Thursday, May 24, 2007

The stories we tell about ourselves

This interesting article from the New York Times notes a correlation between how people feel and behave and the stories they tell about themselves.

Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

This makes me wonder if a positive form of cognitive therapy could be to "rewrite" the stories we tell ourselves, making ourselves the heroes instead of the victims. I can imagine a therapist, peer counselor, or friend gently pointing out the "notes of disappointment" in a story being told and suggesting ways to change the narrative.

The stories we tell about the kind of person we are - our character - matter, too.

Those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences. They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,’ ” Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

Of course, it's not as simple as "thinking makes it so." (I don't really understand the Law of Attraction, but I know that that's not so simple either, The Secret notwithstanding.) If anything, the retelling works more like an affirmation; repeat it often enough, and you can cognitively "rewire," training the mind to move in a different groove. Retelling may also be a gradual process, where each iteration of the story alters slightly from the one before, taking on a more positive cast. Ritual and magick could also be powerful tools to aid in retelling.


Scrivener said...

Oh, I totally buy that the narratives we tell ourselves about our experiences have such profound effects. To put it another way, the way we choose to respond to events are more important than the actual events themselves. I teach narrative in terms much like these to my first-year students all the time, though I'm not certain that it ends up taking as much as I might like it to.

I guess the real big question is whether and to what extent people can change the types of narratives they tell themselves. Is there something just fundamental about me--some chemical balance or some neural pathway or some deeply ingrained psychological bent, formed during the first months of my life and not now especially susceptible of change--which allows me to frame my life experiences as stories of redemption? It's pretty much a matter of faith for me that people can change the shapes of those narratives, though it will be much more difficult and complicated than it might sound like it should be. But that's just it: it's a matter of faith, not something that I have any particularly clear evidence to support.

Inanna said...

Hi Scriv - Your questions about hardwiring are just the ones I have but wasn't able to articulate while writing the post. I'm inclined to think that, while it's not as simple as, "tell yourself a different story, chump, and get over it," that it IS possible for a mentally healthy person - perhaps gently, slowly, and deliberately - to rework their stories. I'm experimenting, anyway.

As for trying to explain this stuff to students...I wonder if most people need a certain amount of life experience in order to see the need for looking back and telling things over. I say this only because my teacher, Linda, commented to me recently that I'm only just getting old enough - at 37! - to realize that my life isn't going to work out exactly as I'd planned. Perhaps some people get the message sooner, but I wonder if there isn't a developmental / stage of life issue at work, too.

I'm just speculating, though. Thanks for the comment!

Inanna said...

Oh, also, I do think that the rewriting may require working with more than just straightforward, everyday consciousness a la talk therapy. This is where I think ritual could come in, as well as spells, trance work, storytelling, writing, and (other) stuff that engages the less rational, more childlike parts of ourselves.

Scrivener said...

As far as the classroom goes, I teach in these terms, but not in any especially explicit ways. I often imagine that I'm sort of planting seeds for a way of thinking that won't kick in for them for another decade or so, which is why it's pretty difficult to feel any strong sense that I'm actually accomplishing that goal. I do try to say something along these lines in a clear, direct way to them a few times over the course of the semester, too. Hopefully some part of that message sinks in.