Goal hierarchy conflict and the severed self

This is a blog post that is definitely NOT about a self-help topic

Tell me what you think about this phrase: The You You Are. Silly, right? What even is “the you you are”? If you’ve seen the Apple TV+ series “Severance,” of course, you’re way ahead of me, but perhaps you’re not in that boat. Either way I am (somewhat) sincere in posing this phrase right now, ridiculous as it sounds — and make no mistake, it’s fairly ridiculous.

Anyway, yes, “Severance” is the source of the phrase, which is an episode title as well as something of a catchphrase halfway through the season, and the ridiculosity is kind of the point. Given that its story concerns what happens when office workers divide their consciousness between their personal and work selves/lives, how could it not be?

Because you being you certainly ought to be simple, but it often isn’t. And it certainly isn’t if you’re always defining yourself by your interests or your occupation or your place of residence or your family or whatever else is around you. Or if you’re dividing your consciousness in a science fiction setting. No, it is simply not that simple.

The severed self is common enough in real life. Or fragmented or fractured or splintered self; pick whichever you like. I just couldn’t make myself choose anything else after my second viewing of “Severance.” (It is that brilliant, all right? If you haven’t seen it, please go forth and let it wash over you and then come back. Or…don’t?? Sit there and soak it up, whatever you want; it’s supposedly a free Internet.)

Anyway, to break apart one’s sense of self is common, and sometimes even necessary in terms of survival. That makes “Severance” all the more potent, frankly, because it seems likely everyone could potentially see themselves in one of the characters and how they respond to this eerie self-imposed situation (#TeamHelly, and yes I know that’s not a real hashtag). They all have their reasons why they chose to be severed, just like each of us has reasons for choosing paths that aren’t necessarily ours.

The story of “Severance” unearths and leaves one chewing on some related and intriguing questions, too. Questions like:

If you were separated from everything you see as personal and meaningful to yourself, what would you be capable of? Would you be any different? Would you still be you?

And how do you, when you do let yourself get splintered, bring the disparate parts back together?

And furthermore, how do you see this thing called a self as something whole, unified, and complete — even when it comes to the parts of it that you don’t particularly like or understand?


I have to admit I’m not 100% sure where I’m taking this post. Originally, it was about a concept called goal hierarchy, but in the context of Jungian development plus a horror movie called Come True. But that was over a year ago, and I haven’t watched the movie again in that timespan, and I haven’t really been reading Jung or listening to This Jungian Life, and beyond that, “Severance” is such a pitch-perfect series not just for this cultural moment but also for my own personal moment that I couldn’t help but switch gears.

Besides, “goal hierarchy” sounds like something they’d preach at Lumon, the corporate entity from “Severance.” It has that slick, overly polished personal development ring to it. That’s kind of unfortunate, given that the concept is quite helpful; maybe there should be a different name for it. Any ideas?

(What’s really fun is that, if you search for the words “goal hierarchy conflict,” you find phrases like “ambivalence” and “structural tension” and “psychological distress.” Awesome! Consider that a handy cairn for this road I’m about to go down.)

The first time I encountered the concept of goal hierarchy was via Freakonomics radio and, as such, I was intrigued. After that, the only other time I saw it was in an Internet article about burnout. (Featuring methodologies backed by ~science~) And basically, in both places, it went like this: If you have goals for yourself, odds are good you hold them at different levels of importance to you. Ideally, though, they should all stem from one big goal that’s overarching.

Of course, in reality this doesn’t often happen. Instead, some of us have this incredibly annoying tendency of chasing the low-hanging, bottom-rung goals — maybe because they’re shinier or more visible or something. I dunno. (I totally do know, and will revisit this in a moment.)

Going after those lower-tier desires is a great way to exhaust yourself and find yourself wondering, two or six or twelve months later: What the hell am I doing? What was I thinking? Where was I? Because in these moments it is kind of like someone other than yourself took over your brain and made some weird and delirious decisions.

This is the root of my noted connection to Helly, the character in “Severance” who cannot help but fight her own decision tooth and nail from the moment she wakes up at Lumon in her office clothes. She cannot fathom why her “outie,” or outside self, would have ever decided to be severed. And I cannot deny having felt similarly the last time I took an admin job. You think you’re strong-willed? Try making a decision that goes against how you’re wired. Thinking, maybe, it’s in favor of that overarching goal at the top of the pyramid, but instead serving some tangential desire that’s actually, unconsciously, ego-driven.

Yeah. Not a great time for anyone. There’s a lot of wheel-spinning there.

