Me Myself and I: Multiplicity of Self
Published on
March 29, 2023

Me Myself and I: Multiplicity of Self

Tyson talks with Brian Pendergast, MA. They explore what it means to have multiple parts of the self, how multiplicity relates to trauma, and how it shows up in therapy.
Hosted by 
Tyson Conner

Tyson Conner  00:10

Do you want to learn about psychological growth without sorting through the jargon? You're in the right place. This is the Relational Psych podcast. I'm your host licensed therapist, Tyson Conner. On this show, we learn about the processes and theories behind personal growth and experience a little bit of it ourselves. Join me twice a month for candid conversations about therapy and psychological concepts with real mental health professionals using understandable language and simple experiments that you can try yourself. Keep in mind this podcast does not constitute therapeutic advice, but we might help you find some. And today, my guest on the podcast is Brian Pendergast. Brian, welcome.

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Brian Pendergast  00:53

Thank you; thrilled to be here. 

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Tyson Conner  00:55

Brian is a psychoanalyst, a writer, a teacher, and a trauma and human personality expert. And today, we are going to be discussing Multiplicity of Self. 

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Brian Pendergast  01:06

Yay! 

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Tyson Conner  01:07

So first of all, just because I feel like I need to get it out of the way, before we even dive into the topic. I want to acknowledge publicly. Thank you for informing this podcast! Listener, I believe I mentioned this in the Welcome to the Relational Psych podcast episode. But it was through a conversation with Brian that we had over coffee, that some of the seeds of this podcast were planted in my mind. So thank you for making this happen indirectly. I'm very glad that you can be one of our first guests. It's appropriate.

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Brian Pendergast  01:41

I'm glad that I got to find out what seeds were planted.

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Tyson Conner  01:46

Yeah, you don't often -- you don't always get to do that as a therapist, huh? So. Okay, that out of the way. Multiplicity of self? What?

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Brian Pendergast  01:56

Yeah, well, I thought you're gonna ask me -- that the comedy you're gonna make was "Okay. So, which Brian is here right now?"

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Tyson Conner  02:03

Oh, that would have been a smart question to ask. 

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Brian Pendergast  02:05

It would have been an interesting jumping off point. But maybe, maybe we'll get there.

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Tyson Conner  02:09

Yeah. What does that question even mean? 

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Brian Pendergast  02:13

I think that question comes from a bigger question. And that's 'what is a self?' For the longest time, I think that the research indicated/implied, there's a core self, there's one self. We need to find that self, be in touch with that self. And I think the neuroscience of the past 30 to 40 years-- It really started in the 90s, with George H. Bush and what was called the Decade of the Brain. That's when there was money put into more learning about the brain and mental health. And what came out of it in the subsequent decades was this understanding that we don't just maybe have one self, but that there are many parts, many selves, many self states, there's different phrases for it nowadays, but that we're switching around all the time within these self states. That it's not just one thing that we go back to.

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Tyson Conner  03:15

Yeah. So a couple of things. One, when you say George H. Bush, do you mean the President?

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Brian Pendergast  03:22

Yes. Thank you. President George H. Bush.

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Tyson Conner  03:25

What did he do that helped the- develop a decade of neuroscience?

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Brian Pendergast  03:29

I mean, it was some legislation. I don't know the the gritty details of it. But there was some legislation in the late 80s and early 90s, that was aimed at pouring resources into learning more about mental health. And so that's where this revolution of understanding mental health via some more advanced neuroscience came from.

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Tyson Conner  03:52

That's fascinating. Interesting little historical anecdote. Very cool. What I'm hearing you say is that for a very long time, the attitude/the general approach to thinking about a self was that there's like, one core version of you. There's like the "real" you somewhere in there. And the goal was to become that, be your your true self. Right. That's a phrase from... was that Winnicott? 

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Brian Pendergast  04:20

Yeah. 

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Tyson Conner  04:20

So like that idea was prevalent throughout psychology and popular culture. Everyone was trying to be their honest and genuine self. And what I'm hearing you say is that, starting in the 90s, people started to be able to learn a lot more about brains and how they work and how our minds function as an extension of that. And what we've learned is that, that's not really how people work. There's not one self. There's like a bunch, with a lot of different names for what we call them.

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Brian Pendergast  04:54

Exactly. Yeah. And it's best I think, if you think about it, like the brain and the nervous system, right? And there's authors that call it the body-brain, right? That they're just so interconnected. That that's the electrical wiring, for our selfhood, in a lot of ways, that's the electrical wiring for who we are. And so the easiest way that I like to think about it is the idea of neural pathways. There's neural pathways in our brain that get developed every time we have some sort of experience that is strong, or repeated or both, right? So the strong one might be like, you think of an experience of someone being abused, right? That's a very strong experience. A lot of times they relate to something dangerous, or something dangerous and then feeling some safety after there being something dangerous. The brain catalogues these things, it kind of says, "ooh, that's significant," and it gets stored in long term memory. And that's a neural pathway in our brain. And so the next time if there was an abuse experience, the next time someone encounters something that looks similar to that abuse, experience, that neural pathway is easy to find, and then -- that's what we have, when we think about trauma triggers, right? Something reminding us of an old experience that's stored in long term memory, because it was significant, and there was some danger involved. And our brain goes there.

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Tyson Conner  06:25

Okay. So let's -- for example, let's say I'm an 11 year old on a paper route, and every day on my paper route, I ride past the house with the dog out front, and the dog barks at me. And my brain is like, "Whoa, that's a barking dog" or, "yep, that's the barking dog." And it's an experience that I have. But whatever, there's a dog on the other side of the fence, my brain doesn't really do much with that experience; notice it, maybe get startled a time or two, might be good to help me wake up and do my paper route a little bit faster, right. But if there's a day where the dog breaks free, and bites me, that experience is a lot more intense. There's a lot happening there. And my brain says, "oh, that's important. We're holding on to that." And then that becomes a neural pathway.

