Intrapersonal Communication

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Intrapersonal communication, or communication within the individual, is an area of study that is fundamental to the study of all communication. Communication can be thought of as beginning with the self. When a person talks of communication with others, he or she speaks of interpersonal communication, or communication between one individual (the self) and another. Intrapersonal communication limits itself to communication within the individual. It is communication that takes place within the individual when he or she is communicating with others, or simply, when he or she is alone and thinking to himself or herself. When a person says to himself or herself, "way to go," he or she is engaging in intrapersonal communication. Intrapersonal communication, however, has been less studied than many other areas of communication.

Studying Intrapersonal Communication

While the literature on communication has included the area of intrapersonal communication since the 1980s, it has been a problematic area of study for researchers. One of the most often discussed problems among communication researchers in the last part of the twentieth century was how to study intrapersonal communication—and how to understand it.

The "self" has long been acknowledged as an integral part of any communication interaction between people. It is defined in a variety of ways, all of which try to establish the self as something that is unique and separate from any other individual or entity. From a systems perspective, the self is viewed as an entity that interacts with and processes information or data from its environment. The self (individual) affects the environment and is affected by it in a dialectic relationship in which the self is a socially constructing and constructed reality. Explanations of the derivation of the sense of self tend to emphasize social interaction as a profound influence. Symbolic interactionists argue that it is in social interaction that the self is created, with individuals taking roles in response to the feedback that they receive from others. Charles Cooley (1902) identified the "looking-glass self" as the view of self that arises in response to the opinion of others. George Herbert Mead (1934) extended the looking-glass self, proposing that the structure of the self is a reflection of the entire social process—the self as a complex and multiple structure that arises from all social experience.

As early as the work of William James (1890), the notion of multiple selves has been part of the literature on communication between people. Eric Berne (1964) depicted three ego states of the self, and Mead (1934) differentiated between the "I," the impulsive, unorganized, unpredictable self, and the "me," the generalized other who provides direction and guidance. The construct of self as being a composite of multiple selves derives from psychoanalytic theory, based on the concept of internalization, or the incorporation into the self of that which was before external to the self.

The self, similar to any other multifaceted system, is made up not only of parts but also of relationships between those parts, referred to hereafter as "intrapersonal relationships." An enhanced understanding of the dialectic between intrapersonal and interpersonal communication is made possible by examining the intrapersonal relationships that exist between the multiple selves that constitute each participant in a dyad.

Defining "Intrapersonal Relationships"

"Intrapersonal relationships" were first defined in the literature on communication by Linda Lederman (1996). She based her conceptualization of intrapersonal relationships on the literature on interpersonal relationships. A review of the literature on interpersonal relationships suggested to Lederman that whatever is known of relations between people that is useful in understanding their communication can be applied and examined as it sheds light on the concept of intrapersonal relationships and communication.

In interpersonal communication, defining what is meant by "relationship" is difficult. The difficulty lies in identifying what a relationship is and when one exists. The same holds true for intrapersonal relationships. Generally, it is agreed that two or more people are in a relationship if they have an effect on each another—if they are "interdependent" in the sense that a change in one person causes a change in the other person and vice versa. Harold Kelley and his colleagues (1983, p. 135) define relationships as two chains of events, one for P (person) and one for O (other) that are on the same time dimension and that are causally interconnected. For two people to be in a relationship with each other then, some of the events in P's chain of events must be causally connected to some of the events in O's chain. This definition of "relationship" applies to the interface of chains of events in multiple selves as readily as in two-person systems. Given the physical reality that the self shares with itself, it is self-evident that the chains of events that are experienced by any one of an individual's multiple selves is on the same time dimension and is causally interconnected with the experiences of the other selves. In fact, the psychopathological state of multiple personalities exists when the selves become so detached from each other that they have "separate lives." This does not mean that the multiple selves all experience any given event in the same way, but it does indicate that there are connections between the chains of events and causal connections.

