Sunday, February 12, 2012

Self Dialog

I admit it: I talk to myself.  And quite frankly, I don't see anything wrong with it.  In fact, I actually encourage my patients to talk to themselves.  Honestly, I suspect most people talk to themselves anyway; some do it out loud and some do it mentally.  It pretty much amounts to the same thing.

So yes, I talk to myself.  Sometimes it's just mental chatter (e.g., wondering if I remembered to lock the door, asking myself what in the world the lady that just walked by was wearing; planning my weekend, remembering something that happened last month or last year, etc.).  Sometimes I have full conversations with myself; sometimes, I have arguments with myself.  A typical argument taking place in my mind might go as follows:

Me #1: God, you look terrible this morning.  Maybe it's because you're getting old.  You did just turn 30.

Me #2: You know, it really isn't very nice to say things like that to yourself.  It does't make you feel any better. Besides, you look fine.  And 30 isn't old.

Me #1: I'm not being mean to myself, I'm just being honest.

Me #2: No, you're not being honest.  You're being judgmental and unkind.

Me #1: Well I'm sorry if you can't handle the truth.  Get over it.

Me #2: I will not get over it.  Why don't you get over it?

Me #3: Why don't you both get over it.  This conversation is over.  Now stop looking at yourself in the mirror and finish getting ready.

I sometimes share this little anecdote with my patients; it usually gets a laugh.  I laugh too because, after all, it is kind of funny.  But I also let them know that I'm serious; it really is okay to have these kinds of conversations with yourself.

Initially, my advice to my patients was not based upon any scientific evidence or clinical practice theory.  Instead, it was based upon experience.  I know from my own experience that talking to yourself -- and sometimes talking back to yourself -- can be a powerful change agent.

Recently I discovered, quite by accident, that there is actually a theory to support the knowledge that I've gained from personal experience.  The theory is called dialogical self theory.  This theory asserts that for each person there is not one self, but many.  These separate selves communicate (or dialog) with one another to maintain psychological stability, thereby creating the illusion of a single, unified self identity.  From this perspective, there is no core self in charge of integrating and making sense of all of our experiences, beliefs, emotions, and perceptions.  Rather, there are multiple selves that work together to make sense of these things.

So what exactly are these separate "selves?"  There are actually several opinions about this, depending on who you ask.  Some dialogical self theorists conceptualize these separate "selves" as internalized representations of the important figures in our lives.  These internalizations are like templates that contain the norms, values, and beliefs of our early caregivers, culture, peer group, religion, etc.  Other theorists conceive of these "selves" as past, present, and future versions of our personal identities.  Still others visualize these "selves" as sub-selves called "I-positions," each with a different voice representing different aspects of an individual's identity.  Others see these "selves" as "sub-personalities," some of which are more conscious than others.

Despite these differing views, there is one thing that all dialogical self theorists seem to agree on: what we perceive as a core "self is really a collection of parts.  These different parts communicate with one another, often through dialog (hence the name dialogical self theory).  It is therefore normal and in fact necessary to engage in internal dialog in order to preserve psychological stability and to maintain a sense of individual identity.

I think intuitively we all know this.  We have all, at some point, probably said, "Part of me thinks...but another part wants to..."  We have no difficulty conceptualizing ourselves as being made up of different parts.  So why shouldn't these parts talk to each other?  It is common knowledge that communication is the key to a good relationship.  In order to have a good relationship with yourself, then, it is important for all of the parts of you to communicate.

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