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Sally Latham & Mark Pinder (Open University), "Is it Good to Conceive of One’s Life Narratively?"
Forthcoming in Philosophia
Stories are one of humanity’s greatest assets. Telling and listening to them improves our lives in many ways and they are a valuable source of education, comfort and guidance. Yet when we start telling our own life stories things are altogether different. We are living in a cultural paradigm where we are told to share and re-write our life stories to understand our past, take control of our future and improve ourselves. This is particularly the case when an individual is recovering from mental illness. In the therapeutic context, as well as the broader culture of self-help and self-improvement. We are told that by telling our own story in our own words, we can be truly authentic. This trend has gained such momentum that autobiographical narratives have become almost a social imperative, particularly for individuals with mental illness. Life narratives are said to improve self-understanding, allowing us to gain a better insight into our lives, actions, struggles and triumphs.
Contrary to the prevailing view, however, we are not sure that this kind of self-narration is a good thing. We believe (bucking the current pro-narrative trend) that life-narratives are likely to misrepresent our lives and therefore hinder self-understanding and flourishing. There are at least three ways in which this may take place, in addition to simply misremembering the events of our lives. [i]
One way in which this can happen is that we confabulate. We give earnest, coherent reasons for our choices, but these are not backed up by relevant evidence and do not correspond to our actual decision-making process (Nisbett and Wilson 1977).[ii] These confabulations sometimes conform to already existent biases (Bortolotti 2018), exacerbating the problem.[iii] All this naturally translates to the reasons we give for the decisions included in our life-stories. That is, many of the explanations we give in our life-stories end up being confabulated.
Another way in which life narratives could be misleading comes from the fact that we seek and enjoy the emotional closure that a good story brings, and as a result mistake this emotional closure for truth. For example, David Velleman (2003) develops an account of emotional cadence as the defining feature of a ‘good’ story.[iv] A good story provides an emotional resolution, often conforming to familiar tropes, such as rags-to-riches, sinner-to-saint or triumph-over-adversity. As Velleman states:
[a] story […] enables its audience to assimilate events, not to familiar patterns of how things happen, but rather to familiar patterns of how things feel. (2003:6).
A story that provides such emotional closure is more likely to seem true, regardless of its actual truth, even when that story is about ourselves.
This is no less true when we are considering what makes a good life story. We will be more likely to believe a narrative that has an emotional cadence, one with an ending that provides closure rather than leaving us wanting. We might believe that the failed job interview was part of some cosmic plan to reach one’s destined career, rather than the result of a lack of preparation or qualification on our part, for this is what provides greater emotional resolution. In Velleman’s words, we mistake emotional closure for intellectual closure.
A third way life-narratives are likely to mislead will occur even if individual events within a narrative are accurately represented, a life-narrative can still misrepresent due to the way those events are selected to give an overall picture, impression or theme which is not itself a true representation. In putting together our life-narratives, we disproportionately favour events that support our self-conception: if I believe I am courageous, I will discount the times I shrank from danger. The resulting life-narratives misrepresent us. Derek Matravers[v] gives an excellent example of this.
Clearly, whether intentionally or not, a writer can stack the deck in favour of, or against, their subject. Viewers of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi are likely to emerge with the belief that the subject of the film believed in equal rights and dignity for all (or, if that is too strong, at least some belief along those lines). However, if John Briley (who wrote the screenplay) had included reference to Gandhi’s pronouncements about the relative importance of Asians over Blacks, viewers would not have been likely to emerge with such a belief. (Matravers ms: 3)
A life narrative will be selective by default, it is impossible to recount every event in our lives. It is almost inevitable then, that how we select and interpret these events will fit our pre-existing conceptions of ourselves, or perhaps even a conscious or subconscious conception of how we would like to be perceived.
None of the above considerations is remarkable or unusual. But, taken together we have a case for why life narratives are likely to be misleading. That is, your life narrative is likely to be a misrepresentation. So, when you reflect on your life narrative, you are likely to obtain new misunderstandings of yourself. Self-narratives are likely to hinder self-understanding.