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Brian Pendergast  07:12

Right. And that means that when you encounter a dog 20 years later, it's a different experience because of being bitten. The analogy that I've heard described by Michael Pollan the food guy is, imagine freshly fallen snow and skiers that are going down on freshly fallen snow, and they create tracks, right? The experience of a neural pathway is tracks being laid in the brain. Well, if there's a set of tracks that are there, regarding this dog biting you at age 11, if you go skiing near those tracks, your skis are going to naturally land in those previous tracks. And so that neural pathway of 'all dogs are dangerous and are going to bite you and hurt you.' You're gonna slide into that, that track, right. And so these neural pathways that get traveled over and over and over again, they become a self in a way, right? They become a self-state, a part of us, there's different language that's used. But that's how we know that we're multiple, because these neural pathways keep sending these similar signals that become more than just a temporary feeling, they become something that we're familiar with, and that we return to, and that feel like 'me' in those moments.

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Tyson Conner  08:35

So in this example of the dog bite situation, if that's a neural pathway that I have, then for the rest of my life, whenever I'm around a dog, I feel that terror again. I feel that fear, again. That version of me, that self-state gets reinforced, and gets solidified; that there's a version of me that says, "dogs are scary and are out to get me." 

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Brian Pendergast  08:59

Yes 

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Tyson Conner  09:00

And maybe there's another version of me that is able to sit on the couch watching TV. And like, Lassie comes on the screen and I'm totally fine. Because the part of me that says, 'dogs are scary and out to get me' isn't triggered by watching television, isn't triggered by seeing something on the screen. So those are two different versions of me, parts of me, self-states, there's different language for it. But in one of those, dogs are scary and out to get me and in the other one Lassie is going to save Timmy who fell down the well. 

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Brian Pendergast  09:34

Yeah, always. 

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Tyson Conner  09:36

And is the good guy.

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Brian Pendergast  09:39

And it gets maybe more complex. If you think about when you got bit by that dog, if you were able to go home and talk to a caregiver right away and say, "I just got bit by a dog I'm really scared" and that caregiver was atuned to you: they listened to you, they heard you, they held you, they understood you. That gets held in a different way in our long term memory. It's not just an experience of danger, it's an experience of danger then safety. And so that neural pathway actually feels different. You might have a moment of panic when you hear a dog bark 20 years later, but you'll probably recover more quickly because you were heard and understood and met with empathy shortly after the experience.

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Tyson Conner  10:21

Okay, so this is interesting, because what you're talking about right now, I would imagine if there are listeners, right now, who are hearing this, they might be like,' okay, yeah, I've heard of this before, I know what a trigger is. I'm familiar with the idea of trauma, or even like a flashback, right? All this sounds familiar.' But now this might be new to some people that like, you can have that scary, overwhelming, even life threatening experience where if, shortly afterwards, you feel safe, then that scary life threatening experience, that trauma response, that trigger, that self-state, might not be as deeply ingrained?

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Brian Pendergast  11:10

Might not be as deeply ingrained, and might also not be as compartmentalized or the fancy word we use a lot of times in clinical circles is 'dissociated,' right? And that's where it's like a self has really thick walls around it. And the walls are so thick, that you can't hear other parts -- you can't hear your happy self in the room next door, like whistling. And you're like, 'oh, I have a happy part of me,' or 'I have a safe part of me, I'm going to be okay.' When we're dissociated, when we're compartmentalized. We get stuck in thinking that is the only truth there is. And that's where that component of somebody being able to be with us after a traumatic experience and help us process it and be with us is so important and why when that's not there, it makes the trauma more complex. 

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Tyson Conner  11:59

Interesting. 

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Brian Pendergast  12:01

And why then therapy can be useful. Now, the dog bite incident maybe doesn't work quite as well, if we consider a therapeutic example later on. If we consider something more like, 'I was never picked up for soccer practice on time, my parents always forgot about me,' and it became this, like chronic neglect experience, 'I'm just forgotten about.' And then you go to therapy, and you start working with your therapist. And maybe one day your therapist forgets about a session or something. And you get that trauma trigger. It's like that old-- that neural pathway got traveled in that moment. And if your therapist is able to talk with you through it, and repair the experience, that grows a new neural pathway that makes it then safer, to go into experiences where you might be forgotten about.

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Tyson Conner  12:54

Gotcha. So having a different experience of the response to the trauma, or of the other person being present after the trauma, changes an entire self-state, potentially?

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Brian Pendergast  13:13

I think it uncovers another self-state, is how I like to think about it. That we really do have infinite selves, right? Because all the experiences that our brain is encoding, if they're repetitive enough, they create a self-state and a lot of times they can be called feeling states too. So there's anxious me, right? Oh, anxious me just showed up right before this podcast. So I'm like, 'Okay, how's it gonna go? I'm excited, but I'm a little bit anxious' and that the experience of feeling something in a repetitive way can be a self-state or a self.

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Tyson Conner  13:47

Gotcha, gotcha. So it sounds like for really intense and especially really painful experiences, then we can develop these feeling states and self-states that are really siloed, really separate, alone, atomized, dissociated, disconnected from all the other self-states. And it sounds like what you're suggesting is, if we're able to sort of slip into that self-state, and have somebody to connect with us, and work through it with us and be present with us, then that's kind of like drawing a little bit of a connection to all the other parts of ourselves.

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Brian Pendergast  14:33

Right, if the goal of mental health is to be integrated, and I believe that it is, right, that means we are able to be aware of all of our selves or as many of our selves as possible at any given moment, even if we're not entrenched or employing all of them at the same time. I like to think about it like a 15 passenger van -- I used to be a youth worker and so I would drive this 15 passenger van that would almost tip over on mountain roads. It was terrifying and fun at the same time, everybody's singing in the back... But if who you are is a 15 passenger van, and you've got all these parts of you - which are probably more than 15, but let's just say for the sake of argument, for the sake of the analogy, there are 15 parts you in that van - you only have one driver at a time, right? Like we're only in one self-state at a time. But why sometimes is our abused self, or our neglected self kicked to the way back of the van to not be heard from or maybe even having to hang out under the seats? We don't want to know that part of us. We don't want to even know that they're in the van in so many ways. And I sometimes think that therapy is a way to help find the parts of us that we've said, 'Get under the seat. I don't want to know that you even exist. I don't even want you to to be a part of who I am. You mess things up for me.' Or whatever we think of these more hated parts of ourselves.

