Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Personal Storytelling as Therapy

Narrative may be an art form (as I've approached it here so far) , but it is very deeply wired into our human nature. It appears now that our self-told stories reveal a lot about us and may predict how well we will deal with what life brings. An item in the NYT today recounts research done by Dan P. McAdams (" The Redemptive Self"-2006) proves that indeed, stories matter.

As people tell their life stories, they may include universal forms: accidental beginnings, turning points, epiphanies, climaxes, defeats, and victories. As Americans we may include more culturally specific themes: atonement, conversion, emancipation, advancement, second chances, salvation and so forth. This is the stuff of Joseph Campbell ("Hero of A Thousand Faces") and the story-structuralists. It lies beneath the surface in dramatic structure and is exploited in the art of story-telling. What's new here is that story telling is not just a means to constructing our past, but how we interpret the present and shape our futures.

McAdams studied people who were in talking therapy, working through emotional trauma striving to effect some behavioral change. What he found was that those who were able to cast and replay their histories in the third-person were more likely to move ahead than those who continued to view past experiences only in a first-person. In a sense, the more succssful strategy is to make a movie of your life, and describe it as if from the outside. One one level this makes sense; getting some distance from the pain and trauma often does help us see things in perspective. That's why telling someone else (especially a relative stranger) about a difficult subject can feel so liberating. On another, it seems to veer toward a kind of dissociative state--the ultimate escape from pain being creation of an entirely new persona with no conscious awareness of the preceeding one.

This new research supports the work of Robert Fisher, whose "narrative paradigm" maintains that people are essentially storytellers and that history, biography, culture, and character determine what stories we take for truth. This model of the world is mediated by "narrative rationality"; the truth is known via the coherence and fidelity of our stories, which in turn, we are constantly re-adjusting to fit experience.

Wanna change? Re-write your back story.