We need to talk: Using Dialogical Self-Theory to manage the voices in our heads

Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash

This post originally appeared on CareerWise, the online magazine of CERIC, a Canadian charitable organization that advances education and research in career counselling and career development.

Often, when we discuss the ways people narrate their lives inside their heads, we refer to their internal monologue. But is it really a monologue? Don’t we in fact “hear” many different voices and experience the influence of many different perspectives when we tackle new experiences, work through problems, suffer defeats and exalt in victories?

Dialogical Self-Theory

Hubert Hermans argues so. His Dialogical Self-Theory considers the self not a single entity, but a complex “society of mind” made up of many selves. He calls these I-positions, and they are in constant dialogue. Each I-position contributes its own perspectives, concerns and biases to influence the way we see the world and ourselves in it. Hermans has used the metaphor of actors on a stage to describe the interplay of I-positions in the dialogical self. I prefer more chaotic and dynamic metaphors: a raucous parliament, perhaps, or a large family passionately discussing politics over a meal (and several bottles of wine).

During challenging times, conflict can erupt in our dialogical self as our I-positions criticize and disparage one another, often with great cruelty and malice. The voices in which I-positions “speak” may be those of other people – sharing their real or imagined opinions –or our own, reflecting internalized thoughts and feelings. When in full flight, these negative dialogues can evoke feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and depression and can amplify the effect of challenging or traumatic experiences.

To counteract these negative dialogues, Dialogical Self-Theory offers several supportive I-positions:

  • Meta-positions analyze I-positions at some distance from the chaos, evaluating the veracity of their claims
  • Third-positions reconcile conflicting I-positions, creating new I-positions that accommodating both equally
  • Promoter positions recruit positive I-positions to move forward and work through challenges.

An illustration: three I-positions in dialogue

I can best illustrate Dialogical Self-Theory by sharing a little of my self, or selves. All you need to know about me is that I work full-time in a university careers centre, I am a part-time PhD student and I am married with one child.

I recently completed the VIA Character Strengths Inventory. VIA is an assessment that ranks 24 character strengths that make up the best of our personality. According to VIA, my top-five character strengths are:

  • Judgment: Thinking things through, weighing all evidence fairly
  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge
  • Love: Valuing close relations with others, being close to people
  • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things
  • Perspective: Being able to provide wise counsel to others

A PhD position, the Professor, is clear here, with his judgment, love of learning and creativity. He has always known that an academic pathway was inevitable, recalling many years of encouragement from family, friends and teachers. He takes great pride in his ability to read complex literature and write clearly about what he has learned.

A professional position, the Educator, is equally clear to see, with his perspective and creativity. He loves nothing more than delivering creative activities to help students unlock something they didn’t know about themselves, informed by his professional judgment and learning.

A personal position, the Family Man, also stands out, with his love for people close to him. He also prides himself on his judgment and perspective as he seeks to contribute to his family’s future happiness.

However, there is tension in this small snapshot of my dialogical self. Each of the above positions jostles for priority while accusing the others of misplaced priorities. The Family Man speaks in the voices of my wife and son, noting valuable family time stolen by the Professor, especially when deadlines loom. The Professor and the Educator are frequently at odds over how work is managed, with the Educator arguing for a pragmatic focus on getting things done and resenting the Professor’s intellectual ruminations and wanderings. And while the Educator enjoys working in what he feels is his calling, his professional decisions have twice called on the Family Man to move the family from one place to the next, with all the disruption and stress that entails.

Nonetheless, helpful I-positions emerge that mediate these at-times stressful dialogues. An important meta-position is the Strategist, who uses his careers and employability skills and knowledge to help manage my professional work and my studies effectively. He does this in partnership with the Scientist–practitioner, a third position that helps integrate my professional work with my PhD study. Meanwhile, the Counsellor is an important promoter position who helps the Family Man overcome his guilt by reminding him that that the Professor and the Educator are both working for the good of the family and modelling positive qualities, such as life-long learning and the pursuit of meaningful work, for my son.

Dialogical careers and employability learning

Over the next few years, I look forward to completing my PhD by researching how dialogical approaches to careers and employability learning, like the one I shared above, can be used to support people as they navigate the twists and turns of the 21st-century career. I’m confident that these methods and theories can go a long way to helping our clients understand themselves and the world they live in, and take positive steps forward to finding meaningful work and satisfying lives.

Michael Healy
Careers and employability learning expert

I am Head of Careers and Employability at Career Ahead and doctoral student at the University of Southern Queensland. I am passionate about promoting transformational careers and employability learning, particularly using social, narrative, and dialogical methods.