A Narrative Identity that Heals
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 25, 2019
We write the story of our life. We create our identity through the narrative that we tell. We must create a narrative that heals our wounded souls.
The other day, while enjoying music on my back patio, a popular country song commandeered my attention. I thought, “wow! That song is my life.” The lyrics struck an emotional chord. The words transformed from a melody to a meaningful mantra, lodging in my soul. We often wander through life with only a vague notion of the meaning. We seek answers to the profound questions such as, “who am I?” and “what is it all for?” Self-discovery is an honorable quest but has no concrete destination. Identity questions must be satisfied with open-ended answers. Life dynamically moves through phases and our story must adapt to the flow. True self-discovery the realization that we write the beautiful story.
Our existence is continually evolving. We stumble on an epiphany, thinking we uncovered the eternal mystery of existence, only for that enlightenment to fade. Life is too complex for clean and neat definitions. There’s no perfect understanding that will completely answer the nagging questions. We’ve been duped to seek a finite identity. These assumptions interfere with the grander work—writing our story. We create a narrative that enlightens or darkens our subjective world.
We are terrified by the emptiness. Earlier societies leaned on churches to write the story. Individuals courageous enough to question the prescribed meaning of life were considered treasonous and punished. People blindly accepted and then played nicely within their ordained social roles. While human thought has been emancipated, there remains an existential hole, leaving us gravelling to fill the emptiness.
We errantly attempt to fill the void with titles, possessions, and relationships. Only to emerge from the chaos, driving a new Mercedes; but just as confused and lost as when we were driving the beat up Volkswagen.
There’s no perfect understanding that will completely answer the nagging questions.
Creating a purposeful and cohesive existence begins with a life narrative. Personality psychologists have examined the role of narratives in the formation of identity. The literature is ripe with wisdom for the professional therapist and the common folk just trying to survive in this veil of tears. We want to live a better life (a good life) and a healthy narrative can assist. An entire branch of psychology (narrative psychology) is dedicated to this exciting study.
An identity narrative provides structure, organizing the internal rustlings of feelings and flow of raw experience. We must extract coherent meaning from thus bubbling flow, building bridges between the past, present and future.
We are interpretive creatures, bumbling detectives attempting to unravel the mysteries. We want to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of events that impact our lives. We integrate the various experiences through reflection—an internal dialogue that asks, “what does this mean?” and “How is it connected?”
A narrative emerges from these reflections. A “Narrative explains what a life means to a person living it.” (Adler, 2012). Michele Crossley writes, “The personal narrative is a special kind of story that every one of us constructs to bring together different parts of our selves into a purposeful and convincing whole.” (2000, p.67). Often these stories are buried. We don’t consciously see the narrative; but the story is there, ruling perceptions, categorizing feelings, and extracting meaning.
We define our identity by translating the significance of feeling into articulatable words. Language is the essential ingredient. As Crossley explains, “through the medium of language, through talking and writing, and it is through these processes that individuals are constantly engaged in the process of creating themselves. “ (p. 10). Theodor Sarbin simply puts it, “the goal of narrative psychology is understanding.” He writes, “we construct accounts of everyday conduct in narrative form. Even our hopes and our fears are storied. Survival in a world of meaning depends upon the skill in constructing and interpreting stories about interweaving lives.” (Lee,1994).
“Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.” (Barrett, 2017, p. 40).
We create an integrative self that exist across time, pulling together the past, the present and the imagined future. With a healthy narrative, our phases become cohesive and connected. The different episodes make sense when we view them as part of a comprehensive whole.
Personal narratives invite wellbeing, meaning, and joy or conversely, depravity, chaos, and sorrow. Not all narratives are cohesive. Life, for some, is fragmented. Trauma and hurt are not understood within a broader context, limiting their understanding and leading to ineffective conclusions about the cause of their hurt. These life stories lack an overarching theme that pulls everything together. Leaving the protagonist—the subject of the experience—without the framework to draw wisdom from the pain.
“If the lion doesn’t tell his story, then the hunter will.” African proverb.
Without a binding theme, past behaviors fail to bestow wisdom, and visions of the future fail to motivate appropriate action. A jumbled story enhances chaos and destroys a healthy sense of autonomy. The poorly written story hiders action.
