Me, myself and I

Do you ever find yourself in conflict WITH yourself? The part of you that wants to watch Netflix might war with the part of you that wants to finish your PhD, as just one example. How do we better manage these multiple, internal voices?

This post is by Michael Healy, a careers and employability educator and PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. In his practice and research, he is focused on exploring the pedagogy of careers and employability learning in higher education. In particular he is evaluating how reflective writing tasks focused on values clarification can improve the career optimism and self-efficacy of nursing students. You can find Michael on Twitter as @mojohealy

It is well known that the doctoral education experience is a serious challenge to mental health and wellbeing. As a “part-time” PhD candidate with a full time job and a family, I know the challenge of maintaining the balance of wellbeing, relationships, and productivity. I do my best, but the weight of my responsibilities and concerns is often overwhelming. Fortunately, my PhD research into reflection and self-management, as it relates to career development, provides me with some useful reflective tools that I can use myself.

In particular, I am interested in the ways we ‘narrate’ our lives inside our head. Although we call this our internal monologue, most would admit to hearing more than one voice. For this reason, my research is based largely on Hubert Hermans’s dialogical self theory. According to Hermans’s theory, the self is a not a single entity, but rather a “society of mind” made up of numerous I-positions, in constant chattering dialogue with each other.

Hermans has described I-positions as actors on a stage, each playing their part, but I’m not sure this is the best metaphor. The cast of a play is organised and rehearsed, for a start. For most of us, the dialogical self is more like a fractious political forum, characterised by debate and dissension between I-positions. In difficult times, our I-positions judge, berate, and disparage one another. In turn, these dialogues evoke anxiety, depression, and despair.

The good news is that the dialogical self’s society of mind doesn’t need to be a fractured, adversarial dystopia. There are several kinds of supportive I-positions which can act as mediators, leaders, and healers:

  • Meta-positions take a global view, from some distance above the fray, to analyse I-positions and evaluate the credence of their claims.
  • Third-positions reconcile conflicting I-positions into new positions, accommodating the core values of both rather than privileging one over the other.
  • Promoter positions integrate, mediate, and inspire innovation in communities of I-positions.

I will share a little of my own dialogical self, to illustrate how some of my I-positions influence me and how I enlist supportive I-positions to help keep my PhD work in balance with my other responsibilities. All you need to know is that I am married with one young child, I work full time, I study a part-time PhD, and I enjoy riding my bike when I get a chance to. Imagine it is a beautiful Sunday morning.

I-the-cyclist notes that it’s a beautiful day for a bike ride. I-the-health-kicker concurs, noting that I’m overdue for some exercise while I-the-nature-lover gets excited about checking out a nearby state forest.

I-the-PhD-candidate interrupts to suggest that the day would be much better spent at my desk, writing. I-the-professional agrees that I should be at my desk, but notes that there are work deadlines looming and notes that this work, not the PhD, pays the bills. I-the-writer notes that whether I study or work, I should maintain my daily writing habit, with a pointed stare at I-the-procrastinator, who desperately wants to mow the lawns and do the laundry before tackling any real work.

I-the-daddy, in the sweet voice of my five year old son, reminds me that I’ve been promising to teach him to ride his bike. I-the-hubby, in the sweet voice of my lovely wife, suggests that Poppa look after the boy so we can see a movie. I-the-family-man guiltily notes that both wife and child need my time, and accuses I-the-cyclist, I-the-PhD, and I-the-professional of misplaced priorities. Meanwhile, I-the-introvert sulks, muttering about needing time to himself.

The tension in these dialogues is clear, although my vigette is a relatively peaceful one. When I’m under stress, these dialogues can spiral out of control into unrestrained internal conflict which leaves me stressed and exhausted. One way to mitigate these downward spirals into chaos is to identify and amplify helpful meta-, third-, and promoter-positions.

I-the-analyst is a meta-position which reflects my natural ability to reflect on challenges and apply rational thought to them. I-the-analyst has the credibility required to temper the more negative contributions of I-the-procrastinator and I-the-introvert. Another meta-position is I-the-strategist, which uses my professional skills and knowledge to manage my career and my studies effectively. I-the-analyst and I-the-strategist make a good team.

I-the-scientist–practitioner is a third position that integrates my professional work with my PhD study. It mediates the tension between the different activities, in large part because it works with I-the-strategist to make decisions that allow me to maintain balance.