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Tyson Conner  16:00

 Yeah, this is making me think of -- maybe it's just because we just recorded the episode on the history of what is psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy? So we talked a little bit about Freud, so maybe I got Freud on the brain -- But like, in one of his three essays on sexuality, he talks about his understanding of repression. And he talked about like a, you know, the lecture hall image: of like, 'I'm here, standing here in front of you at this lecture hall, and there's someone in the front row who's causing a real ruckus. And it's disturbing.' He probably didn't use the word ruckus, unless that's a German word, in which case --

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Brian Pendergast  16:36

I like to believe he did.

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Tyson Conner  16:40

'And eventually, this person is so disruptive that I ask the people who work at this university to please throw the man out, right? This, this disruptive man is causing trouble. So we throw him outside.' And then Freud said to the people, 'Well, what, what does he do in the lecture, he's gonna pound on the door, and yell and scream. And even though we've thrown him out, he's still disrupting.' And so what Freud said is, 'the way to calm down the man is to let them back into the lecture hall, and hear him out. Hear what he has to say, take him seriously. And then having been listened to, he will likely sit back down and be a part of the lecture again.' That's coming to my mind as you're describing this dynamic.

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Brian Pendergast  17:28

Beautiful way of understanding it. Yep. That selves don't go away, parts of who we are don't disappear. In the van analogy, maybe we'll give them the keys. Because if anxious me decided to show up for this podcast, and was given the keys to the car of who I am, I wouldn't be able to speak intelligently, right? I would be all over the place, I'd be tapping, I'd be causing all kinds of audio disturbances. So I had to kind of say, 'Okay, you get to hang out in the van, but you don't get to drive.' Because the parts of me that are excited about talking about this, the parts of me that feel confident in being able to talk about this material need to drive; need to be the one that is most employed, as I bring myself forward in this interaction. 

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Tyson Conner  18:23

Yeah. So to summarize, what I'm hearing you say is, we all have infinite, different parts of ourselves. And some of them are very strong and powerful, and in charge and present a lot. And some of them are kind of smaller and less impactful and present rarely. And some of them are very strong and powerful, and are exiled out far away. 

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Brian Pendergast  18:50

Yes. 

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Tyson Conner  18:51

And the goal of psychotherapy, as you understand it, as you're proposing - which I think is interesting - is to get all those parts of a person's being, all those versions of a self, to be able to be in conversation with one another inside of one person's mind.

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Brian Pendergast  19:10

Right. And sometimes we have to take what is internal, make it external before it then could become internal again. And so that's what I mean by psychotherapy being a place for that to play out. 

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Tyson Conner  19:21

Yeah. Explain that. That sounds fascinating.

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Brian Pendergast  19:25

If I've got certain parts of me -- and I'll use the example that I used in my book that I wrote a little over a year ago -- I have a part of me that, when I was in eighth grade, I stole some money from a kid's pants after school, in the locker room. I found pair of pants, I was like, 'I want some skittles from the vending machine' because what eighth grade boy doesn't want skittles and dug into this pair of pants and there was a buddy of mine doing it with me, and we found some money. We went to the vending machine, came back found some more money. And I was kind of gloating. You know, I had a $10 bill and this other kid, while we're waiting to get picked up said, you know, 'I heard you found some money' and I was acting like I'm the biggest badass there is. And my dad came to pick me up and I chucked the crumpled up $10 bill at him and didn't think anything of it and just went on my evening. And then the next day, this friend at the lunch table was like, 'Hey, I had like, $14 stolen from my pants yesterday.' And I was like, 'Oh, that was me. I know where your money is, man. I've got - here's $1 that I borrowed. And you know, this $10 bill, this other kid has it.' Well, he got called down to the principal's office. And eventually I got suspended. 

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Tyson Conner  20:43

Wow. 

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Brian Pendergast  20:43

And it was like the most terrifying thing for this good churchy kid to experience. And my parents looked right past it. They didn't see the thief that I was they were like, 'Oh, he would never do such a thing like that. That's not our son. You know, when he found a wallet on the ground, when he was seven, he returned it to the owner. Like that's not who he is.' So I like to call it "Thief Brian." They didn't pay attention. They didn't see that that was in me. So then in ninth grade, I'm on the golf team, and I go to the sports store and switch a few tags on a golf club and like steal a golf club, essentially, right? Like I'm starting to do stuff out of this part of me. And my parents, were none the wiser, didn't know about it. I get all the way into my 30s. And I'm working with a psychoanalyst. And she's like, 'Hey, your bill is a couple months late, when are you going to pay me?' And I was like, 'Oh, I promise, I'll pay you eventually, don't worry about it.' And just time would go on. And it's not technically stealing to pay someone late. But it kind of is in a way, right? It's inconveniencing somebody. And she called that out and said, 'You told me the story once where you sort of stole money from a kid's pants, and you've never really acted as if you did anything wrong.' And it's like she uncovered this part of me by being like, 'You're kind of stealing from me, mister, you owe me money and for services already rendered.'  And it's like she saw what my parents didn't see, she saw a split off state, a split off self, this part of me that had the capacity to take from people and not think about the consequences, right? And it would surface in little areas as an adult where someone would buy me dinner and I'd be like, 'Oh, I'll pay you back.' And I never did. And so it's like it became, we could use the word pathological in a sense, but very subtle. So the therapy experience, just by her being who she was, and interacting with me with her natural, like, 'Hey, I want to get paid,' helped uncover this part of me that I was like, 'No, it doesn't exist. I'm not a thief. I don't take advantage of people. I don't do anything like that.' And yet, that's what I was doing. And I think that's where therapy can help us expose some of the parts of our selves that we have either hidden or we've exiled like you said, that we just don't want to exist. And sometimes it's an abused self. Sometimes, it's a narcissistic angle of who we are. And we just like, can't bear to incorporate it or own it and say, 'I guess that's me.' Because once I could realize that, that's when I stopped acting like that with money with people. Right? Because I was like, 'Oh, I don't I don't need to kick this thief part of me to the back of the van. And therefore he doesn't come up and steal the wheel anymore.' Sometimes.