Dan McAdams wrote, “Identity is a Life Story.” (McAdams, 1987). We create our life narrative, sometimes explicitly but often unconsciously. We organize episodes into an evolving narrative. The narrative serves as a filter to unscramble new experiences, giving meaning and cohesion to our existence. (Mullet, et al. 2013). Our story is an organizing agent, pulling abstract meanings from the present by reconstructing pasts and pushing towards an imagined future. If we don’t consciously engage in the story making process—writing our own narratives—others will oblige. Factors of personality and environment become the authors, writing as they please, ignoring our goals and dreams.
In a 2004 paper, Jeffery Singer wrote that we “make use” of these narratives. We employ our stories, “to raise our spirits, guide our actions, or influence others as a tool of persuasion.” (2004, pg. 442).
We create this story from the building blocks of experience, arranging facts, contexts and emotions into an overarching theme. (Hallford et al. 2019). Within our life narratives, we build sequences that link events to emotions, and actions to consequences. By connecting experiences, we create a map to navigate future challenges. Our narrative can create a comforting predictability to new experiences, giving stability amidst the chaos.
We typically use plots we were exposed to during development. In Western society, this often “casts the individual as a protagonist in a lifelong journey, marked by mutual challenges of intimacy and autonomy.” (Singer, 2004, pg. 445). The story winds through failures, setbacks and turning points. Our personal story relies of themes of redemption or destruction. These themes impact our response; the story becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy of triumph or failure.
Sadly, many stories prevent healing and stymying growth. A common response to a harsh childhood is adopting a theme of a dark and dangerous world—a theme where they self contaminates all that is touched. This narrative invites more darkness and more danger as the protagonist are not heroes but victims. Instead of joyfully tasting life, these young people shamefully bow their heads and live a life of desperation. Are we the victim or hero in our narrative?
Once a plot is written, we are compelled to maintain congruence. We naturally drift in cognitive ease, supporting prewritten narratives rather than challenging a narrative that impedes. We want to keep the story going. We blindly accepted a story that badly shapes the present; therefore, allowing a narrative to terrifyingly rule our future.
Everyone’s life goes through transitions. It’s a natural part of development, moving through different stages as we mature. Many transitions are common and planned, but some are forced and unexpected. We are fluid—a continual evolving work in progress. The building blocks of development are experiences that push, but we can exert effort and master. Change in environments disrupt the comfortable flow, creating snags to the flow of our happy stories, both purpose and unifying themes are challenged.
Successful living—flourishing—requires that we make sense of changes and adapt. A smooth integration demands that we examine our concepts of self that existed before the event, the current self experiencing the new event, and the impacts that these changes will have on the future self. Our life schema is fluid. We must accept the givens with openness, curiously mulling through the harvest—removing chaff and preserving the wholesome grains. Successful adapting requires a creative author.
Narratives, especially during trauma, have a survival purpose. Our subjective explanations generate purpose or chaos. How we incorporate an event into our life story sparks resilience or leads to collapse. Each unexpected strain is a critical juncture.
When trauma is continuous, such as a toxic environment, our stability is challenged. Our minds are poisoned by the extended exposure. Our stories are forced to take a different shade just to survive partially intact. Once the danger subsides, these protective narratives continue, even though they no longer serve a productive purpose. These narratives need an overhaul. the past must be given a redemptive theme that kindly shines on our successful survival.
“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” Winston Churchill
Singer says that “to draw lessons and wisdom from one’s narratives reflects ego development, personal adjustment, stress-related growth, and maturity, but not an immediate sense of well-being. To learn and grow may involve acknowledging what has been lost or what will never be, but this acceptance may allow for better long-term adjustment and more judicious life choices that lead to greater happiness in the long run.”
I’m afraid that the current philosophical environment often neglects Singer’s wisdom. We’re often encouraged to focus on present moment happiness, creating narratives that neglect personal development. We gratify the moment by placating discomfort and dismissing guilt. We miss valuable opportunities to draw lessons from discomforting emotions. We need a tough and tender narrative that accepts the discomfort but simultaneously cuddles our broken soul.
The narrative we use to define these critical moments should inspire growth. This requires venturing into hard truths of weakness, vulnerability and impactful others in our lives. We can close our eyes pretending nothing is wrong, but many times the monster hiding under our bed is real and wishful thinking will not combat the intruding robber that steals precious moments from our lives. Success and achievement of the good life still require right action at the right time.
Tragedy can disrupt hopeful narrative. When life fails to follow the script, which it often does, we are faced with reunifying pasts and futures to the present.
In Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, he shared the experience of a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz. The man joyfully recounted a dream of a voice prophesying of emancipation from the camp—March thirtieth, the allied forces would reach the camp and free them from their inhuman oppressors.
“But as the promised day drew nearer, the war news… made it appear very unlikely that we would be free on the promised date. On March twenty-ninth, F---- suddenly became ill and ran a high temperature. . . on March thirty-first, this man died.” (2006, p. 75)
This man’s narrative promised redemption, giving him strength to endure detestable treatment and conditions. But when his narrative collided with reality, his hope crumbled, and he collapsed. He was unable to rewrite his story.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. (Frankl, 2006, p. 67).
A narrative can give courage to weather momentary storms, providing a springboard towards achievement. We love the rags to riches stories, watching ordinary people overcome the odds, and living happily ever after. The bad to good narrative is pleasant to digest. We need to make this part of our self-redemptive narrative.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Friedrich Nietzsche
We must envision victory, seeing ourselves with the strength to vanquish the foe. Whether the enemy be addiction, debilitating shame, or social rejection, we can create a narrative to invite success.
Research on recovering alcoholics supports the effectiveness of a narrative. A redemptive narrative is strongly associated with prolonged recovery. (Dunlop and Tracy, 2013). A narrative that portrays addiction as an unconquerable monster leads to failure. Our subjective perception creates helplessness or empowerment.
Some narratives get stuck. We adopt maladaptive explanations to preserve the ego. These stories misalign facts, limit perspectives and invite an eventual collision with reality. A tragedy may topple well-designed narratives, sending a neatly ordered life crashing in chaos. Everything that once made sense, is now confusing. Under these critical circumstances, we must rewrite the story, reimagining a different future. We must restructure interpretations, replacing them with a narrative that can absorb the new trauma.
Re-storying is an ordeal; but occasionally necessary. We must pause for deeper reflection, gathering information from what was lost, bringing back to life memories that were filtered or have faded. The growth mentality is a progressive momentum “from story making to meaning making to wisdom accumulation that provides individuals with a surer and more graceful footing on life’s path.” (Singer, 2004, P. 446).
After successful navigation of sorrow, we can examine the old stories from the context of their formation, understanding the purpose they served for our survival, and then amend the story to fit the new circumstances.
A tragedy may topple well-designed narratives, sending a neatly ordered life crashing in chaos. Everything that once made sense, is now confusing.
Rewriting a Narrative:
Since rewriting a narrative requires intense mental work, the best thing we can do is live a life that avoids much of the trauma. Right decisions about finances, relationships and health lighten the strain on our well-being, allowing for more concentrated effort when encountering the unavoidable stresses. Our life stories benefit from healthy action, and healthy action benefits from mature life stories.
Adopting a successful narrative is a two step-process. The first step is deeper exploration of negative events, examining the accompany emotions, the surrounding contexts, important features, self-involvement, and cohesion of these events. Learning to articulate with deeper granularity changes the perceptual experience.
Barrett convincingly argues that words seed our concepts that fuel predictions about the future. The accuracy of these predictions helps the body prepare to effectively respond and this determines how we feel. (2017, p. 181). Basically, words are the building blocks of feelings.
“When we, as adults, speak a word to a child, an act of great significance takes place without fanfare. In that moment, we offer the child a tool to expand reality—a similarity that is purely mental—and she incorporates it into the patterns that are being laid down inside her own brain for future use.” (p. 99).
In a study examining the fear of spiders, fine-grained categorization—more complex articulation—of the fear assisted those with arachnophobia more than two other popular approaches for regulating emotion—cognitive reappraisal and distraction. By articulating the characteristics of the spider, and subsequent feeling reactions to the spider, participants in the study were less anxious to approach spiders. (p.182)
Words are powerful. They give the protagonist the power to create reality. If the world of experiences is constricted to narrow concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad,” there is no room for movement—expansive feelings are crammed into tiny spaces. When feelings are given broader definitions, difficult events become more digestible. Instead of being a ‘bad’ spider, it becomes and ugly insect with spiny legs. The latter is easier to differentiate from something inherently dangerous. We can approach our demons.
James Pennebaker conducted research on the relationship between trauma and health problems. What he discovered was surprising. It wasn’t the nature of the trauma but how people responded to the trauma that impacted later health problems. “Those who talked to their friends or with a support group were largely spared the health damaging effects of trauma.” (Haidt, 2006. Location 2828).