I-the-life-coach is a promoter-position which establishes and monitors health, productivity, and relationship habits. He understands that they work together: a bike ride is good exercise and valuable time to myself in nature, allowing me to re-energise for family activities and refresh my mind for writing. When I-the-coach consults with I-the-strategist, my career ambitions become more action-oriented and I am more proactive about implementing my ideas.

Another promoter-position emerges when I-the-family-man shrugs off his guilt complex and instead focuses on what he can do to be present as a husband and father. I-the-family-man plans activities like family bush walks and picnics. He recognises that I-the-PhD and I-the-professional are both working for the good of the family and that they model positive qualities such as life-long learning and the pursuit of meaningful work.

The doctoral education experience can evoke and amplify unhelpful I-positions until the dialogical self is a cacophony of competing voices. As I have described with my own example, it is useful to take some reflective time to identify the voices adding to the noise and allow meta-, third-, and promoter- positions to make themselves known. You can then give these helpful positions the authority to organise, challenge, and quieten the less helpful positions. It is an ongoing challenge as the dialogue ebbs and flows, recedes and explodes, but the effort is worth it if it allows you to make some small steps toward recognising your strengths, mediating your anxieties, and living a healthier PhD life.

Thanks for this interesting perspective Michael. I wonder how many ‘I’ voices you have in your head? Feel free to share in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Me, myself and I

  1. Michele says:

    This post is exceptional! It resonated with me so much. I have certainly engaged with I-the-mother, I-the-professional, I-the-writer, I-the-wife, I-the-crafter and I-the-introvert in incredibly similar terms as above. I cannot even begin to explain! And, I dare say, Michael articulates this much better than I could muster.
    I must say that I found this post very comforting as I plan to introduce a new I-the-PhD Candidate to the mix in the near future. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I already have contributions from the I-the-proposed PhD Candidate whilst I form my research proposal.
    I, too, regularly receive the balancing input of the very valuable I-the-analyst and I-the-strategist when battling the other i-positions and find great comfort in their contributions to my internal struggle.
    This is a great post and so very valuable, in my view, to anyone struggling with balance within their lives.

  2. Jessica says:

    A lovely post, so relevant to me, even now (says I-the-procrastinator) as I am watching some sneaky tv rather than transcribe yet another interview, OR doing my tertiary marking. 🙂

  3. Tracy says:

    This also resonated with me (thanks Jessica for putting it so well). Every sunny day I toss up how I can get a walk in, or do the washing and get some transcription done. And then there is Netflix….

  4. larasayed01 . says:

    Thank you for sharing .

    Afef Hedfi

    Le mer. 16 oct. 2019 04:01, The Thesis Whisperer a écrit :

    > Thesis Whisperer posted: “Do you ever find yourself in conflict WITH > yourself? The part of you that wants to watch Netflix might war with the > part of you that wants to finish your PhD, as just one example. How do we > better manage these multiple, internal voices? This post is by” >

  5. Amy says:

    I identify so much with this post. Thanks for sharing. Is it just me, or is it quite challenging to activate the meta-, third- and promoter-positions during times of stress and overload? I think of all the times I’ve felt exhausted and overwhelmed in the evening, yet after a good sleep, my brain seems to be able to rationalise so much better! Maybe we need a way of raising the volume of these voices/positions as we enter stressful periods of time, so that by the time we’re experiencing the stress, it’s easier to listen to them? This is the I-the-mother, I-the-partner, I-the-responsible-cultural-community-member, I-the-conference-abstract-writer, I-the-job-applicant-after-an-interview speaking. It’s been a long day!

  6. Michael says:

    Thanks for another awesome post. It is certainly a challenge to work full time and study and requires serious negotiation between the different I’s. You’ve clearly stated the troubles we have and how to overcome them.

  7. jessicarosehodgson says:

    This is a super interesting post and I relate to it a lot but it’s too short! How do you identify them? What do you do to manage them and see all those I positions clearly? I think I have many I positions in my head but it’s a jumbled mess. There was mention of reflective writing at the beginning of the post but nowhere else. Where can I find more detail?

  8. Lindsey Mao says:

    This post highlights for me my intersectionality. The interactions between my various identities creates something new, unique, and awesome! This also plays well into what we know about habit formation and goal acquisition. Relating actions to our identity is a strong way to achieve what we want in a reliable way. Thanks!!

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