Jim Fleming: What does it mean to say that your identity, who you think you are, is just a story? I mean, I don’t feel fictional. So let's go first to psychologist and researcher Adler Adler for a crash course in narrative identity.
You’ve studied a lot of people and the stories they tell about themselves, what do we know about how we construct ourselves? Who do we think we are?
Jonathan Adler: Well, I think the first point of that is that we do make sense of ourselves in a storied way. Stories seem to be the sort of baseline way in which we approach making order out of the world.
Fleming: When you start to say you're telling a story about yourself, that sound is that we're making something up.
Adler: There are ways in which we absolutely are. I talk about people’s stories as the most important fiction. So, memory research tells us that we are not particularly accurate reporters of the things that happened to us, but the stories that we tell about our lives are based on a true story. So they have some kind of correspondence with capital are reality, but we are constantly doing this interpretative and reconstructive thing as we make sense of our lives.
Fleming: Do we change stories in order to reconstruct our lives in ways that we like better?
Adler: Like better, again, sort of implies this purposeful, premeditated way of reconstructing our memory, and certainly, one can do that. But I think this process happens at much less of a conscious level that we take the things that happened to us and we do reconstitute them to align with some kind of current psychological need. Which is not to say you can't do it in a purposeful way. And that’s actually one of the things that I'm very interested in. How can we take the stories that we tell about our experiences and re-story them in ways that might better support our mental health.
Fleming: Of course, any writer will tell you that there are a lot of different ways to tell a story. Is that what we're talking about, that our narrative self concepts are just different ways of telling the same story?
Adler: Yes. Absolutely. To put it into sort of the scholarly jargon, we talk about narrative identity. The best way to understand our sense of self is as a story. Absolutely, there are better and worse ways of telling those stories, better and worse in terms of their mental health implications. I have a recent study that just came out this month, actually, in February. What I was interested in was the way people stories evolved over the course of psychotherapy. So, presumably, when people first come to therapy, there's something that’s not working for them in their lives, and therefore, in their stories.
In this study, we got people before they had ever seen a therapist and we had them tell their story, we also assess their mental health. Then, in between every therapy session, for the first 12 sessions, we again had them tell their stories. In this private way, we had them write them, it wasn’t like they were telling the stories to their therapist. We look at the evolution of the themes in their stories alongside the evolution of their mental health. We were looking at this specific thematic ways in which their stories changed. So, one of the key themes that showed up was this theme we call “agency,” which is really the way you portray the main character in your story. So, are you portraying the main character, i.e., you as someone who’s in the driver seat of their experiences or really being battered around at the whims of external circumstances? So we saw that agency increased across people who got better over the course of therapy. But we also found that the stories started to change before people got better. So it's not that the storied change was some kind of side effect they're feeling better, the stories actually shifted first.
Fleming: How difficult is it for people to make this kind of narrative change in the stories they tell of their lives?
Adler: That’s a very good question. So in the study that I was just describing, we were just studying what happened naturally over the course of therapy. So that suggests to me that this is something people are naturally doing anyway. We're not specifically looking at people telling their stories in a more positive way. So this is not just put a rosy glow on your past and everything will be better. The best stories, meaning the ones that have the strongest association with positive mental health are the ones where people really get in there and find some way of growing or learning some kind of lesson from it.
Fleming: I don’t want you to break anybody’s confidence, but I wonder if you could give me a more specific example of someone’s story in the ways in which it changed.
Adler: Yes. Absolutely. So, in the research report, we have a case study which is carefully de-identified. So she came to therapy after two very brief and failed courses of family therapy and group therapy. At the beginning of her treatment, before she ever saw her therapist, her story is just infused with this low agency language. As we track her story over the 12 narratives that she tells us, we see increasing levels of agency. So, about halfway through therapy, she talks about feeling a little bit more in control. And then by end, she has this really sort of hyperbolic deliciously teenager sort of way where she talks about feeling empowered for greatness. These were written narratives and she writes in all capital letters with four exclamation points. So we really see that evolution in this sense of how much she feels like she's in the driver seat of her life. That corresponds to and actually precedes the improvements that she also experienced in her mental health.
Fleming: When you look at the way in which stories change, you don’t mean that it's the same story over the whole time. You're not tracking content, you're tracking instead the way in which the story is told?
Adler: That’s exactly right. The specific content of people’s stories does change over time. So, if I were to ask you to tell me the high point of your life right now, and then I would ask you that same question again in five years, you might tell me a different high point story. Even if it's not because a new high point happened in your life, but the themes that you use in telling that story are actually remarkably stable. So that’s what we tend to look at, how do the themes change or not over time.
Fleming: How difficult is it to learn to tell more helpful stories of ourselves?
Adler: I don’t think anyone has done a study where they’ve explicitly tried to coach people into telling a certain kind of story, but we do this naturally. I think if you become aware of the relationship between the way you tell your story and your mental health, I'm quite confident that people can change that.
Fleming: What do you think they would say if you were to say, “Your story has changed?”
Adler: People tend to really like the realization, that they are not only the main character in their stories but they're also the narrator. I think they realize, “Hey, I can't control the things that happened to me, but I can control the meaning that I make of the things that happened to me.”
Fleming: It occurs to me the opposite could almost as easily be true if you begin to think, “Oh, my word! I'm just telling a story of my life.”How real is the story I've been telling myself? That could be pretty unsettling.
Adler: Yes. I guess I could see that. I've never really thought about it from that sort of dark interpretation, but I guess it could throw people into this sort of existential crisis of “What is there if it's all just my story?”I definitely read in the other way, that this means that you're in control of the story that you're telling.
Fleming: One of the nice things, I would think, is that it could lead to some contemplation.
Adler: Contemplation in and of itself could go either way, but I think if people become aware that the ways in which they’d story the experience is that happened to them matter for their mental health and, at least, opens up the possibility for them to do that in a more productive way. So some people take the negative and they parse it at the beginning of the story. So this bad thing happened but from that bad thing, I learned something, or I grow. That kind of redemption sequence, that’s really good for people’s mental health. In the opposite direction, people sometimes parse it with the negative event happens at the end of the story. So everything was going along fine, and then this happened. All of a sudden, the negativity of the end of the story overwhelms the beginning of the story. That we call “a contamination sequence,” and that’s really bad for mental health.
Fleming: I was thinking, still, about contemplation and about mistakes contemplatives. They often say that disengaging from your idea of self can lead to a more peaceful life. Is it possible for us to stop telling ourselves stories of who we are?
Adler: That’s a really interesting question, and not one that I've contemplated a lot before. I guess I don’t want to call on to question the possibility that people can reach some kind of enlightened state, that’s kind of selfless state. But I think the average person, and certainly the average person in contemporary Western culture, lives in their stories. It's the way we make sense of the world, and it's really hard to get beyond that.
Fleming: Jonathan Adler is a researcher and assistant professor of Psychology at Olin College.