Discovering Your Other Self

You may find that you like it

Mitch Horowitz
Apr 26, 2018 · 5 min read
Depiction of the Roman god Janus.

Listen to this story



If you’re like me, you often walk around feeling like there are “two of you” — dual selves fighting for dominance.

And you are right: There are, in a sense, two personas struggling within us all, like Jacob and Esau.

We experience this when we feel ourselves divided between ordinary life and peak possibility. People often harbor the feeling that they could become a writer, or could get straight As, or could excel at work, or could find a positive relationship…if only they were able to freely throw themselves upon the energies of their higher, better, more formidable doppelgänger, waiting to be released. This possibility is real, but it is rarely, or only fleetingly, exercised.

Many modern fiction writers and psychologists, not to mention their ancient and folkloric forebears, have posited the existence this “other self.” Psychologist Carl Jung famously called it the shadow, which he identified as a fount of unacknowledged desires and proclivities; if acknowledged and integrated into your day-to-day consciousness, these shadow traits could lead to the growth of untapped powers, confidence, and abilities. For fantasy writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the other self was the malevolent “Mr. Hyde,” a feral counterpart to the refined and likable persona of Dr. Jekyll. For Edgar Allan Poe, the other side was represented by “William Wilson,” the title of Poe’s 1839 short story in which his protagonist, the debauched Wilson, grows up alongside an uncanny double who shares his name, appearance, and birthdate, and who eventually turns out to be the maleficent hero’s alienated conscience.

Many fiction writers, like Stephen King in his 1989 novel, The Dark Half, see the other self as a figure of repressed violence and evil. But that reflects only one sliver of the split-self riddle of human nature. More important for our purposes, your counter-self can be a figure of relative fearlessness, effectiveness, and ability. Author Napoleon Hill highlighted these possibilities in his 1937 self-help classic, Think and Grow Rich. (A book that you do yourself a disservice by not reading if you permit yourself to be put off by its seemingly gauche title.) Hill wrote:

O. Henry discovered the genius which slept within his brain, after he had met with great misfortune, and was confined to a prison cell in Columbus, Ohio. Being FORCED, through misfortune, to become acquainted with his “other self,” and to use his IMAGINATION, he discovered himself to be a great author instead of a miserable criminal and outcast. Strange and varied are the ways of life, and stranger still are the ways of Infinite Intelligence, through which men are sometimes forced to undergo all sorts of punishments before discovering their own brains, and their own capacity to create useful ideas through imagination.

One of the oddest inspirational works ever written, The Magic Story, featured this theme of a positive double, which author Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (1861–1922) called your “plus-entity.” In Dey’s brief and oddly compelling instructional tale from 1900, he described the life of a down-and-out 17th-century craftsman who discovers that a haunting Presence, or other self, is hovering around his periphery. The hero finds that his counter-self is a real part of him, one that is “calm, steadfast, and self-reliant.” As soon as he comes to identify, literally, with his plus-entity, his life is happily transformed. “Make a daily and nightly companion of your plus-entity,” the hero counsels.

As it happens, the author Dey’s life was less than happy: After a middling and prolific career writing pulp crime fiction, including the popular Nick Carter detective tales, the wearied writer shot himself to death in 1922. He left behind a stoic suicide note, asking only that his older brother be taken care of. Dey’s widow, Haryot Holt Dey, was herself a notable writer and suffragist who lived until 1950. To use the terms of Dey’s own allegory, the author succumbed to his “minus-entity.”

How can you get in touch with your stronger plus-entity?

Never neglect the power of simple things. The manner in which you dress and comport yourself has tremendous impact on your psyche. Most people instinctively sense this without fully acting on it. (This is one reason why the process of transitioning can feel enormously liberating to a transgender person.) Become a thespian, trying out, perhaps subtly at first, different styles of dress, makeup, accessories, and body art. In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, a teacher tells young Lisa, “Being tough comes from the inside. First step — change your outside.” It’s a joke, of course, but like most jokes, it conceals a core truth.

Allow yourself to become immersed in music, movies, and media that feed your sense of power and self-agency. As an example, consider the elegant but deadly robot named David in the 2012 science fiction movie Prometheus; take note of how David studiously models his persona after the cinematic Lawrence of Arabia. Although brief, these scenes are no passing trifle; they are mini-models of the kinds of self-making we all engage in, sometimes without awareness.

Consider the manner in which you speak. I once knew a crime reporter at a newspaper in upstate New York who had a slight build and appearance—but he spoke in a commanding, self-confident bass voice. It earned him the respect of the police and his newsroom colleagues. Whether natural or affected (I could never tell), his voice altered his entire persona.

You may be deterred from reading The Magic Story given its author’s tragic end. Do not be. Read it tonight. Make its lessons your own. Dey possessed a keen instinct for human nature, including its shadowy and occultic paths to power. If that book doesn’t speak to you, select another from the works I’ve mentioned, or find ones of your own.

The chief cause of mediocrity is purposelessness. We are never more aroused, sensitive, and capable than when we are striving for something. What are you striving for? A punch-the-clock job and entertainment won’t bring out more than your most average traits. Above all, you must find a chief aim in life. You should never be embarrassed by your aim. Your aim can be public or intimate. It requires no one’s approval — it must be uniquely your own. The only tragedy is not having one.

Since earliest childhood, you have probably felt, as I have, that you are two selves. Select the one that builds you. It represents a more powerful choice than may at first appear.

Written by

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store