You are not a unity; you are a multiplicity who tries to become a unity  The Dialogical Self Approach (DSA) is a practical methodology used in coaching, training and counseling

which invites clients to explore and understand entirely different sides of themselves (e.g. I as enjoyer of life, I as hard worker, I as child of my parents) and their important emotions. The approach focuses on aspects of oneself that have not only very different emotional meanings, but also imply conflicts and oppositions. 

One of the most important life tasks is to build a relation between one’s most opposite sides and find a relative balance between them. In order to realize this, you have to find out what is the relation between them. Somebody who experiences a high level of stress may discover that he finds himself in a (one) position (e.g., I as always managing), while other important I-positions (e.g., I as looking for depth and meaning) are pressing from the background because they lack attention and fulfillment. The procedure brings such I-positions in contact with each other so that the one can learn from the other so that they can cooperate rather than fight.

What you are doing does not necessarily fit with you

Sometimes people can work or live many years from a particular I-position which does not fit them. For example, a man is seen by others, but also by himself, as the successor of a family-company, but he has vague feelings of dissatisfaction which he never could understand very well. In such a case DSA helps the person to become aware of I-positions, which are underlying, but, when evoked, can come to strong expression. This can lead the person to discover that an earlier, never fulfilled wish was never realized: to start a study or to become engaged in art. Realizing this wish is for him a way to give new meaning to his life.

In his novel The Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse wrote about Harry who had two opposite characters: a wolf and a human. The wolf was wild and always in search of freedom, he was impulsive and chaotic. His human part was connected with thoughts, culture and sublime nature.

“ The deepest faith pushes him to spirit, to God, the hottest longing: back to nature, to mother. His life is balancing between these forces, trembling anxiously”

His two sides where in fight, in a war, one wanted to kill the other

Harry wanted to get rid of one of them. When he felt the energy of the wolf, he wanted to forget the human, when he was in a position of a human, he wanted to remove the wolf from his life.

The problem was not in their differences but in their relation, which was a constant fight.

Question for reflection:

  • Which are the most opposed sides in yourself?
  • Was there any situation in which they could cooperate with each other?

One person but different sides

The diversity of conscious but also unconscious I-positions and associated emotions are central in DSA. However, the basis of this approach is broader. The I-positions are not standing in isolation from each other but are able to become engaged in mutual dialogues (therefore the name ‘dialogical self’). Somebody can experience a conflict between two I-positions, for example, “I want a new challenge in my work, but I also want certainty and safety.” The first wish motivates the person to leave the organization in which she works and apply for a new job.   However, at the same time she is afraid to make this step because she has to give up the safety of her present job. When the person starts a dialogical relationship between these positions, she has the opportunity to move back and forth between them, explore them profoundly, and  then  search for a ‘third position’ in which they converge. In this way, she arrives at the decision to contact her boss in order to discuss the possibility of new work in her own organization. This solution, in the form of a third position, offers her a new challenge whereas she does not give up the security, which is important to her.

The other person as part of yourself

A special feature of DSA is that significant others are part of our dialogical self.  A father, mother, sister, brother, teacher, friend or colleague becomes part of a self that is extended to the social environment. Somebody may be used to think, feel, and act like his father or mother always did. Without being aware of this, the person is always imitating the father in himself or fulfilling his wishes even after the father’s death. By doing a self-investigation on the basis of DSA, the person is confronted with the question of what his own position is, and challenged to make a distinction between what the father wants and what the person himself wants. In our research and clinical applications, we found that significant others often have a dominant place in somebody’s dialogical self and that this ‘external position’, as we call it, can suppress other positions which, as a result, do not come to sufficient expression, at the cost of one’s well-being. DSA does not only give attention to the dialogical relationships between I-positions, but also to their relative dominance and competition.

In the shadow of yourself

DSA gives attention not only to the I-positions, which we see as positive and precious parts of ourselves, but also to I-positions and emotions which are less desirable or even entirely unacceptable. Somebody may define himself as ‘critical’ until he discovers that he is primarily critical of people whom he sees as successful. Closer scrutiny, however, shows that he is jealous but unable to openly confess this to himself. We describe this as a ‘shadow position,’ a side of ourselves which is clearly there and has influence on our evaluations and behavior. Because this position is not accepted and even suppressed, it will manifest itself in disguise, at the cost of our authenticity, not only in the relationship with others but with ourselves. Often such shadow positions have significant emotional consequences: emotions in the self are organized in different layers. Under a negative emotion, another deeper emotion can be hidden. Under irritation or anger, anxiety can reside or under sarcasm there can be pain or oversensitivity. Via deepening forms of investigation, DSA explores the different layers of emotions and brings them into dialogical contact with each other and other parts of the self.

In the prison of your I-position

The longer we devote ourselves, in our professional and personal life, to the realization of a particular I-position, the more established it becomes in our self. After some time we may notice that we become ‘imprisoned’ in such a position. A person who, in his professional life, is used to be competitive or was living with high ambitions, may in the course of time feel that he is locked up in this position. It may be difficult for him to feel sincere compassion for other people or become engaged in a warm cooperation with another person. In such a case, DSA will provide methods that can be used to activate neglected or suppressed I-positions or to introduce new ones. A broadening of the position repertoire will then stimulate the flexibility of the person to change from ambitious positions to other positions so that the rigidity of the self becomes reduced.

Benefits and applications

DSA is an approach which brings together one’s professional and personal lives as two sides of the same coin. The diversity of I-positions and their mutual dialogical relationships are central points of attention. Conflict, contradiction and opposition in the self are normal phenomena and can even be a source of creativity. The purpose is to explore important I-positions which become part of ourselves in contemporary society with its many possibilities and uncertainties, and relate them to each other in such a way that fruitful co-operations and coalitions may emerge.DSA is particularly useful for reorientation in work and education, career questions, stress problems and burn-out, identity questions, and problems in social relationships.

  by Hubert Hermans