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Tyson Conner  23:50

Yeah. So what I'm hearing you describe, is -- because this started with me asking about this idea of it coming out first, before it can come back in -- is that you there was this part of you that first came out, at least in your memory of it, with this stealing in middle school. And the people in your life, the important people, never addressed it. It was a part of you that showed up; sounds like it was a little like, disorienting, confusing, disruptive, something... distressing? Lots of D words. And everyone just kind of was like 'nope, nope, pretend it's not there.' And so then this part of you becomes, like we were talking about before - siloed and dissociated, disconnected -- 

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Brian Pendergast  24:42

Banging on the door of the lecture hall!

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Tyson Conner  24:43

Right! And coming up in these kind of sideways ways that you didn't have the tools, or the skills, or the experience, or the context, the holding (lots of different words to describe what what you maybe needed) to bring that part of you back into conversation with the rest of you. 

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Brian Pendergast  25:02

Yes. 

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Tyson Conner  25:03

And so because of this particular relationship that you had with your analyst, that part of you came up there by not paying the bill. That part of you showed up and was causing disruption by getting in the way of you paying what you owed, stealing indirectly. And she was able to speak to that part of you directly. And essentially, say, 'I see you, little thief. And guess what, you're a whole part of this. Now, let's be serious about it.'

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Brian Pendergast  25:35

And I think what was so profound about what she said was, 'I see you little thief. You're accepted here. You're welcome here, but you can't keep doing that.'

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Tyson Conner  25:46

Chills. 

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Brian Pendergast  25:47

Yeah, that's what it felt like. And so then, be able to do that. She was modeling for me what I needed to do for that part of me like, 'Okay, I see that part of you. You belong here, you're accepted. All parts are welcome, so to speak within us, and yet, I gotta regulate that part of me. Because if he runs the show, sometimes he can get me in trouble.'

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Tyson Conner  26:09

Yeah. And what you're describing makes me think about - sort of this like truism, I suppose of a relational therapeutic approach, which is the idea that what begins interpersonal, what exists between people becomes intra psychic, becomes what happens inside of one person's mind. What starts as an interaction between two people can be taken in to be something that we're able to do for ourselves. 

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Brian Pendergast  26:37

Right. 

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Tyson Conner  26:38

And it sounds like what I'm hearing you advocate for is that, for a therapist to pay attention to the parts of a client, that they don't know what to do with. And do something with them. Preferably something kind.

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Brian Pendergast  26:55

Right, right. Yeah. An analogy that I heard from a friend, or not maybe not an analogy, but an understanding about therapy was the idea that: what if you imagine this room, this therapy office, to be your mind. Which parts of you are not allowed to come in to this office? And that we all probably have those kinds of things and if you work with somebody in therapy long enough, because you feel like it's a good fit, more of those parts are going to show up and they're going to come in, and you're going to be like, 'Okay, we're going to have to deal with this.' And I think that is the practice of integration on a macro level. And I think the micro level is the story that I just shared and how you described it. There's a an interpersonal interaction, and the more that that gets worked out with enough safety, then we can incorporate it internally, and then we feel more integrated. So we don't always need the therapist, to help us walk through it. Because we've internalized it. That's where the neural pathways come in, right? The new neural pathways, when we work through something with a therapist, it's like, 'Oh, I get to take that with me; that's in my brain.' I don't have to have my therapist with me 24/7. Like I think I do sometimes early on, like, 'how am I going to handle this? I don't know what to do.' Well, the more that we work with our therapists and feel safe and have those neural pathways grown, it's like we've taken them with us, but more so it's like we've taken the relationship with us. 

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Tyson Conner  28:20

And it sounds like, I think what I'm hearing you say is that with enough practice, you don't need necessarily to practice the cycle with every distinct part of you. Because infinite possible selves, infinite possible repetitions. But rather, the more you've practiced having that experience of this exiled, separate part of yourself being invited in and being told, like, 'Yeah, you're here and you're welcome. And you're part of this person.' You essentially learn how to neural path find.

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Brian Pendergast  28:50

That's a great, I love that phrase. You need to coin that. 

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Tyson Conner  28:54

Well I just did haha 

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Brian Pendergast  28:56

A neural pathfinder.

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Tyson Conner  29:00

A tabletop RPG coming in December 2025.

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Brian Pendergast  29:05

Count me in. A common question -- I didn't think about this ahead of time, but it comes up from time to time. When I tell people hey, I think we have multiple selves. Another way of saying it is we all have multiple personalities. The question inevitably comes up, do we all have multiple personality disorder? And I like to say, well, first of all, it's called Dissociative Identity Disorder now, DID. And no, we don't. I think the difference between someone who might have a diagnosable disorder regarding dissociation like DID, is if we go back to the analogy of the different rooms. If a house is you, right? And each part of you resides in a different room. For people who have severe dissociation, the walls are just so thick, that there's not a way to be in one of the rooms and be aware - at least until there's some treatment - be aware of other parts of self. Whereas most of us who have not been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, we have some awareness of other parts of us most of the time unless we're in a very heavy trauma zone experience.

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Tyson Conner  30:20

Right. And the way that, you know, one of the, you know - diagnoses are complicated - but one of the diagnostic criteria that comes up when people -- I work with a lot of adolescents and adolescents like to self diagnose. Adolescents love being able to say, 'this is what I am.' And you know what, so do all of us. But adolescents just are less worried about being judged for it? I think. But oftentimes, they will ask me like, 'Do I have dissociative identity disorder? I feel like a totally different person when I'm with my theater friends versus when I'm with my basketball friends.' And then the question is, 'Well, do you remember what happened when you were with your theater friends?' And they're like, 'Yeah, I do.' Okay, well, there you go. It sounds like for someone with a disorder that you can diagnose, the walls are so thick, that it's not just - we can't imagine what it would be like to be in that feeling state or that self state, we can't hear what's happening - it's that what I experience when I'm with my theater friends, isn't even remembered.