It may not be impossible to mitigate against the ways in which life-narratives can mislead. For example, we can mitigate against confabulation by not even trying to give post hoc explanations for our choices, as we know we cannot trust those explanations, however earnest they may be. We can try to avoid mistaking emotional closure for intellectual closure by being dispassionate when we examine a life story and evidence for it. We could try to prevent misleading selection and interpretation of events that confirm our pre-existing biases by selecting events more carefully, thereby reconsidering events we were initially inclined to put aside.
To apply such self-awareness and self-control when thinking about one’s life story is admittedly not impossible. But nor is it likely to be common, given how deeply engrained the psychological tendencies that lead to misrepresentation are. We should not expect such rigorous critical analysis of one’s life story to be the norm.
The view that life narratives typically result in self-misunderstanding has far-reaching implications. In separate work by one of the authors of this piece – namely, Sally Latham - it is argued that one of the most important implications is in the field of mental health. Narrative-based therapy is a dominant form of treatment for mental illness, in particular Narrative Therapy, as developed by Michael White and David Epston in the 1990s.[vi] Central to Narrative Therapy is the idea that the narration of both one’s past and projected future are constructions and can be conceived in numerous ways, each impacting on life opportunities. It is used for a range of mental illness including depression and eating disorders. During a Narrative Therapy session a therapist works with the patient to deconstruct a negative, limiting narrative and then reconstructing a new, positive narrative by choosing which alternative events and explanations to emphasise and which to remove from the narrative. In so doing the significance of the illness or perceived problem is removed, or at least greatly diminished. Once accepted, the alternative narrative will be one that is adopted and lived out, so to speak, opening up opportunities for action previously unavailable under the previous, negative narrative. The mental illness or problem is therefore no longer defining and ceases to have a role in the patient’s life.
For example, say Indi suffers from depression and includes in her life narrative the limiting belief that she has had a series of career-based ‘failures’ because she is incompetent and far less talented than her co-workers. Indi does not apply for promotions and withdraws from her co-workers, whom she believes are judging her. Through the process of Narrative Therapy, this negative narrative is deconstructed. With her therapist, Indi identifies times where she was successful at work, bringing them to the forefront of her new narrative. Critical comments from her boss are reinterpreted as the result of an irritable personality, which is also directed at her co-workers, rather than anything to do with Indi’s intrinsic characteristics. This new narrative has a positive impact on her mental health and life opportunities, for she now sees applying for a promotion and integrating with co-workers as genuine possibilities.
Our argument that life narratives are likely to mislead has implications for narrative approaches to therapy. It is widely agreed that negative life narratives can be the source of mental distress and should be abandoned. And we have not criticised the claim that positive self-narratives can improve mental health and open up new life opportunities. But we have argued that even a new, positive narrative is likely to be a misrepresentation of an individual’s life. When a new, positive narrative is constructed, it is likely to be built on confabulated reasons for action, even as a patient reinterprets and reassesses those reasons for action during the therapeutic process. The new, positive narrative will be more likely to be believed if it provides emotional cadence, regardless of truth, and this is all the more likely in a therapeutic setting where the ultimate aim is often to make the patient feel better about themselves and their lives. Finally, it is an integral part of Narrative Therapy that events are selected and reinterpreted to construct a new, positive perspective of oneself. But the goal of constructing a positive narrative does not make likely that the selection and reinterpretation of events will be sensitive to the accuracy of the final representation. Although positive life narratives may be effective for improving mental health, the fact remains that they are still likely to be misrepresentations.
We are continually told to tell our own stories, to take ownership of them in order to really be heard and to be truly authentic. No more so is this found than in the field of mental health. Yet even a positive life-narrative is not benign. Whether the story we tell about ourselves is positive or negative, limiting or liberating, it is likely to be misleading and misrepresentation of our lives.
[ii] Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259. Available at https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231
[v] Matravers, D. (ms) On Being Misled by Non-Fiction.
[vi] White, M. (Michael K. and Epston, D. (1990) Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY; London: Norton.
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