or recently)?.


       When one or more subselves distrust and disable our Self, they are called (here) a false self.  When a false self rules, people display common traits and behaviors. Here, self (small "s") refers to all subselves together, as orchestra describes all the players, conductor, business staff, and Board of directors together. Following the work of Dr. Richard Schwartz, (Internal Family Systems Therapy, Guilford Press, 1995) your whole group of active and inactive personality parts is called your inner family in this Web site.

      Thus me, myself, I, and "my personality" all refer to a group of interrelated subselves. From this view, personality is like the words team, troupe, corps, gang, community, congregation, and family. So the words "I" and "you" can refer to...

  • the person's (mind + body + spirit and/or soul), or...

  • their whole inner family (personality), or...

  • their current ruling false self, or...

  • their ruling or disabled resident true Self.

      These semantic distinctions are vital in understanding and negotiating human relationships and recovery from psychological wounds (Lesson 1). The goal of wound-recovery is to free your true Self to harmonize and coordinate your inner family of subselves over time. My guidebook and these articles explore the ideas above in detail. Many other books focus on personality subselves too - this is an ancient idea.

      From this view, "growing up" or "maturing" is the multi-decade process of convincing your Guardians and Inner Kids to trust and heed the wisdom and judgment of your wise Self and other Managers, rather than depend on each other and the subselves of other people as we did as children.

      Regardless of education, most people are wounded and unaware of...

  • being ruled by well-intentioned false selves much of the time, and what that means; and...

  • the behavioral symptoms they display; and...

  • what life would feel like if their true Self were consistently trusted and free to guide them.

      How does what you just read compare with your concept of "personality"?  If you (i.e. your dominant personality parts) feel cynical, skeptical, and/or alarmed about subselves controlling normal people like you, read this letter and experience a safe, interesting dialog with a subself you admire. Then see how you feel..

      For perspective, almost 80% of site visitors responding to a poll say "Yes, personality subselves are real, without question.".

Personalities and Gender

      Do you feel that typical male and female personalities have significant differences? Traditional wisdom suggests that they do. People range between indifferent to obsessive on judging their masculinity or femininity. Does anyone you know come to mind as you read this? Realities:

      Typical male and female minds and bodies are similar in some respects, and differ in others. These differences are not good or bad, any more than a rose is better than a poodle. Many people are taught to see males or females as "superior." This is usually based on...

  • unawareness of dominant false selves, and...

  • personal, parental, and/or ancestral (denied) feelings of inferiority (shame); and...

  • inherited and socially-amplified ethnic stereotyping ("Blacks and Latinos are better lovers, and Mediterranean men are more macho than Quakers or monks"); and/or...

  • unquestioned patriarchal biases from inherited sacred texts like the Bible, Koran, or similar.

      Some males are genetically endowed with "female brains" and vice versa. One implication is that some males have "feminine personalities" - e.g. they are more sensitive, emotional, reactive, relationship-oriented, social, and "softer" ("effeminate") than typical males.

      Conversely, some "masculine" females have "male brains and personalities" - e.g. they're more focused on physical activity, competition and winning, success, logic, things, power, and achievements. See this interesting comparison of male and female communication styles ("You Just Don't Understand," by Deborah Tannen), and compare it with your relationships and experience.

      These normal gender differences may or may not include same-gender sexual preferences. Evidence is slowly increasing that against ancestral and religious bias, homosexuality is partly (mostly?) based on inherited genetic predispositions - i.e. normal. See Brain Sex, by geneticist Anne Moir and journalist David Jessel..

      Note that personality subselves may be male, female, or neither, regardless of the gender of their host person So they may have "masculine" or "feminine" traits of their own, and mild to strong gender-biases about other subselves and/or people.

      To make things more interesting, subselves in a host person may have different biases - e.g. one subself may see boys or men as inherently superior to girls and women, and other subselves may be indifferent or strongly disagree. Never a dull moment!

      So what does this view of human personality mean?

Three Implications

      First, the definition above implies that behavioral traits like sociability, reclusiveness, boldness. and shyness don't describe a person - they're signs of individual active  subselves. Thus to say "Nate is really lazy" (a personality trait) labels the whole person, rather than saying "Nate has a Guardian subself that wants to protect against painful disappointments and failures."

      A corollary has to do with personal identities ("Who am I?") Self-aware people can describe themselves with many traits "I'm a fe/male person who likes shrimp / has a bulldog / hates conflict / over-sleeps too often / collects harmonicas / loves banjo music / is impulsive / has big ears and freckles / ...")

      Inner-family therapy ("parts work") debunks the traditional idea that you can't change your personality intentionally. You can  by respectfully persuading key subselves to change their "jobs" and beliefs.

      The multi-subself view of personalities says "Yes, your unique mix of subselves give you certain psychological traits as an important part of your identity - and each subself may shift its priorities, values, and behavior if your true Self needs to negotiate a change for the common good.