Interpersonal relationships are not observable; instead, what can be observed are cues that can be interpreted to determine the nature of the relationships between two people. Erving Goffman (1959) notes that the tie signs between people, such as hand holding, provide clues as to the nature of the connection (relationship). Jerome Manis and Bernard Meltzer (1967) explore how people attempt to determine when other people are "with" each other (i.e., connected, related) based on their behaviors, verbal as well as nonverbal. These interpretations are based on culturally determined cues, such as bonding signals, in the form of nonverbal behaviors and/or explicit descriptive labels that are produced by the two people or are applied by other to them. The labels and behaviors can be either mismatched or correctly matched. The relationships themselves between the communicators are never visible; they are the products of inference and interpretation.

Intrapersonal relationships, too, are invisible. The connections between multiple selves are not visible to outsiders. Instead, inferences are drawn based on the interpretations of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. For example, when observing the way a person is dressed, it is possible to draw inferences, such as "She takes good care of herself" or "He neglects himself," which makes a statement about the interpretation of the self in relation to itself, or about an intrapersonal relationship. This is not unlike statements of the self in relation to another (e.g., "John and Mary are going together," "She's so involved with him"). When someone responds to a compliment about his or her attire by saying, "Oh, it was on sale, I got it for almost nothing," inferences can be drawn about the way in which the individual engages verbally with others in relating to himself or herself. Inference making is necessary in understanding any relationship; the invisibility of a relationship does not preclude one's ability to infer a relationship intrapersonally any more than interpersonally.

Because relationships cannot themselves be made visible in either interpersonal or intrapersonal communication, the nature of those relationships must be derived by examining evidence of them in terms of what goes on between the participants: the manifestations of their interdependence. Thus, when, for example, Ralph and Vinnie wear the same tee-shirts, the shirts become the manifestation of some relationship that exists between them. They may be friends or family members or members of the same team. The shirts provide evidence of some connection. In intrapersonal relationships, it is the manifestations of the interrelationships between multiple selves that indicate a relationship. A person gives self-congratulations for getting a good grade or provides self-criticism for making a wrong turn.

Intrapersonal relationships, then, can be defined as those connections between multiple selves, albeit invisible, that determine the interdependence of those selves and the effect of that interdependence as it affects and is affected by any part of the self that makes up one's being. By using the same kinds of considerations to examine intrapersonal relationships that are used to explore interpersonal relationships, intrapersonal communication can be seen to encompass more than simply one's self-concept or its derivation— more even than one's talk with oneself. Intrapersonal relationships are a rich field for examination as they potentially affect communication, be it intrapersonal or interpersonal.

The Importance of Intrapersonal Relationships

One's relationship with oneself interacts with one's relationships with others, just as an individual's relationship with a spouse affects that individual's romantic relationships with others, or as an individual's relationship with his or her child affects his or her relationships with others. One's relationship with oneself affects and is affected by one's relationships with others. One's attitudes, feelings, and thoughts about self can intervene in communication just as possibly as one's attitudes, feelings, and thoughts about the other. Thus, for example, when one is very critical of oneself, it is harder to accept compliments from others than when one feels pride in oneself. Or, what one thinks someone else means by a compliment may be related to how one thinks about oneself. If, for example, Jack is self-conscious about his looks, and Bob tells him he likes Jack's haircut, Jack may take Bob's comments as sarcasm. To the extent that the purpose of communicating is to be understood, it is important to examine the role of intrapersonal communication in the understanding of interpersonal interactions.

Intrapersonal communication is a complex and complicated system of symbols and meanings. It is part of everyday life. By including communication with the self in the study of communication, the understanding of the complex set of symbolic interactions that take place in communication is increased. It also has very practical applications. Just as one can learn to communicate better with a coworker or family member, one can learn to communicate more effectively with oneself. One can learn to listen to oneself, to note the ways in which one talks to oneself, and to change that self-talk in order to improve one's relationship with the self.

See also:Interpersonal Communication; Mead, George Herbert; Nonverbal Communication; Relationships, Types of.


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Linda Costigan Lederman