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Ask the Therapist: Alternate Personas and Multiple Personalities

March 1992

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
Posted with the author's permission

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Dr. William Henkin is the co-author of Consensual Sadomasochism, Bodywise, and The Psychic Healing Book, and editor of But I Know What You Want.

<Q> What's the difference between alternate personas and multiple personalities?

<A> Depends how you're using the terms. When most people talk about multiple personalities they're referring to multiple personality disorder (MPD), which is a psychiatric diagnosis for a condition marked by extreme dissociation where at least two distinct personalities take recurrent control of the individual's behavior, where at least one personality does not know about the others, and where there are significant periods of amnesia in the person's life. Contemporary expert studies indicate that the vast bulk of known MPD cases are associated with extreme, relentless, inescapable early childhood abuse.

Alternate personas are more like the different ego states most people experience at different times of the day: the little kid flavor our thoughts and feelings have when we're tired or ill or disappointed; the angry, vengeful content that may crop up in our fantasies when we feel we've been treated badly and unfairly by some yahoo; the calm and grace that sometimes come over us and let us steer a steady course through episodes of severe turmoil. Though most of us are unaware of the ways we switch among our different states, we do not usually have significant amnesia, and no reason to suspect that some hidden personality might be running our lives from time to time.

By paying attention to our thoughts and feelings we can become aware of our own personality states, and as we do so, they can become aware of each other. In time we can learn to present the persona – that facet of our whole personality – who is most appropriate to a given situation. Then, for example, the little kid does not have to keep popping up at business meetings, screaming for his own way and pouting when he doesn't get it, and the executive does not have to show up at the merry-go-round in her tailored suit and pumps, trying to organize the most efficient ride.

It is probable that MPD and alternate personas are related in that they exist along the same continuum, but ordinarily their manifestations are quite distinct. When we can elicit specific personality states of our own by choice, at specific times or for specific purposes, we can have greater control over the direction of our lives, greater freedom from some kinds of compulsive behaviors, and a whole lot more fun.


William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

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