Me, myself and I


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-cyclistI-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.

Author Bio: Michael Healy is a careers and employability educator and PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.