“The self is an ongoing autobiography; or to be more exact, it is a self-other multifaceted biography that we constantly pen and edit.”
—Harlene Anderson (1997, p. 216)
I love this quote by Harlene Anderson, a dear mentor of mine. I like how she conveys that our identity is not something static; it is not a finished product or something that we “have.” Our “self” is more like a story that we are constantly writing—plus, we don´t write it alone, we do it with others. And, we are constantly editing it! We can have different and updated versions of who we are. This makes me feel hopeful, for myself and for my clients in therapy and coaching.
We create stories when we connect events in our lives over time, in ways that make sense to us. We have characters, beginnings and endings, themes, plots and subplots. This ability to understand our experience through story is very important because ithelps us create meaning in life. Jerome Bruner said that when we tell stories we are not just describing our experience, but that these stories also shape how we experience things and, in a way, we “become” the stories we create to tell our lives. He proposed that our identity is constructed in the exchange of stories about our life and the lives of others.
Most of the time we exchange stories in informal ways, in our everyday conversations with our friends, family members, and colleagues. When we do, even if we don´t notice it, we may be enriching, tweaking, and integrating our stories and influencing the stories of the people we are talking with. Our enthusiasm about a success they share with us may make it more meaningful for them. Our passive response might contribute to their own minimizing of their achievement. If someone appreciates a strength of ours, we might start seeing it as a strength when we had not previously done so.
We can also have more formal and purposeful conversations in which we tell our stories, as in therapy, counseling, or coaching. Did you know that most psychotherapeutic approaches have similar “success rates” or chances of having a positive outcome? This is intriguing because the premises of various models are very different: Some focus on unconscious drives and childhood experiences, others on cognitive distortions; some on promoting self-actualization, others on patterns of interactions in a family system. Researchers have found that different approaches have certain things in common: the relationship between therapist and client, the creation of positive expectations through an explanation of the problem and how the treatment will work, and having the client engage in health-promoting behaviors. Another common element in all therapeutic and personal growth processes may be that they are places in which people tell, retell, and expand upon their personal stories.
We can also, literally, rewrite our stories by putting pen to paper and writing about our experiences. There is ample evidence ofhow writing can be used to decrease psychological suffering and to promote well-being. More than 150 studies show that writing about one´s deepest thoughts and feelings about a stressful or traumatic event leads to improved mental and physical health.
Writing about positive experiences can also contribute to well-being. Laura King and her colleagues have shown that writing about our “best possible self” in the future—describing in detail a moment when our live will have gone really well—can help us experience greater subjective well-being and better health. Writing about intensely positive emotional experiences, like life´s happiest moments or moments of rapture, leads to similar outcomes.
Having a sense that we understand our life, that our story is coherent, is one of the components of meaning in life. When we share our stories, whether we do it in our everyday conversations with people, through writing, or in a professional helping relationship, we have the opportunity to integrate our experiences into a meaningful narratives, and this in turn helps us feel that our life is worth living.
Join Margarita on Thursday, May 27, at 12:00 pm when she speaks on exploring our life stories, and helping others to do so, at the WBI/JCC Online Positive Psychology Hour. Register here.
Dr. Margarita Tarragona is a psychologist who specializes in personal and relational transformation. As a clinician, coach, and organizational consultant, she incorporates scientific findings on flourishing from positive psychology with conversational and narrative ways of working with clients, with the goals of generating dialogue and expanding their life stories. Margarita is the author of Positive Identities: Positive Psychology and Narrative Practices. She is president of the Mexican Positive Psychology Society and a lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania, the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, and the University of Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Margarita was also on faculty for WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology offered in Mexico.