What is any of us thinking when this happens? Maybe not much of anything. Or maybe that it’s just too inconvenient to figure out what that overarching goal truly is. Or that grabbing hold of something specific is a way to reconnect with the self — rather than, y’know, actually straightforwardly reconnecting with the self. Another way of putting the horse before the cart.

(That phrase never really did much for me until just now. Huh.)

Of course, it’s not really possible to wrangle fractals of yourself and collage them into a hey-that-sort-of-looks-like-you and get on with your life. Because you’re going to have a really unsatisfying slapdash collage, not a self-portrait. At least, this is what I am sorting out for myself and starting to understand more thoroughly.

What I imagine each of us really wants is a route that makes being all of yourself very simple and straightforward. What I imagine would get most people there is focusing on the most top-level dream or aspiration that is reflective of who they are, and letting the rest filter down from there.

What I also imagine is that this is much trickier for some people to do than it is for others.


One of Haruki Murakami’s earlier books, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, shares a lot with “Severance,” both conceptually and atmospherically. Notably, it has the same rhythm of repeatedly having to visit a place that requires and even forces the forgetting of the self. The story, like so many of Murakami’s, is surreal, intriguing, and funny. It’s also quite surprising in many ways. One of the most compelling ways is a very clear setup of the self and the shadow of the main character needing one another despite how striking their division appears. This protagonist, the Narrator, is uniquely skilled (even in the universe of the book) at going to this self-forgetting place. When he asks a colleague why can withstand it, or:

“‘Then what’s the reason I’m alive?’”

It’s speculated:

“‘Perhaps you had natural antibodies. Your “emotional shell.” For some reason you already had a safeguard factor in your brain that allowed you to survive.’”

And later on, the Narrator understands:

“I was bound for the world of immortality. That’s what the Professor had said. The End of the World was not death but a transposition. I would be myself. I would be reunited with what I had already lost and was now losing.”

Hard-Boiled Wonderland cover art by Rachel Suggs

Sometimes that loss of self is necessary, if only to remember it again, and to know that it is both fluid and unchanging.

But there are also external circumstances that — like Hard-Boiled Wonderland paints it — force and finagle the forgetting of the self. I think that’s one of the many cases that “Severance” is building, and it’s doing so poignantly. Poignantly, because one starts to wonder whether this should be the case in any functional context. Should workers be expected to put aside their human-ness, experiences, and overall essence in order to complete tasks? Should doing so be necessary in order to survive?

Probably not; that doesn’t make much sense. And yet the more it happens, the more it becomes normalized. The more people become willing to simply deal with it.

Sure, this trend was bucked somewhat with the pandemic and the shitstorm that was 2020, but what about after that? How about now — now that the tide is swinging back to “covid is over and there is no new normal”? Many a comment I’ve read about “Severance” is pro-Helly, but it’s pretty hard to be a Helly when this is the general climate.

Not to assert any kind of blame; ultimately, yes, I do believe that some people are more poised to fall into this than others, and to try and live with it. But they’re the ones who suffer the most, and they’re the ones who have to deal with it. What happens to them? As in, after the depression and burnout and chronic illnesses? What then?

Systemic change is part of the solution when it comes to supporting workers, as it is with so much else, but so is the dismantling of inner systemic issues. There’s only so much that can be done outside of oneself.


The reason — or reasons — for my posting this now, and not at the time of my writing it, has to do with all of this. A cycle of ideation and trying that rolls into repeated crashing and burning, time and time again, and beyond that, a certain level of dishonesty with myself about…well, my self. I figured it wasn’t just me, but if that doesn’t make sense, I’m not entirely sure how else to break it apart and put it back together.

What I do know how to do, though, is dig into where other people are talking about these kinds of dynamics both within and without, and read other kinds of work that are tangentially related, and draw a few possible conclusions about it all, so that’s what I am going to try and keep doing here. Is there still a real value to blogging beyond what it can do to drag people to a website? I have no idea, but I think this belongs here, so that’s where it’s going to go.

So, as a quick conclusion, Rob Bell did a thorough job discussing it in his latest audiobook, and most recent podcast episode, so I would definitely recommend those for some clarity on that issue. Pro tip: look out for the terms “the thread” and “the setup.” These are the words he uses to talk about “the you you are,” and “how you express the you you are.” (End of shameless fangirling, I guess, except there’s definitely no end to that~)

Because I suppose the point is this: Many a credo will try and sell you the idea that there’s only one way to let that expression exist. Or they may even try and convince you that doing so isn’t all that important. Most things aren’t black and white, but I’m firmly in the camp that the people who spout that nonsense are wrong. And if nothing else, I hope I can use this space to remind you, or myself, or someone else, or all of the above, of that very truth.


Stock photo by @bretkavanaugh via Unsplash; officialSeveranceimage from Apple TV

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