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Brian Pendergast  31:27

Stays in that room.

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Tyson Conner  31:29

Stays in the room. The door is not just thick walls, the door is locked. 

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Brian Pendergast  31:34

Yes. 

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Tyson Conner  31:35

And ventilation is poor.

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Brian Pendergast  31:36

Right. Right. That's a great way of looking at it. Yeah.

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Tyson Conner  31:41

That sounds terrifying. 

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Brian Pendergast  31:42

Yeah. I think it is, I think dissociation -- the interesting thing about dissociation. And you probably know this, is that it's the brain's natural way of keeping us sane. When there's trauma happening, we get overwhelmed. And dissociation is like taking us outside of ourselves so that we don't go crazy. And so it's like a helpful mechanism that comes with its own set of problems, right? Because then we feel disconnected from other parts of us. 

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Tyson Conner  32:15

There was this -- I might edit this out, because this might be too revelatory -- when I was in undergrad, I was in a theology class. And my professor was talking to us about the definition of a heresy within Christian theology. And what he said was that his best working definition of a heresy was a truth taken to an unhelpful extreme, that when it came to Christian doctrine, most heresies were based on something true, but taken to an extreme that became harmful to those who believed it. And that definition, I think, it stuck with me in part because it's a cool phrase, but also because I think it applies to a lot of mental illness, and a lot of mental disorder and distress. And like, when we're talking about dissociation, you're talking about how dissociation as a process of taking a part of you that experiences something overwhelming, and scary, and confusing. And being able to say, 'You know what, that experience is going to go over here for now, so that the rest of me can like hold together.' That's a truth. That's a helpful, useful thing. But when we take it to this unhelpful extreme of, 'and you know what that part of me is staying far away. I'm never bringing that part of me back. It goes over there.' That's when we run into trouble.

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Brian Pendergast  33:43

Right. Because it's still making noise - back to Fred's guy outside the lecture hall. It's still banging on the doors in some way. Right? It might be somatization, it might be, ways that people are experiencing us that we're not aware of --

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Tyson Conner  34:00

Somatization, what's that mean?

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Brian Pendergast  34:03

The body's way of expressing what could be going on psychologically for us. So sometimes, if we don't have words, or we don't have awareness of what's going on emotionally for us, sometimes our body will express that with pain points. For me, a lot of times if I'm anxious, my stomach feels a little bit upset. And if I'm not aware of it, and not able to address it, I'll feel it in my gut. I think that's that's semi common. Headaches are another one. People feel their feelings in their body sometimes. And that's what I think of somatization.

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Tyson Conner  34:40

Gotcha. And it sounds--part of what I'm hearing you say is that sometimes we can so disconnect from some part of ourself, that it's not even thought, it's not even feeling we can identify. It's a bodily sensation. It's something that lives inside of our bodies. More than our brains or memories.

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Brian Pendergast  35:01

Right. And I think when it comes to integrating outside of relationship - we're talking a lot about how we get integrated in relationship by people seeing other parts of us that we can't see; I think the best we can do when we're by ourselves is to look back, to in retrospect, be like, 'Whoa, what part of me was that? That just said that thing that kind of felt like a switch in me' or, 'wow, that was interesting. I didn't think I was feeling that now I'm feeling that.'  Being able to catch it afterwards still counts as a way to get integrated. Because the more we get in the practice of doing that, I think, the more we can learn to catch it sooner and sooner and sometimes in the moment and be like, 'Whoa, a feeling just came up for me, a part of me just showed up - angry me is here, whoa. Okay, where did that come from?' And when we can get to a place where it slows down enough, then we can start to choose - this is not always conscious - but we can start to choose selves to employ. Right? We can start to choose stories to believe in, right? Because the idea of like, we tell ourselves stories, when we get going in places, if we can catch it, we can go 'okay, I know that story's there of: oh, this person's gonna leave me, this person hates me, this person doesn't like me anymore, they didn't text me back, they usually do...' When we can catch it and recognize, 'okay, that's my anxious self, from childhood, when people didn't pay attention to me, they didn't follow up with me, they didn't care, they missed my birthday or whatever.' And say, 'Okay, I'm gonna choose to believe this other story that is more related to what is going on in my life right now.' But I think that, again, takes work with people in relationships before we can then start to do it on our own.

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Tyson Conner  36:52

Yeah. And that relates to one of my professors in grad school would talk a lot about the power of pausing. And the idea that if you pause, then you can make a choice. 

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Brian Pendergast  37:03

Yes. 

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Tyson Conner  37:04

And that oftentimes, when we find ourselves falling into those ruts, falling into those tracks, those ski tracks, we don't have time to pause. It's not a choice. It's just a thing that happens. What I'm hearing you say is that with practice, you can get to a point where you can hear multiple voices, multiple parts of you speaking at once, and pause long enough to -- I mean, mixing a lot of metaphors right now, but -- long enough to decide who gets to drive the van. Like, you can feel yourself going down into this place, let's say conflict with a partner: and there's a part of you that pops up that saying, 'they always do this to me, they're taking advantage of me, they know they're hurting me, and they want to hurt me to prove that power over me.' But you have enough of a pause, to hear that voice and also hear another voice that says, 'My partner is here with me and for me, and we're on the same team. And we're in conflict right now. And if I'm honest about it, and open and vulnerable, they likely will be too and we will reconnect, and we're not out to hurt each other.' And you can choose to let that part of you or some other part take the wheel.

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Brian Pendergast  38:16

Yeah, I think that's where the continued building of the neural pathways that feel more secure, are so helpful, because if you imagine those tracks in the snow: you're coming to the top of the mountain, and there's, in this case, two tracks. 'They don't care about me, they always do this to me.' And that's one from childhood. And then there's this new one that has formed of 'my partner cares about me, they're interested in working this through with me, they're maybe having some feelings of their own about it, but they care.' And the more that track becomes traveled, the skis are going to slide into that one more easily than the old one. 

