Hubert Hermans' Dialogical Self Theory

The way you talk to yourself has a lot to do with what's going on around you and the relationships you build. This inner reality is known as the dialogical self.
Hubert Hermans' Dialogical Self Theory

Last update: 03 June, 2022

Hubert Hermans’ dialogical self theory proposes an interesting approach to how we construct the dynamics of our internal dialogue. From this perspective, the self can assume the voices of the main social figures that surround it. After all, we’re all part of a complex scenario woven by multiple people and the institutions that condition us.

For example, in the repertoire of positions that you can assume, there may be that of your mother, boss, partner, etc. In other words, in your internal conversations, you also include many of the people who make up your life. You imagine what your best friend might say when you tell them certain things. You also think about what your father would think about certain decisions you’ve taken.

The dialogical self is a perspective that stands between the individual and the society that surrounds them. The focus isn’t on the classic internal dialogue that’s oriented exclusively toward ourselves. In fact, in this case, our gaze moves outwards and tries to imagine the points of view of those entities that orbit around us.

Mind with lights representing dialogic self theory
The individual self also has a social origin. Therefore, internal dialogue can be focused on the outside.

Dialogical self theory

We could say that dialogical self theory is a framework halfway between the centralized self of William James, and the dialogic and cultural school of Mikhail Bakhtin. It was created in the 1980s by Hubert Hermans, a Dutch psychologist. He wanted to bring a new point of view to the construction of the self. One in which to conceive it in a more interconnected way to society itself.

Let’s reflect on this idea for a moment. You often conceive of your internal dialogue as a mechanism separate from the world. In this intimate and solitary space, you criticize and value yourself, and feed your fears and hopes. However, you forget that much of this inner talk is mediated by everything that surrounds you. Indeed, you’re shaped by society.

You tend to be unaware of this kind of conditioning. For example, think of the teenager who begins to devalue themselves. They have internal discussions in which they feed hatred toward themselves and their supposed non-normative body. That’s because the consumer society and the images they see daily on social media value other types of models.

In dialogical self theory, the self is an extended entity. It claims that we’re all linked to the society that contains us. In turn, we create within ourselves small mini-societies with which we communicate.

The different positions of the dialogical self

Hubert Hermans is a key figure within narrative psychology. His dialogical self-theory sought different objectives. One of them was to contribute to the understanding of the influence of the social and cultural environment on internal dialogue. Another was to work on all those “I’s” that we carry inside us and that define who we are.

According to this dialogical approach, we have two positions or perspectives:

  • The first is an internal position that focuses on all the ways we perceive ourselves. For example: “I’m creative. I’m a seeker of emotions, a lover of animals, a friend to my friends, an enemy to those who are violent..”.
  • The external positions represent those roles that we fulfill in society. For example: “I’m a father, I’m a daughter, a sister, a math teacher, etc”.

In a study he published in 2001, Hermans emphasized that his intention was to decentralize the classic view of the self as something exclusively individual or social. He claimed that we’re the combination of both spheres.

The relevance of the dialogical self is extremely useful in the field of developmental psychology. That’s because it allows us to understand how children build their vision of themselves based on their relationships with society.

The origin of psychological suffering, according to Hubert Hermans

Dialogical self theory suggests that human suffering is explained by repression of the inner self and conditioning of the outer self. In other words, we often end up displacing what we are (someone creative who seeks emotions) for what society forces us to do.

This can mean that the fact of being a parent or having a certain job overshadows your inner self who also has its own needs. Consequently, your internal domain often comes into conflict with your external domain.

Labyrinth representing dialogic self theory
The dialogical self allows us to confront ideas that we’ve constructed of ourselves that are influenced by society.

The Personal Position Repertoire (PPR) method for assessing and confronting the self

Hubert Hermans designed the personal position repertoire (PPR) method to assess the internal and external domains of the self. He’s a professional who makes use of narrative therapy. This means each patient tries to understand the story of their own life, identifying their needs, abilities, aspirations, and difficulties.

Working on the dialogical self makes it easier for the person to understand what kind of relationship they have with society and themselves. They analyze how they’re influenced by family, work, friends, the culture that surrounds them, the places, and even the objects around them. All this makes it easier to identify the domains that condition their day-to-day.

The next step is to facilitate self-confrontation. Then, they’re able to discover all their internal narratives, the relationships they’ve built with their environment, and how they determine or interpret them. It’s a laborious work of self-discovery in which they decide what changes should be applied, or how they should deal with certain things.

After all, at the end of the day, we’re all stories narrated by our inner selves, and they’re no strangers to what surrounds them.

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  • Hermans HJM. The Dialogical Self: Toward a Theory of Personal and Cultural Positioning. Culture & Psychology. 2001;7(3):243-281. doi:10.1177/1354067X0173001
  • Hermans, H.J.M., & Gieser, T. (Eds.) (2012). Handbook of Dialogical Self Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hermans, H.J.M. (2012). Between dreaming and recognition seeking: The emergence of dialogical self theory. Lanham: Maryland: University Press of America.