      Second, the widespread habit of stereotyping other people by their personality traits is usually wrong, and may harm persons and relationships. Recall the range of personality "types" you've encountered across your years.

      Would you agree that all of us tend to characterize each other by a few basic (personality and behavioral) traits - e.g. "Chris is  impulsive, sensitive, "fun," sexy, charming, cold, angry, depressed, driven, childish, serious, analytic, bigoted, zealous,...: and so on? We tend to simplistically characterize each other by (a) prominent traits and behaviors, and (b) our (subselves') main stereotypes and biases.

      Consider these examples of how dominant subselves promote simplistic judgments and often-harmful biases:

  • "___ has an addictive personality." What this really means is "___ is often controlled by their protective Addict subself who seeks to guard vulnerable Inner Kids against major inner pain''

  • "___ is oversexed and promiscuous." Reality: "___ is dominated by shamed and guilty Inner Kids, who are guarded by a Sexual/Lusty subself who ceaselessly tries to deflect their pain by creating sexual excitement;"

  • "___ is a real cheapskate and miser." Reality: "___ is often ruled by a terrified Inner Child and a devoted Guardian subself who tirelessly tries to reduce an Inner Child's terror of 'not having enough' by distrusting the resident Self  and acquiring and hoarding key assets."

  • "___ is a gossip and social butterfly." Reality: "___ is often unaware of being controlled by a group of subselves (false self) who distrust their true Self:

    • an Abandoned Child, and...

    • a Shamed Child ("I'm unlovable and will always be alone!"), and...

    • a Good/Obedient/Polite Child, and...

    • a well-intentioned Pessimist ("We're doomed to being alone forever!"), and...

    • a relentless People Pleaser ("Let's always be polite, unselfish, and thoughtful, so we won't be scorned, rejected, and abandoned!")

    And how about...

  • "___ is a rigid, angry, frustrated, bigot (or terrorist)." Reality: ___ survived a very traumatic, low-nurturance childhood, and is unaware of being usually controlled by a false self composed of...

    • intense Rageful, Sad, Resentful, and Lost Inner Kids, and...

    • a relentless Inner Critic and Perfectionist, and...

    • a righteous Moralizer/Preacher, and...

    • a clever Magician/Rationalizer, and...

    • a dedicated Bigot/Zealot.

  • "___'s just a born loser."  Reality: ___ was severely deprived and traumatized as a child, and has been chronically ruled by Shamed, Scared, and Lost Inner Kids; and their dedicated Fantasizer, Catastrophizer, Victim, Perfectionist, Addict, and Cynic Guardian parts who don't want to stress the Kids by allowing the host person to trust the wise resident true Self and start living a self-responsible adult life. 

      After you finish here: review this article and its list of common subselves, Make an initial inventory of subselves from each group you feel may make up your unique personality. Then pick one or several traits you "don't like" in yourself or another important person  - e.g. procrastinating, being "messy," forgetting names and dates, interrupting others, or bouncing checks.

      Then instead of labeling that as "a weakness" and/or "a character flaw," try explaining the ("negative" ?) trait/s in terms of a well-meaning false self like the examples above. 

      A Third important implication of this multi-subself idea is for parents and other child nurturers. Often, wounded, frustrated, and exasperated caregivers critically name-call (label) their kids (as their own caregivers did), without thinking how the label will shape the child's long-term self-image and identity.

      This can sound innocent, like "Nita, you have a real selfish / mean / cowardly / lazy / spacey streak, don't you?" A sarcastic voice tone, frowning, avoiding eye contact and/or an eye-rolls, and/or a disapproving face send the same shaming message.

      Typical preteens are self-centered, and take critical labels from key caregivers as literal cosmic truth that forever defines who they are as a whole person. Alternatively, disrespectful labels and inferences activate kids' antagonistic, stubborn Rebel subself - even if that increases relationship discord and frustration ("I don't care if you ground me!"). 

      Consider how different a child might react to...

  • being taught an age-appropriate version of personality subselves (e.g. with simple cartoon faces or figures), and then...

  • hearing a caregiver say something like "Wow, your Messy Girl subself is really taking you over recently, huh? Why don't we try to learn what she needs, and would help her want to be neater?"

      Notice your thoughts and feelings now...


      This article proposes that normal personalities of kids and adults are composed of a group of interrelated, semi-independent "subselves" or "parts," like the talented members of a sports team or orchestra. The composition and behaviors of this group depends on...

  • genetic and biological factors,

  • how nurturing the child's home and other environments are (very low to very high, and...

  • who usually leads the group - protective false selves or the talented resident true Self.

      The article comments briefly on gender-related personality stereotypes, and examines three major implications of this ancient multi-subself concept.

     Part 3 of Lesson 1 here shows you haw to identify and work with your group of subselves to improve their harmony and your life quality.

      Pause and reflect - why did you read this article? If you got what you needed, what do you want to do next? If you didn't, what do you need now? Who's answering these questions - your wise, resident true Self, or 'someone else'?

Learn something about yourself with this 1-question anonymous poll.

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