A certain researcher (Linville) posits the theory that self-complexity can buffer the negative effects of stress. She defines self-complexity as a trait describing someone who has many different self-definitions (or self-aspects) related to his/her identity. This would mean that the person has many different self-definitions related to social roles, relationships, activities, and contexts.
Linville’s theory is based on the idea that having many different self-aspects would diversify one’s human capital in such a way that if a single self-aspect is struggling, the entire self would not be threatened.
SO, for example, if a pre-med student fails an important chemistry exam, her “aspiring physician” self-aspect may feel threatened, and in that capacity she might feel like a failure or inadequate. The idea is that these negative feelings of inadequacy may spill-over into other self-aspects that are associated with the threatened self-aspect (so, for the pre-med student, anything related to being a student, etc.).
The concept of the “spill-over” effect led Linville to postulate that individuals who are more complex (meaning that they have more self-aspects) would have fewer related self-aspects; she argued that the more that individuals’ self-aspects were diversified, the less impact that a threat to any one aspect would create. Based on this, Linville predicted and then found that people with more self-complexity experienced fewer depressive and physical symptoms when faced with stressful life events.
Other researchers have cast some skepticism on Linville’s argument. Recent work in Self-determination theory offers a different perspective on the value and function of people’s self-aspects.
According to Self-determination theory, individuals’ behaviors, values, and self-aspects can be understood as more or less authentic. That is, if the self-aspects are representative of the individual’s “true self” then the individual will be healthier. For the self-aspect to be authentic, it must be self-endorsed and personally meaningful to the individual. So, if you are acting in agreement with your authentic interests and values, then your motivation, your quality of life, and overall health will be improved.
Conversely, if an individual acts inauthentically, then s/he is susceptible to more internal conflict, compromised motivation, and lower well-being.
SO, this paper that I read was a description of two different studies that were conducted to basically see which of these two competing ideas seemed stronger.
Study 1: found that self-complexity was unrelated to mental health-related variables and perceived stress. Authenticity was associated with better health (i.e., lower physical and depressive symptoms, lower anxiety, lower stress, and greater vitality).
Study 2: found that self-complexity was associated with higher levels of depression. Higher authenticity was associated with better health (i.e., negatively associated with depression, physical symptoms, and perceived stress). Self-complexity was associated with more stress (i.e., negative stressful events and chronic low-level stress).
So, basically, while it seems unclear whether self-complexity buffers stress, it may be stressful to be complex! To be complex and not authentic seems like the worst combination. This happens when individuals are compelled to behave in a way that is not authentic (maybe they feel pressure to maintain social norms, maybe they are trying to subscribe to an ill-fitting religion or moral code, or perhaps they just have an unclear sense of self).
The healthiest people were those who seemed to live by Shakespeare’s quote, “to thine own self be true.”
* Ryan, R.M., LaGuardia, J.G., and Rawsthorne, L.J. (2005). Self-complexity and the authenticity of self-aspects: effects on well being and resilience to stressful events. North American Journal of Psychology. p431.