When I first heard about the Dialogical Self Theory (Hermans & Kempen, 1993), it immediately captured my attention. It was during a course on the Self Confrontation Method (Hermans & Hermans-Jansen,1995) that we received a brief introduction to the Dialogical Self Theory by professor Hubert Hermans. 

The idea of different voices, or ‘I –positions’, composing the self (some of them co-existing in harmony, some conflicting) had a strong intuitive appeal to me. ‘You sound just like your mother’ suddenly lost its negative connotation!

Gradually, I learned to know the I-positions in myself, my mother being one of them. Instead of fighting the I-positions which could give me discomfort (and there are quite a few of those), I started to accept them and to give them more recognition.

 

Moreover, the dialogical perspective liberated me from the search for ‘One True Self’, a title that implies a static, predictable whole. Recently, the idea of finding  ‘one’s true self’ has inspired a huge wave of media attention. As appealing as this idea sounded (probably due to its simplicity), it has also been a source of confusion for me. Would finding the true self mean that one has to ignore some unwanted experiences and reinforce others? And how to make this choice? Personally, it was a great relief to step out of this mental maze and adopt a new perspective, the ‘polyphonic self’. It changed the way I look at myself and people around me and allowed me to make more nuanced judgments.

 

What fascinates me is how easily, and often uncontrollably, I-position switches occur in response to cues in the environment. I have been observing myself for the last few weeks, trying to figure out what my own little ‘society of mind’ (Hermans 2002) looks like. When Agnieszka (Hermans-Konopka) proposed that I write a short article about my experiences with the Dialogical Self, I came up with the idea of describing a day in the life of this ‘society’.  Following the spirit of the dialogical perspective, I wanted to give my story a personal, diary-like form.  In other words, I decided to follow my inner processes for one whole day, to trace the switches between I-positions and to try to connect them with something in the outside world. I chose a day: Wednesday, March the 2nd, 2010.

 

 

The night before

-Going to sleep. Right now I feel child-like excitement about following my I-positions tomorrow. It promises new insights, new discoveries. This is me as an Explorer, a position which brings me much joy and energy and stimulates my creativity. This position is responsible for my job hopping, for plunging into new projects, adventures, and relationships.  I feel light, vital and open to whatever may come.

Morning

-I dreamed about people who change colors and shapes, depending on how they felt. No time to enjoy the aftertaste of this weird dream though. My daughter comes to my bedroom with the usual question, ‘What are we going to do today?’, followed by ‘I am hungry, mommy come out of bed!’. I feel myself being pushed forcefully into the position of a Caregiver. Suddenly a wave of irritation comes over me. I have noticed that irritation usually occurs when the circumstances force me into a particular position, when I would rather be somewhere else. I visualize a mechanism of an old clock, which, instead of moving smoothly, gets stuck, I hear a scratchy noise..this is I as Irritated. I stay in bed for another 15 minutes, this is how long it usually takes for me as a Caregiver to wake up in the morning. Once started, I enjoy the morning chores. Eggs are boiling, tea is ready, the table is set. We are having breakfast and enjoying the warmth of the sun through the window.

I open the window to smell the air – yes, it smells like spring, for the first time this year. I watch people walking on the street, the rooftops of the old centre of Breda and my thoughts take me to the trips I and my friend used to make to Barcelona and Madrid . We woke up very early in the morning to take a walk in the sleeping city. It was amazingly peaceful, almost like a church. For a few moments I am once again in this careless, peaceful state of mind. I am a Dreamer now. I inhale the air deeply and feel how my muscles relax and my thoughts become very light.  It is only me and my world, no strangers allowed.

I sit down to capture this moment in words when another voice intrudes. I know him well, it is the critical Censor.  ‘Who needs your article, who needs to know what you think? Is it not plain narcissism, do you need attention? People will think that you simply need attention. Or that you are trying to be smart, but are you smart? Because if you are not, they will notice’. This voice will probably make me direct and redirect every sentence in this text and let out things which –to him - sound too personal. But it is not just the Censor..also the Exposed. Censor and Exposed make a powerful duet. In terms of dialogical self theory it is called a coalition (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010).  Feeling exposed, unprotected is something which comes from my childhood. A serious operation has left scars on my legs. In the following years, each time I had to undress in front of others (for example, on the beach), I felt strong tension, shame, fear. Being in the company of strangers sometimes triggers the same old feelings in me. That is when the Censor gets in control and holds back everything that may sound too revealing, too personal.

Afternoon

It is my day off. I call a good friend and we decide to take a walk with our daughters. We have known each other for years. One of the important things we share is our longing for a big, warm family. Both divorced, we enjoy the moments spent together with our children, the four of us. Today we go to the forest, the sun is still shining. I soon become mellow and sentimental. All I want is to lie down on the ground, under the sun, watch our kids playing and talk about simple daily matters with my friend. Where does he buy his bread? And did he like the apples he bought last week? This is I as Family.  But my friend wants to talk sociology, his favorite subject. I am only half listening, feeling how the irritation arises (I as irritated again). After trying to keep up with him for half an hour, I join the girls in their princess games.

Evening

When my daughter and I come home, I’m caught by a familiar anxiety, even fear, and I notice it in my breathing. My boyfriend is not home yet, so we’re coming back to an empty apartment. The quietness strikes me when I open the door. I feel tired, lonely, and disconnected. Quickly and efficiently I make dinner for myself and my kid, take her to the shower, read her a bed-time story.  When I am done with that, I turn the TV on. I sit there on the couch and I want nothing.  My mind is full of pessimistic thoughts, doubts,  and insecurities. I feel isolated from the rest of the world. This is I as Abandoned. The heaviness of this moment presses on my chest. So I take a glass of wine and then one more and go to sleep early.

Night

This night I dream of a new house. I recognize the place, this dream comes to me often. The house is standing in a large green field. It seems that it is in the middle of nowhere, but I know that somewhere within a walking distance there is a huge entertainment centre, an exciting and mysterious place. The house has many rooms and doors and I am walking through it, planning what to put where and how to decorate.  I wake up happy and I feel that there is an important meaning in this dream, that it tells me something about my deeper needs.. I open the window and smell the wet asphalt. It has been raining. {quotes}This smell immediately takes me back to my childhood, to the streets of a provincial town in Russia, where the Dreamer in me was born.{/quotes} I feel connected again, connected and glad to be here in this moment. I look forward to a new day.

 

Well, that was it. An honest recording of one day, the second of March. After writing everything down, I am surprised to see that the I-positions I have experienced are very familiar to me.  They probably accompany me every day, some more intense, some more in the background. The Explorer, the Dreamer, the Caregiver, the Censor, the Exposed, the Abandoned and the Family.  Knowing these positions and appreciating their diversity is what gives me a truer sense of authenticity and vitality. Moreover, seeing my inner world as a story with different characters and plot lines is a source of flow and inspiration. As I finish this story, I am feeling happy and mellow as in, surprisingly enough, I as Family.

 

References

Hermans, H.J.M., ( 2002 ). The dialogical self as a society of mind: Introduction. Theory and Psychology, 12 : 147–60 .

Hermans , H. J. M. , and Hermans-Jansen , E. ( 1995 ). Self-narratives: The construction

of meaning in psychotherapy . New York : Guilford Press .

Hermans , H. J. M. , and Kempen , H. J. G. ( 1993 ). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. San Diego, CA : Academic Press .

Hermans, H.J.M., Hermans-Konopka, A. ( 2010). Dialogical self theory: Positioning and counter-positioning in a globalizing society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.