“You’re so complicated…”
…he said skeptically, eyeballing me from across the table. His tone was one of partial intrigue, partial early-resignation.
Welcome to the story of my life. It’s complicated.
There have been times I’ve relished in my complexity. Marinated in the complication. Taken pride in the confusing cacophony of just being… a lot.
There have also been times I’ve wanted to be simple. Like a Taylor Swift song circa 2008. Wishing I fought for simpler things, defining myself in simpler terms. Being easier to understand, if not for my own sake, then for my poor friends, family, and partners.
But there’s good news for us complex folks…
A complex self-concept might be the best kept secret in overcoming anxiety, depression, and generalized funks.
The antidote to conquering struggles and failures, breakups and letdowns, might just be being really f**king complicated.
This phenomenon is called self-complexity.
Self-complexity is the dimensionality underlying the self-concept. Or more simply, the quantity and quality of the things that make you, you.
These distinct parts of you are called self-aspects.
They include everything from your social roles to personality traits to relationships. It’s your status as a digital marketer, good dancer, gay partner, dog lover, loyal friend, future parent, and Trump-hater.
But you didn’t always have all these self-aspects.
When you were a kid, your self-concept was much more homogenous. You didn’t know who you were or your place in the world. And this low self-complexity can cause internal friction. Which is why a lot of kids are jerks.
As you get older, you develop a more differentiated, heterogeneous self-concept.
You become more interesting, more complicated. You begin to feel more comfortable in your evolving physical, social, and cognitive skins. At least, most of the time.
This self-complexity exists on a pretty big spectrum. Even as “complex adults,” most of us are somewhere between #basic and #extra.
Self-complexity is important because it defends against attacks to any of your self-aspects.
When a stressful event happens, it affects the self-aspect most closely tied to that stressor.
So when you have a bad week at work, your self-aspect related to professional identity takes a blow. When you have a messy break-up, your self-aspect related to relationships and romantic abilities gets dinged.
If you’re high in self-complexity, you don’t react as strongly to a threatened self-aspect.
You can get stung in one spot and still have plenty of healthy self-aspects to fall back on. Think of it like a chess board: Your pawn may be knocked over, but you still have the king, queen, and those pieces shaped like little towers.
But if you’re low in self-complexity, you respond more strongly to a threatened self-aspect, with reactions like depression and anxiety.
When you get stung, you feel it everywhere. The ouch leaks into every part of your self. You feel there are no fall back options, no knight coming to save the day.
But don’t fear: You can make yourself more complex.
Developing self-complexity is a very powerful tool. It shields you from these assaults, makes you more interesting, and gives you foolproof insurance against rainy days.
Self-complexity is like diversifying your investments in your self: It protects you from sudden bankruptcy.
So there’s no time to waste. Let’s get complicated.
THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO INCREASE YOUR SELF-COMPLEXITY:
1. Increase Your Number of Self-Aspects
How do you describe yourself? Generous, hard-working, lawyer, boyfriend?
The richer this description, the more self-aspects you have. The more self-aspects you have, the more resilient your self-concept becomes.
I’ll use myself as a guinea pig. Three of my self-aspects are yogi, professional, and writer. A few years ago, these self-aspects lived a pretty lonely existence. Unaccompanied, lacking more complex friends.
But as the years went on, I dug up more self-aspects to keep them company. So on days that my yoga practice sucks, I fall back on the idea that yoga also gives me a spiritual, meditative, and teaching practice.
These additional self-aspects offer us cushioning when life gives us lemons. Stressors will affect less of our entire selves when we have more self-aspects to pick from.
2. Decrease The Overlap Among Your Self-Aspects
Unfortunately, quantity is not the only variable in the self-complexity equation. It is also the quality — or the interaction of your self-aspects.
Psychologists have found that people with more differentiated self-aspects are psychologically healthier.
When there is less distinction between our self-aspects, when they overlap and bleed into each other, then one stressor can knock over all the dominos. Like one banana rotting the bunch.
I’ll give you an example. For much of my life, my professional self-aspect was tied to my self-aspects of being smart, driven, and passionate. So in times of professional confusion or upheaval, I questioned my intelligence and tenacity.
By separating those self-aspects, recognizing my career and intelligence aren’t the same thing, I can have bad days at work and shake it off.
So spread out of your self-aspects. Dilute your risk. Don’t let one bad moment poison the well.
To wrap up…
Make your self more complicated to protect against sudden crises of self-esteem. Become rich in self-aspects. And don’t put all your self-aspects in one basket.
Insure your self: Get complicated.