(Part 2 of 3)
Let’s consider an unfortunate hypothetical situation in which a person reaches his or her mid-30s or -40s, and things aren’t going so well. This person’s self esteem is low, he is having a hard time finding work, or a romantic partner, or whatever… there are so many ways that things can be less than perfect in midlife. What should this person do if he’d like to make some serious changes in the way he experiences the world?
One suggestion, which is pertinent to this blog’s discussion of narrative and craft, is succinctly summed up by Maria Popova, who, in a review of psychologist Timothy Wilson’s newest book, Redirect, suggests that we approach life changes as narrative challenges. “Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.”
This post is the second in a series of three about what I’m calling the ‘personal myth.’ Last week I wrote about the creative process of formulating our lives as stories, which starts to occur during that torturous and twinkly era of early adulthood. This week I’ll focus on how narrative psychology is applied in a more therapeutic context, especially during the later part of adulthood, when we can find ourselves in the doldrums, feeling stuck in unhealthy patterns, and wanting to make edits to the stories we’ve already spun about ourselves. As I mentioned in my previous post, the narrative layer of our identity is continually evolving, and it is possible to intentionally make changes here. This post is about techniques for doing so.
Seeking professional help in any kind of transformational process can really speed the process along. If you take this first approach, and seek the help of another, well-qualified person, you will likely find yourself telling a lot of stories about yourself to this person. As prominent narrative psychologists McAdams and Adler write, therapy of most kinds is easily understood in narrative terms: our stories about ourselves reflect our personal struggles, and therapy involves working with these stories in order to revise and edit them. To change a person’s story is in effect to change the person, and many therapists are aware of this.
Some therapeutic methods, such as narrative therapy, make editing and revising a client’s personal stories explicit. In their book Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends,White and Epston, grandfathers of narrative therapy, propose a therapeutic process in which the editing and revising of one’s personal stories is undertaken literally, using letter writing and a variety of other exercises, such as co-authoring a certificate of ‘Graduation from the Blues.’
Practitioners of narrative therapy liken themselves to investigative reporters, whose aim is to uncover the events in their clients’ past, and to help their clients externalize problematic stories in order to consider them as entities distinct from themselves. A therapist can also function as a mirror of sorts, as someone who can reflect your stories back to you, and help you see things that you otherwise might not see. By encouraging clients to draw back from their stories and reflect critically upon them, narrative therapists empower their clients to re-author their stories in ways more conducive to personal well-being.
In giving clients a safe space to talk about difficult experiences which they may have avoided in past, therapists provide opportunities for making sense of those difficult experiences and integrating them into their evolving sense of self. McAdams and Adler argue that on a meta-level, therapy can do much more: if the experience of going to therapy is retrospectively added to your personal myth as a turning point, when things in your life changed for the better, it can add a positive twist to future developments in your story.
Therapy is not for everybody. A second approach is to use a narrative toolkit for undertaking the hard work of personal transformation on your own (it is personal, after all). If you are interested in coming to a new understanding of a particular set of difficult or traumatic events in your past, and doing it by yourself, Timothy Wilson, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, has proposed a set of ‘story-editing’ techniques that do not require one-on-one sessions with a therapist to achieve their effect. He outlines these techniques in the book mentioned above, Redirect.
As the title suggests, Wilson’s book outlines a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the world in more positive directions. He places his strategies into three categories: story-editing (making desirable changes to life stories), story-prompting (this one requires a second person, who uses subtle prompts to help you redirect your interpretation of traumatic events in more positive directions), and the do-good, be-good principle (start by making positive changes to your behavior, then your narrative will change to match your behavior, and your happiness will increase).
Wilson proposes that story-editing is most useful for people who have recently experienced an important event, maybe an event that is still unpleasant to think about, or doesn’t make sense yet. These DIY techniques are helpful for creating a coherent interpretation of such an event. Here’s how the first writing exercise works:
Find a quiet place to write. Recount the situation, move away from it in your mind, and watch it unfold from distance. Try to see yourself in the event, and try understand your feelings (as if observing yourself). As Wilson says, ‘Don’t recount the event, take a step back and reconstrue and explain it.’ Write about what you see and why you felt what you did. Do this for 15 minutes, three days in a row.
Like White and Epston, Wilson claims that this writing exercise works best when people are able to gain some emotional distance from the difficult event, so that thinking about it doesn’t overwhelm them, and they can analyze the event with a degree of dispassion. This will allow them to better reframe the event, and to find new meaning in it. Wilson calls this the ‘step-back-and-ask-why’ approach, and claims that through fostering greater emotional distance, this technique can help to blunt the event’s traumatic impact, and help people avoid similar situations in the future. The same goes for pleasant experiences: if you can understand why something happened, you will be in a better position to make these things happen again. Pursuers of pleasure beware: Wilson warns the step-back-and-ask-why approach can also have the effect of blunting your experience of happiness.
A second story-editing exercise proposed by Wilson is the ‘Best Possible Self Exercise.’ Here’s how it works:
Think about your life in the future, imagine everything has gone as well as it could and you have achieved success in all your goals. Now write about what you imagined. Write about how you got there. This exercise is intended to help you create a more optimistic story about your future, which can help you cope better with obstacles as they come up.
Let’s turn back to our hypothetical friend who I introduced at the start of this post. Maybe he will seek a therapist to help him review and reflect upon his past experience, and by doing so he will feel more empowered to make changes to his personal myth. Or, perhaps he will take the DIY approach, and do a story-editing writing exercise on his own. In either case, what he’s doing is creating change in himself by exploring and changing the story he feels himself living within. Stepping back from his life, he will realize that a lot of what happens to him is determined by circumstances which he cannot control, but within any circumstance, he can make choices about who he is and who he wants to become.
Those choices are in large part narrative. Living life well, with meaning and purpose, is not just something he will stumble upon, but a deeply creative act, which will require a certain amount of imagination and artistry.
In seeking more positive avenues for our personal myths, we can turn to a growing body of basic research about toxic and beneficial narrative patterns. Stay tuned. The third and last post in this sequence will elaborate on research about narrative patterns in our personal myths, and how these patterns play out in our work, relationships, and yes, our overall sense of well-being.
Photo via Flickr