To benefit from trauma, we must use words, and the words must write a meaningful story. Pennebaker suggests we write for fifteen minutes a day, for several consecutive days, not worrying about the content or editing. Eventually, over four or five days of the writing practice, the words begin to cluster, follow a theme, and create a resolution. We can close a chapter that has disrupted our lives.
Read more about writing therapy in Pennebaker’s book: Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.
Research suggest that self-redemptive stories are built around personal agency. “A theme of agency is concerned with the individual’s autonomy, achievement mastery, and the ability to influence the course of his or her life.” (Adler, 2012, p.368).
Dan McAdams found that articulation around certain concepts showed positive association with more well-being. When narratives included themes of agency, communion, redemption, meaning making, and cohesion, those people expressing these narratives were able to better process difficulties and move forward. (McAdams & McLean 2013, p. 234).
Agency is expressions of self-empowerment. A narrative that defines experience and related response of successful action. The opposite of helplessness.
“When Life gets tough, I get to work and find the best solution.”
“There are haters out there, lots of them; but I choose to be compassionate and forgiving.”
Relationships are a staple of well-being. Our perception of support is imperative to security. Obviously, the real world exists, and some relationships are destructive, redefining them as positive is not the solution. Our strength comes from identifying relationships that we have overlooked.
“During the divorce, my husband was very cruel. He would say and do hurtful things. However, I discovered that some of my friends were very kind and compassionate. They were actually concerned about me.”
The misguided story of everybody “hates me” blinds our vision to valuable sources of support. Our perception motivates suspicion and we drive away opportunities for connection.
Redemption themes provide positive outcomes to negative events. These themes narrate heroic stories where we battle the symptoms and emerge victorious.
“The tragedy pushed me to my limits but discovered strength I didn’t know I had. I was able to take what I’ve been served and come out alive and well.”
When we retell challenges in the context as a purposeful event, we change the experience.
“College years were demanding, I suffered some depression, and felt lonely. But I believe those moments defined who I am, building the strength I needed to succeed n life on my own.”
Life Narrative Cohesion:
Our identity is strengthened when events are tied together, making sense as a whole.
“It took many years for me to get it. I now see how my childhood, first marriage, and subsequent second marriage have come together, creating a life I now enjoy.”
Surprisingly, many studies report that articulating experience doesn’t directly relate to happiness. As Singer puts it, “meaning making correlates with greater insight, wisdom and maturity, but not necessarily subjective well-being. What life has to teach us may not always come in the elixir of happiness, but these lessons are likely to bring us greater wisdom and contentment in the long-run.” (2004, p.452).
Healthy ruminations emphasize learning, growth and positive transformation. They bring the wisdom to better navigate life. We can then avoid painful reoccurrences, developing compassion, and understanding that will bless our lives and the lives of others. In the long run, the integration of experience enhances our lives, bringing richness and joy.
The second step, after the articulating and reflection, is utilizing the wisdom by committing to a positive resolution. Action is the activating ingredient for happiness. Thinking alone is insufficient. Wisdom organizes knowledge, but action finalizes the integration. Literature strongly suggests that action is most associated with subjective well-being (McAdams, & McLean, 2013, p.234).
When I hum along to Dirks Bentley’s song, I’m a Riser, I’m doing much more than making the sounds of contentment. I’m integrating painful lessons of the past, integrating wisdom with the use of a redemptive theme, full of agency, and coherency.
I'm a riser
I'm a get up off the ground, don't run and hider
Pushing comes a-shovin'
Hey I'm a fighter
When darkness comes to town, I'm a lighter
A get out aliver, out of the fire
Survivor. (Dirks Bentley: I’m a Riser)
So, sing with me this redemptive song, building a narrative that lifts, integrates, and pushes us forward. We’re survivors.
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Barrett, L.F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books. Reprint Edition.
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Crossley, M. L. (2000). Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma, and the Construction of Meaning. Philadelphia: Open University Press. Retrieved from Questia.
Dunlop, W., & Tracy, J. (2013). Sobering Stories: Narratives of Self-Redemption Predict Behavioral Change and Improved Health Among Recovering Alcoholics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 576-590.
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Sarbin, T. R. (1994) Steps to the Narratory Principle: An Autobiographical Essay. In Lee, D. J. (Ed.). Life and Story: Autobiographies for a Narrative Psychology. Westport, CT: Praeger.
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