Psychology: How to embrace your alter ego

You know the devil inside – the part of you that says ‘just do it’ when you probably really shouldn’t? Fret not, writes Oliver Burkeman, your conflicting selves can co-operate


Psychology: How to embrace your alter ego

5 minute read

When it comes to making wise choices – getting up early to run, resisting the third cocktail, not messaging that ex you want to cut ties with – it often feels as though we’re two people living in one body. One of your personalities, Virtuous You, heads to bed confident of leaping up at 6am, or arrives at the party certain you’ll limit yourself to one drink – but the one who’s actually faced with the option of diving back under the covers or accepting the next negroni is weak-willed Hedonist You, who can’t imagine what Virtuous You was thinking! If your self-disciplined personality could bring the other into line, life might run more smoothly – but that’s the problem: when the moment of truth arrives, Virtuous You is nowhere to be seen.

However, all is not lost. With a little ingenuity, your two selves can communicate. The easiest way is for Virtuous You to make environmental changes, making it more difficult for the hedonist to misbehave, like a kindly parent installing a stair gate to stop a toddler from hurting themselves. Remove unhealthy food from your house, for example, and it’ll be much harder to binge on junk in the middle of the night; prebook the taxi home for 10.30pm and it’s more likely that you’ll actually leave at that time. A harsher tactic is ‘strategic precommitment’: write a cheque to an organisation that you dislike, then make a friend promise to send it if you break your vow.

Another approach focuses less on battling yourself, and more on self-compassion: when tempted to break a promise to yourself, think of yourself as acting for the benefit of the person you’ll become in the future. It’s a curious truth that we often find it easier to help a friend make good choices than to help ourselves do the same, because we subconsciously believe we don’t deserve such kindness. Seeing your actions as a goodwill gesture to your future self gets you over that barrier: you get to indulge your preference for helping other people, except that, this time, the ‘someone else’ is you.

The broader point here is that you can get useful distance on your problems by adopting a third-person perspective; treating yourself as one of your friends. We tend to think we must have the best vantage point on our personal issues because we’re inside our own minds but, in reality, this often means we can’t see the wood for the trees. Research shows that journalling about, or talking to, yourself in the third person – even addressing yourself by name – can make the difference: rather than getting caught up in the details, you see your situation in a broad outline and the way forward is clearer. If you can’t solve the problem of feeling like two people, at least you can turn it into a net benefit – for both of you.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Image: Getty