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Tyson Conner  38:55

This is neat.

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Brian Pendergast  38:57

I'm glad. Yeah, I think it's neat too.

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Tyson Conner  39:01

I don't know if this is quite in the purview of what what we wanted to talk about today. But I'm curious to hear your thoughts about like -- we're kind of going to bring in a little bit of like, personhood of a therapist now -- a client's not the only one with multiple self states, with multiple parts of the self showing up in a therapy room. How does the reality, the fact that a therapist also has a bunch of different selves present? How does that impact the work?

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Brian Pendergast  39:34

I think it impacts it greatly. I think that's why it feels important for us therapists to do our own work, be integrated enough in a way where we can notice when different parts of us show up. And for your listeners, if you're a client in therapy, to be able to kind of notice like, 'oh gosh, my therapist feels like a different person in that last comment that they made.' Or when when I showed up this week, they seemed a little bit different. And to be able to just kind of note that and maybe talk to your therapist about if you feel comfortable and safe enough. But I do really think for me as a therapist, the part of me that I notice pops up that feels a bit stark to my clients is almost like this kind of arrogant or narcissistic, like... parental 'I know what to do. I'm a know it all, I know what you need to do.' And it nearly every time makes my clients feel like they're not heard or understood.  And I think it comes about, I've noticed that it comes about when I feel helpless, right? They're describing something that feels kind of helpless to them. 'Well, if I do this, I'll end up feeling this, if I do this I'll end up feeling this, I just feel stuck. I'm in a bind.' And my own helplessness starts to rise. And I think, 'Oh, if I'm a good therapist, I will know the answer to get them out of this bind.' And so in order to avoid feeling helpless, I will act like I know what they're supposed to do. And, again, there might be occasional moments where that is actually helpful to a client. But most of the time, they're like, 'I don't I don't feel like you're hearing me.' And so that's a moment for me to go. 'Ooh, some part of me just showed up to cover up feeling helpless.' I didn't want to feel my own helplessness, and really feel their helplessness too, right? And just kind of be like, 'Okay, this is hard. This sucks. I don't have an answer. Other than my answer is, I'm gonna sit here with you and try to be with you in this. And hopefully, that will, you know, get us to the next, you know, mile marker' so to speak.

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Tyson Conner  41:45

Yeah. When you notice that part of you coming out with your clients, what do you do?

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Brian Pendergast  41:54

Sometimes I might speak to it. Other times, it's all internal. It depends on the relationship I have with them. How long have we been working together? Do I have a sense of it being beneficial for them to know about my multiplicity? is a question that I might ask. I talk to my clients about multiple self-states a lot. And sometimes I don't talk as much about it. And so if I'm not giving them that psychoeducation, I think I'm more inclined to just kind of hold it and say, 'Hmm, I think I might have misread you or misheard you in that moment.' And we kind of go from that launching point versus 'hmm, part of me just showed up and maybe made things feel a little bit worse for a second there.' I do have an experience with a client where -- so I'm a psychoanalyst. And so I think, as far away that you can get from psychoanalysis is life coaching, in some ways, in then like the spectrum of like, how we do help, right?

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Tyson Conner  42:55

Yeah, yeah. Because a life coach is there to tell you what to do. 

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Brian Pendergast  42:58

Yeah. Well, I had this experience with a client who just really wanted to know whether he should take a job or not. And what we ended up talking about was that he likes when this life coach part of me comes out, and it does come out every now and then with this particular patient, we're all saying, 'You know what, it sounds like, this is what you want to do, sounds like this is what you should do.' And again, that's so not psychoanalytic in the proper, classic sense. But it's like he was calling forth a part of me, that was helpful to him. And because we could talk about it. That's what made it feel integrative.

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Tyson Conner  43:40

Right. I was just thinking before you gave that example, I was thinking about the way that you would respond to clients when this part of you comes up. That sounds like you doing for yourself that process of, 'oh, a part of me showed up that maybe I feel ashamed about or I don't like.' It's not the thief, it's the narcissistic coach who can tell you what to do, right? And you, as the one with more power and control and all those other weird things that come up between a relationship between an analyst and an analysand, -- which, Listener that's a client, but for an analyst -- you are able to choose that different pathway, to acknowledge where we've been, but still get us back to safety. When you were the one who were kind of stepping out of line, which is a pretty powerful thing to model and a pretty powerful thing to do. And it sounds like, in this relationship with this one client, that part of you isn't actually unhelpful, even though it's not psychoanalytic, maybe it's not what you advertise yourself as offering or what you intend to do with most of your clients. This person has told you that part of you is helpful to me and I want that part of you to show up,

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Brian Pendergast  44:57

If regulated, that's I think the key part about self-states is -- We're just going to throw all the analogies in the world into this podcast. So another analogy that feels apropos for what we're doing here is, I like to call it 'the sound dials' analogy. And so if every single part of who we are, is a dial on a soundboard, right, and (I'm being real, you know, simple about this, obviously, sound boards have all kinds of complicated EQ systems and all this stuff,) but just a volume sound dial on a soundboard of every single self, that sometimes we need to turn the volume down on parts of who we are. Like, I always like to joke: the narcissistic self gets to be turned up on our birthday, right? It's all about us! It gets to be all about us. Someone else's birthday, it's probably best if we turn narcissistic self down, right? Because we want to celebrate them, we want to, you know, turn up the generous part of who we are the part of us that has excitement for other people, that kind of thing. And that sometimes we have parts of us that we've muted, and to learn how to say 'I need to give that part of me a little bit of voice, I need to turn the volume up a little bit on that part of me,' so that it can have a place in who I am. And we learn by trial and error, right? Like we get to practice in these safe enough spaces, like therapy, or close friendships, or romantic partnerships, where we get to toy with the volume a little bit and go, 'ooh, that felt a little too loud for that part of me to be expressing itself in this particular context.'

