“My experience of life is that it is not divided up into genres; it’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”

Alan Moore

In this article, I focus on the narrative aspect of therapy clients’ lives and our lives in general, on how our life stories are created and revised by us, and the ways in which such an action – the narration of one’s life – may impact our view of our world and of ourselves. I largely rely on the work of author Dan P. McAdams, who has been involved in qualitative research of life stories for about three decades (1985, 1993, 2006), and on the work of other researchers, such as Ruth Josselson and Philip Bowman, who are invested in understanding how narrative styles and narrative formulations influence our well-being and our choices in life.

The Construction of Narrative

In the introduction to his book “Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self”, author Dan McAdams states, “If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I, too, must come to know my own story. I must come to see in all its particulars the narrative of the self – the personal myth – that I have tacitly, even unconsciously, composed over the course of my years. It is a story I continue to revise, and tell to myself (and sometimes to others) as I go on living.” (McAdams, 1993, pp. 11). A personal myth is a story that we naturally construct to bring the different aspects of our self and scattered experiences into a purposeful whole. It has a beginning, middle, and an end, defined according to the development of plot and character. Our personal myth is an act of imagination, integrating our remembered past, perceived present and anticipated future (McAdams, 1992; McAdams, 1993; Parry, 1997). McAdams tells us that from our adolescent years, we begin to form our own story, to understand who we are and how we fit into the adult world. As we move through adulthood, we revise the story according to the changes that we go through. When the present changes, we may re-write the past, not to distort the truth, but to find a truth that better reflects the past in light of the present (McAdams, 1993). Life narrative is always open-ended, always revised and expanded, and it is important that, as therapists, we recognize the relativism inherent in life narratives we hear and co-create (Josselson, 2004). This allows for us as therapists and as fellow-storytellers to hold an open space for new narratives to arise, ones that bring forth new ways of being for our clients and for ourselves (Wrye, 2006; Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2001).

Narrative Redemption and Contamination

McAdams and his colleagues expanded on their work with people’s storytelling by introducing to it the concepts of redemption and contamination sequences (McAdams & Bowman, 2001; McAdams, 2006). A redemption sequence is a movement in life storytelling from an emotionally negative or bad scene to an emotionally positive or good outcome. In a contamination sequence, an emotionally positive or good experience is spoiled, ruined, contaminated by an emotionally negative or bad outcome. Patterns of redemption or contamination can be seen in many life narrative accounts, especially in accounts of life transitions or turning points. Redemption sequences can be used to convey a progressive upward movement of understanding the self as growing, making progress over time (Gergen & Gergen, 1986, as cited in McAdams & Bowman, 2001). Contamination sequences may express decline or stagnation in the plot, where characters fall backward or circle over the same ground over and over again (McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001).

The life stories that our clients tell us are what clients choose to remember and to tell, and are what meanings the client attribute to these memories. There exists a complex relationship between what “really happens” in a person’s life and how the person chooses to remember and understand it. In depicting redemption and contamination sequences as narrative forms or strategies for making sense of life transitions, the emphasis is on how the person chooses to construct his or her reality and interpret the different past experiences and turning points (McAdams, 1993; McAdams, 2006). The kinds of meanings people draw from significant turning points have profound implications for their adaptation and ability to heal from traumatic and otherwise difficult events (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). People who perceive benefits in adversity tend to show better recovery from and adjustment to the negative events that brought them the adversity in the first place. Major setbacks in life can challenge a person’s assumptive world, but benefit-finding can help to reconstitute that world by specifying an anticipated redemption sequence in which bad events are expected to give way to good outcomes (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2001; McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001). As briefly mentioned in this section, narrating our life sequences may often include turning points. Turning points are important events that set the stage for a certain tone for a long period of time (Gotlib & Wheaton, 1997). In order to define a turning point as such, we need to look at the concept of life trajectories. A trajectory is the continuation of a direction; it is the inertia in our lives that results from the sum of forces that propel us toward a destination and is characterized by a given probability of occurrence. A turning point is a disruption in a trajectory, a deflection in the path, which changes the direction of a trajectory (Gotlib & Wheaton, 1997). As we recount specific moments in our past, many of us can identify certain moments as turning points; those were changes that were either imposed on us by a certain trauma or changes that we chose to make in our lives. At critical existential moments of decision in our lives, when we choose to leave a marriage or change a career, when we abstain from or give in to a destructive course of behavior, or when we are faced by a traumatic events that calls for a reaction on our part, we recruit and examine what we know of ourselves. We ask, “What has been my story up to this point, and do I want it to continue this way or to change?” (Singer, 2001). In the context of treating people, we may benefit from remembering that at crucial transition or turning points in our lives, individuals do not consult their genes or evaluate their object representations. They ask, “Who am I?” and find the answer in memories, stories, and images from the life they have lived.

