I have a cartoon in front of me. It shows a character in a dressing gown commenting as she looks through her wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear to go to work that day. “Incredible new dress, but I can’t find any shoes to go with it…. Ah! Perfect shoes, but no matching skirt…. Hmm. Wonderful skirt, but no matching blouse….. Oh! Great blouse, but no matching slacks…. Fabulous jacket, but no matching skirt, slacks, dress, shoes, jewellery or belt…!”
In the final scene she is sitting on the bed phoning her boss: “The individual parts of me are all prepared to come to work Mr Jones, but as a group we won’t be able to make it.”
I had a similar crisis the other morning getting ready to teach a one-day workshop. At least two different parts were trying to dress me. It was a warm day and I knew the participants would be dressed casually - probably in shorts or jeans, t-shirts and trainers. The atmosphere would be relaxed and everyone would be expecting to have fun. Even so, my Conservative self thought I should wear a newly pressed pair of chinos, polished leather shoes and a smart shirt. As the trainer I should project an image of professionalism - otherwise my status would be undermined and I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
My Conservative self remembers with embarrassment an incident some years ago when I was teaching a one-week seminar in Japan. The participants were all senior managers and I wore a suit and tie every day. Halfway through the week I wanted to get some feedback from my Japanese colleague who had organised the programme. I waited until we were sitting naked in the communal hot bath. For Japanese this is a situation where the requisite Polite and Pleasing selves can be put to one side and one can be open and reveal one’s true feelings or “honne.”
“So, Iwasa-san, how do you think the seminar is going?” I asked. My own sense was that all was going well, so I was quite taken aback when he hesitated, drew breath and said, “Maybe there is a problem, Kento-san.” A problem? What could it be? My mind raced through various possibilities. Perhaps they didn’t like the content. Maybe my English was too difficult for them. Or had I inadvertently been culturally insensitive? “Please tell me Iwasa-san so that I can fix it,” I said.
“Well, Kento-san, it’s your shirts,” he replied. My Shirts?! I didn’t understand. I wore a clean, pressed shirt every day. They weren’t loud or over-styled. “Please explain,” I urged. “You wore a blue shirt on Monday and a red striped one Tuesday and a grey one today. They don’t understand why,” he answered. Now I was really puzzled. He continued, “As the “sensei”, or teacher, you have to be sincere, calm and consistent in order for them to trust you and receive your teaching. Wearing a different coloured shirt every day is not showing consistency and this is confusing to them.”
The lesson was learnt and ever since, my Conservative self has had a heightened sensitivity to my appearance and especially how my clothes might impact a group in a negative way. With this memory in mind the message was clear - I should play safe and not be controversial. I reached for my chinos. But even as I took them out of the cupboard another voice intervened.
It was my Exhibitionist self, a part of me that loves to be provocative. Allied with a Rebel self, he delights in shocking people and getting a reaction. One way to do that is to have me wear unusual or unconventional clothes. He once had me buy a T-shirt that said: “F_CK, all I want is U”! Of course, my Conservative self had had a panic attack and had made sure that this particular T-shirt languished in a bottom drawer, buried beneath “decent and respectable” clothing.
One look at the chinos and my Exhibitionist rebelled. No way did he want me to wear such “non-descript and boring” clothes! As I scanned my wardrobe his eyes settled on a blue T-shirt. Printed in big letters on the front were the words: “Just another sexy bald bloke.” That would do nicely. I put it on and then pulled on a pair of tight Levi’s. A brassy cowboy belt and an old pair of trainers and the outfit was complete. I looked in the mirror. He was satisfied.
It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the voice of my Conservative self sounded sharply in my head, “Are you seriously going to stand in front of a group of complete strangers wearing such inappropriate attire!?” And so the to and fro between these two selves began. I took the jeans and T-shirt off and replaced them with the chinos and shirt. I looked in the mirror. My Exhibitionist gave his frank opinion, “Dull, drab and dreary!!”
Phoning in like the cartoon character and cancelling the workshop was not an option. I needed to sit with these two opposing selves and find a solution. So I changed back into my pyjamas and went downstairs to eat breakfast. As I sat munching my toast I listened to their arguments. I knew that whatever I chose to wear, one of them would be upset…. Finally, as I sipped the last of my coffee I decided. I went upstairs made my selection, dressed myself and left for the workshop.
So who won? Which self turned up to teach my workshop - my Conservative or my Exhibitionist? With a nod to both I chose to wear the jeans with a conventional belt, the trainers, and a neutral coloured shirt. That way both selves could be present to inform my work. I could be professional and casual. Sitting over breakfast with my opposing selves enabled me to take charge of them rather than have either one take charge over me!
The ‘war of the wardrobe’ can offer wonderful insights both for facilitator and client in a Voice Dialogue session. On one occasion for example, a lady who for several sessions had worn unobtrusive pastel colours, arrived in a bright red dress. That day her Sexual Rebel spoke out. “Did you dress her this morning,” I asked. “You bet!” she said feistily, “It’s about time she listened to me!!” Or the tolerant, new-age mother who turned up one day in a dark top with a wide, pristine white collar. Her inner Puritan who railed against her easy going attitude to raising her children wanted his presence to be noted and his voice heard: “Spare the rod and spoil the child!” was his message.
So, take a moment to observe what you are wearing right now and ask yourself “who dressed me today?” Maybe this will clue you in to a particular self that is trying to get your attention and appreciation.