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Tyson Conner  46:34

So that sounds like the goal is to be integrated. And integration means regulation. 

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Brian Pendergast  46:41

Yes. 

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Tyson Conner  46:42

It's kind of like mixing. I mean, you know, I produce this podcast. So maybe this resonates with me a little bit. But kind of like mixing multiple sources of audio. When it's well mixed, you can hear every piece, every piece is playing its own part. If one piece is turned up too loud, then you won't be able to hear the other bits.

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Brian Pendergast  47:04

Yep. I think integration too is more like a casserole than baking a cake. So you bake a cake, you don't take a bite of the cake and say, This tastes like egg, and flour, and oil, and so on and so forth. And sugar. You say this tastes like a cake. But when you make a casserole, you still -- it's all mushed together, but you can still tell the distinct parts of the casserole. Well, there's pasta in here, there's rice, there's meat, there's some vegetables and I can take a bunch of it in one bite -- meaning we get to be seen as a collection of selves, but they still have distinctiveness in the way that their experience- I can take a bite of that green bean from the casserole and experience it on its own. 

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Tyson Conner  47:50

And it sounds like that distinction is kind of like the shift in the perspective of what a self is. Pre George H Dubs and post were like, the sort of classic earlier idea was if all these different parts of you - because even you know Freud, Aristotle was talking about different parts of a person

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Brian Pendergast  48:09

Freud had ego, super ego, id. Yep,

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Tyson Conner  48:12

Aristotle had appetite, spirit and reason, right? Like this idea goes back far. And there was kind of this assumption that a lot of people shared that if all the parts of you were working together correctly, then you would produce this cake: this like, self, this person who was whole and complete and real and true. But what I'm hearing you say is actually, maybe that's a fantasy. Maybe that's not really real. Maybe it's healthier to say, yeah the different parts of me each show up, and they're each kind of enough on their own. And they also kind of need one another. 

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Brian Pendergast  48:56

Yeah, working together is integration in some ways. I think it's... to be honest, I think it's a little bit more frightening to see selfhood in that way, right? Because if we can feel like we're aiming towards some sort of cake, understanding of selfhood, it's like, 'oh, if I can just get to that place where I'm like, completely cohesive, and I know who I am, and everybody knows who I am. And I'm fully known... all of that.' It feels enticing. And it can feel a little bit scary to be like, 'No, it's literally like a 15 passenger van. There's just different drivers all the time. And sometimes, you know, the teenage self drives the van into a fire hydrant.' Like that's problematic. But I do think there's beauty in it too, because we get to continue discovering parts of self and we get to continue evolving into somebody that maybe continues to surprise us throughout our life. 

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Tyson Conner  49:53

That's delightful. And terrifying. Terrifying and delight. Both.

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Brian Pendergast  49:59

I like to think about how- and this is the direction I'm going with the next book I'm writing - how we're meant to be complex, we're meant to become more and more complex. But we oftentimes say things like, 'I just want life to be more simple,' right? 'I just need simplicity.' And my working theory is that we want simplicity when we are overwhelmed. When we're in some sort of a trauma zone, we want simplicity to make us feel safe. But I think when we feel safe enough, I think we really want to dive into the complexity of who we are, the complexity of love, the complexity of relationships, the complexity of creativity, all of those things that I think can come about more when there's more of who we are to experience. But it is hard work. And it's scary to get to know, parts of who we are especially to use a phrase from Carl Jung - famous psychoanalyst - the shadow selves! Like, we don't want to entertain these shadowy parts of us and say, 'Oh, do you belong here in who I am? Because you annoy me or you embarrass me or you make me feel horribly ashamed or whatever?' But I think learning to incorporate those parts of who we are, is part of the journey toward that complexity that can feel both beautiful and terrifying.

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Tyson Conner  51:31

Yeah, yeah. I like that a lot. Clearly, there's so much more to say here. Infinite selves, right, infinite things to say. I keep thinking about spider-verse when we talk about infinite selves- like there's infinite Spiderman - of course, just like that! Thank you for coming on this podcast. Before we finish, we'd like to offer our listeners an experiment, something that they can do to kind of practice and get an experience of what we're talking about. Seems like this is something you've thought a lot about. Do you have a quick and dirty experiment that people can do?

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Brian Pendergast  52:04

I do, I like to call it self-state scripts. Other writers about multiplicity have called it different things that are not in my memory right this moment. But the idea being, what if you were to sit down and write out a dialogue - an inner dialogue of any moment; it could be a very significant moment, a moment that you just had a fight with your partner or a friend, you are remembering an experience from seventh grade where you had some struggle with your parents, it could be a very beautiful moment, doesn't have to be troubling. And it could be as innocuous as your five minute wait in the grocery store line earlier that day. But the idea being you sit down - and we're doing it all in retrospect - but you sit down and you write as well as you can remember: what different thoughts did I have there? How might they represent different parts of me? So the grocery store example might be, "Oh, I got to the part where I was in line, and I saw how many people were there and anxious me showed up and said, 'Oh, my God, why? I'm gonna be late for dinner. Um, this is this is not good.' And then maybe the person in front of you engages you in conversation, or maybe you see an interesting magazine on the rack. And, you know, curious me just showed up, I want to read about JLo and Ben, or whatever the case may be."  And that's the very innocuous benign example. But I think it's helpful if we do it in moments where there's some intensity and to notice, like which parts of me showed up, and often signified by just a thought sometimes, or maybe it's a feeling in your body: you get kind of warm, and you're like, 'oh, maybe angry me all of a sudden just showed up, because I feel kind of warm.' And it can be a five minute interaction, could be a 30 minute interaction, just see what happens. See how many parts of you you notice in that interaction and maybe bring it to your therapist? Maybe you just spend time thinking about it some more, but I think it's a way to notice your multiplicity.

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Tyson Conner  54:11

Yeah. And this is a bit of foreshadowing, but this exercise reminds me a lot of the TikToks that you make, it seems like a lot of your TikToks are a visual sort of representation of that.