The Concept of Imago

Another important aspect of the narrative identity model is the concept of imago, briefly mentioned earlier. The characters that dominate our lives are imagoes. An imago is a personified and idealized concept of the self; these characters act in the myth as if they were persons, hence they are personified, and each has a somewhat exaggerated and one-dimensional form, hence they are idealized. When we move through early and middle adulthood, we develop and articulate these imagoes. Each imago may grow to encompass more pieces of the self in the story. Imagoes may appear as villains or heroes of certain chapters in our lives. They are often embodied in external role models and other significant persons in the adult’s life (McAdams, 1993; Gregg, 2011). Our myths and our lives are generally too complex to have only one main character. We draw our characters from our imagoes, which are internalized complexes of actual or imagined personas (Lansky, 1989; McAdams, 1993). Integrating between conflicting imagoes in our personal myth could be considered a hallmark of a mature identity in our middle-adult years. In this context of integrating parts of ourselves that may seem conflicting or are in tension with one another, researcher Ruth Josselson (2004) elaborates that in the contemporary novel, the protagonist is regarded as a being in the process of evolving and developing. This development entails the inevitability of reconciling between some adolescent behaviors or beliefs with middle adulthood behaviors and beliefs, which could be conflicting with each other, but make perfect sense when knowing the person’s life story. In the therapeutic framework, therapeutic narrative is implicitly and inherently novelistic in that it is based on the premise of an evolving self with a history that includes meaningful linkages among life events and inner meanings, meanings linked to a self that grows in self-understanding (Josselson, 2004).

Narrative in Therapy

As therapists, one of the first things we try to inculcate in our patients is curiosity about their own life histories, which involves suggesting that there is more to the initial narrative than has yet been presented or understood (Josselson, 2004). It is, of course, our assumption that joining this narrative form represents health and growth. What we conceive to be making sense in a life narrative is always psychic sense – the integration of emotion, wishes, thoughts, and fantasy with external events and niches for the self to express itself. The process of creating and telling a life narrative is the transformation of facts into psychic reality. This is what both good novels and good psychotherapies do. All good stories are, in their essence, psychological stories in that it is the complex interpretive interplay of desire, fantasy, feeling, and action churned through the imaginative processes of the living person that imbue events with meaning. The facts of a life only assume narrative meaning when they are embedded in the emotional coherence of a life story (Josselson, 2004; McAdams, 2008).

References

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Gotlib, I. H., & Wheaton. (1997). Stress and adversity over the life course: Life trajectories and turning points. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Gregg, G. S. (2011). Identity in life narratives. Narrative Inquiry, 21(2), 319-328.

Josselson, R. (2004). On becoming the narrator of one’s own life. In A. Lieblich, D. P. McAdams & R. Josselson (Eds.), Healing plots: The narrative basis of psychotherapy (pp. 111-127). United States: American Psychological Association.

Lansky, M. R. (1989). The paternal imago. (pp. 27-45). Hillsdale, NJ, England: Analytic Press, Inc, Hillsdale, NJ.

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McAdams, D. P., Reynolds, J., Lewis, M., Patten, A. H., & Bowman, P. J. (2001). When bad things turn good and good things turn bad: Sequences of redemption and contamination in life narrative and their relation to psychosocial adaptation in midlife adults and in students. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(4), 474-485.

McAdams, D. P. (1993). Stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

McAdams, D. P. (1992). Unity and purpose in human lives: The emergence of identity as a life story. New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co, New York, NY.

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Singer, J. A. (2001). Living in the amber cloud: A life story analysis of a heroin addict. In D. P. McAdams, R. Josselson & A. Lieblich (Eds.), (pp. 253-277). United States: American Psychological Association.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wrye, H. K. (2006). Deconstructing the unconscious saboteur: Composing a life with ambition and desire. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 15(2), 70-80.