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Brian Pendergast  54:26

Yeah,  my Tiktok handle is the_psycho_analyst, and I like to show multiplicity, I like to talk about it, but I definitely like to show it. And so there are examples of different parts of me in interactions that are sometimes meant to be funny and interactions that are maybe meant to be more serious, but showing that like, yeah, I have all these different parts of me. Maybe you have all these different parts you. I mean, I'm assuming that everybody does, but to let it softly land and go, 'What if you consider these different parts of yourself?' I like to explore that in video form. It's very fun for me, and I've enjoyed interacting with people in the comments. So yeah, if you want to experience more about multiplicity, give me a follow on, on TikTok, absolutely.

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Tyson Conner  55:12

And we'll mention all those handles again and plugs. So if someone is listening to this episode, and is like, 'oh, man, an hour and a half isn't long enough,' (this won't be an hour and a half, but it might be close to an hour.) if someone is interested in learning more about this, where would you point them? What resources would you say seek this?

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Brian Pendergast  55:36

Yeah, the first one is going to be a shameless plug for my book. It's called The Curtain: Tales of Human Love and Personality, came out about a year and a half ago. I call it a mental health memoir, a psychology memoir. So it's some stories of my own life, interspersed with teaching about trauma, dissociation and multiplicity of self. And so it is written not for clinicians, it's written for all of us out there that are just trying to wander the world and figure out who we are. And it's aimed at learning to love all the different parts of who we are. Because I think that's what integration is said another way. Learning to love all the different parts of who we are. So pick up that book, it's on Amazon. I think there are a few other books, one that I like to point to is a woman named Rita Carter, over in England, she wrote a book called Multiplicity, I think that's a good book too. There's more clinical examples in that, I don't think it's as memoir oriented in its presentation. So if memoir is not your thing, that's probably a great resource. Yeah, I would also add, if you're interested in things like psychoanalysis, working with the unconscious: Philip Bromberg, he died a little over a year ago, but he was one of the key writers within psychoanalysis regarding multiplicity of self, and he wrote a book called Standing in the Spaces that I think reads well for clinicians and non clinicians alike. I think there's some good stories about working with clients. And I think that he just utilizes different forms of literary culture in his writing. So he's a good one. Internal Family Systems theory is hot right now- IFS, so their language is 'parts', their version of multiplicity tends to have a little bit more - this is my bias - but it feels a little bit more like it's rigidly held titles and understandings of parts of self, and I'm a little bit more fluid. But if having things kind of be a bit more solidly defined for you when you understand your multiplicity, internal family systems would be a great place to explore. Google it, you'll probably find plenty of things from there to understand and get your feet wet with this idea of multiplicity of self.

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Tyson Conner  58:06

So maybe if you're someone who likes personality types, for instance, then you might like Internal Family Systems and the sort of the categories that it gives you to play with.

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Brian Pendergast  58:16

Yes, There was a recent article in The New Yorker written by Leslie Jamison about impostor syndrome, and I think impostor syndrome is a part of our multiplicity, right? I think it's a way of feeling disconnected from a self. And that was an interesting read, because she talks about multiplicity of self. So I think it is showing up in culture more and more, I think where it maybe doesn't get taken as seriously is because there aren't easy answers when we understand that we're multiple and we want easy answers a lot of times so I think that's a tricky spot to navigate. But I think the more we explore it, I think we can find that there are easy ways or easier ways to engage it so that it doesn't have to feel so overly complex in ways that don't allow us to feel like we're getting somewhere with it, right? 

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Tyson Conner  59:11

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for all of that! Let's let's plug your plug bubbles. We've got your book, The Curtain: Tales of Human Love and Personality. Which is available on Amazon. Your Tiktok -the_psycho_analyst 

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Brian Pendergast  59:35

Correct. 

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Tyson Conner  59:35

Ha! 

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Brian Pendergast  59:36

Well played.

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Tyson Conner  59:37

Anything else you'd like to plug or places where you'd like to be found?

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Brian Pendergast  59:40

Those are the main places where the newer material is coming out for me. I have a handle on Instagram called The Edge of the Couch, where I occasionally post things. There's clips of my book on there. But really TikTok I think is where I'm trying to find myself because I think video and being able to show while also talk about art is an important element of it. 

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Tyson Conner  1:00:05

Then your new book, what's it called? 

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Brian Pendergast  1:00:07

It does not have a title yet, but it's about rigidity. And it's about simplicity and complexity and the ways that our rigidities are sometimes signifiers of our trauma. 

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Tyson Conner  1:00:22

Fascinating. So let's agree that when that book comes out, you'll come back on the podcast. 

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Brian Pendergast  1:00:27

Would love to!

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Tyson Conner  1:00:29

Yes, awesome. Thank you so much for coming. And I'm sure we'll hear from you again soon.

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Brian Pendergast  1:00:34

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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Tyson Conner  1:00:39

Very special thanks to Brian Pendergast for coming on to this episode. Links to everything that he mentioned, including his own social media and book are in the show notes. The Relational Psych Podcast is a production of Relational Psych, a mental health clinic providing depth oriented psychotherapy and psychological testing in person in Seattle and virtually throughout Washington state. If you are interested in psychotherapy or psychological testing for yourself or a family member, links to our contact information are in the show notes. If you're a psychotherapist and would like to be a guest on the show or a listener with a suggestion for someone you'd like us to interview, you can contact me at podcast@Relational Psych.group. The Relational Psych podcast is hosted and produced by me, Tyson Conner, Carly Claney is our executive producer with technical support by Sam Claney and Ally Ray. Our music is by Ben Lewis. We love you, buddy.

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Further Learning

The Curtain: Tales of Human Love and Personality, by Brian J. Pendergast

Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self, by Rita Carter

Standing in the Spaces: Essays on Clinical Process Trauma and Dissociation, Philip M. Bromberg

Internal Family Systems, overview article on Wikipedia

Why Everyone Feels Like They’re Faking It, By Leslie Jamison

Brian Pendergast Counseling

© Relational Psych 2023

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