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22 May 2007

Life Stories... ...psychologists explore how the stories we tell ourselves can contribute to or detract from mental health.[More:]
On my folklore ListServ, of course, all the oral historians and personal-narrative collectors are saying, in essence, "well, duh." Still, I enjoyed reading about constructing narrative in the therapeutic context.

I don't do the thing of making my problems a 'villian,' but I certainly do craft narratives of redemption: of mistakes fixed, problems overcome, efforts which paid off, unexpected positive outcomes just around the bend.
posted by Miko 22 May | 07:17
I find my mental health is served best by considering life not a story, but a absurd convoluted joke, and to get too wound up by things is to miss the punchline. I'm not kidding.
posted by jonmc 22 May | 07:32
Wait. People tell their stories in the third person? And this is healthy? Am I reading this right, Miko? Gosh, it would never enter my mind to do this. It seems counterintuitive. Then again, I don't pretend to be mentally healthy.
posted by rainbaby 22 May | 07:37
Wait. People tell their stories in the third person?

Jon pauses to take a drag of his cigarette and think, then types 'Jon pauses to take a drag of his cigarette and think.' then Jon asks rainbaby what she means by that.
posted by jonmc 22 May | 07:43
From the article, Jon.
posted by rainbaby 22 May | 07:48
(I know. I was just goofing)
posted by jonmc 22 May | 07:49
Oh, ok mc. Seriously Miko I need schooled on this third person thing. I can't wrap my head around it.
posted by rainbaby 22 May | 08:39
Well, I never read about the 3rd person thing before either. It's something new to me and I guess is a technique that can be used in therapy. When I read it, I also thought "Hmmm," and started to wonder what my problems and choices might look like if I were watching myself as a movie or book character. I may try it soon as a problem-solving strategy. I mean, it's interesting -- if I were sitting in a theatre watching a person in my position, and I felt empathy for them, what would I be rooting for them to do? What would I be hoping for? Would it be stupidly easy for me to see what they should do?

It may very well be a useful thing to do. I've often noticed that it's very easy for me to recognize what's causing other people trouble and give them useful advice, but I have a wicked hard time doing it for myself.
posted by Miko 22 May | 09:19
Notice that the conclusion states that third-person people from the study behave more sociably (initiating conversation) after recounting an unpleasant incident, and that the article tacitly assumes this is better and more indicative of positive change than being quiet.

Why? Why is chattiness, as opposed to introversion, read as a symptom of beneficial change?

Is that reasoning made explicit anywhere? I haven't had my coffee yet, so I might have glazed over it.
posted by Elsa 22 May | 09:23
(I meant "behave more sociably than first-person recounters," of course.)
posted by Elsa 22 May | 09:25
I see what you are saying about it being a useful tool Miko, but the article seemed to imply that when asked "come in on Thursday tell me the story of your life" some people just prepared a third person narrative, and those folks were the well adjusted ones. They must have been coached or steered in that direction, though. It seems so weird.
posted by rainbaby 22 May | 09:27
Fascinating article, Miko--thanks for posting it. I spent some time studying narrative therapy when I was in grad school, about ten years ago, and (this is sort of tangentially in response to rainbaby's question) one of the key elements of this approach is to externalize problems--in effect, recast them into the third person. ("A problem is something you have, not something you are.") A real problem in helping people out of bad emotional states is that they tend to identify themselves with their problems, and in time to define themselves that way. Thus, "I'm depressed" comes to mean "I can't [exercise, or spend time with people, or whatever thing might help me feel better]" because "I'm depressed," e.g., that behavior isn't congruent with my problem, and and hence is not part of "who I am" or what's possible for me.

If one can, however, cast "Depression" as a third-party intruder, a bad guy who's messing up one's life, then it opens up the possibility of seeing one's self as a fundamentally healthy, resilient person with plenty of resources and strategies that can be mobilized against the intruder. You can start identifying Depression's tactics and figuring out how to counter them; seeing his messages ("You're worthless") as stupid propaganda you can shred.

So that's a (very oversimplified) version of how the 3rd-person thing works in therapeutic story-telling. That voting-behavior thing is new to me, though, and fascinating. I'm going to have to look up the original research.
posted by kat allison 22 May | 09:32
Rainbaby, I re-read: it doesn't say that people just spontaneously started talking about themselves in the third person (that would be weird, IMO). They were instructed to do so as part of the studies. The study organizers were trying to find out if there was an emotional shift that could be achieved by telling the story with a shift in perspective.

They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author.


In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person. Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth.

So this was at the study organizers' urging.

As to initiating conversation as a measure of change - well, all I know is that I'm more comfortable with myself and more extraverted if I'm feeling generally content about things. When I feel I've made grievous mistakes and am really screwing up my life, I'm withdrawn and don't seek spontaneous interactions. I realize that much of this behavior could be determined by whether you're by nature an introvert or extravert, but the article doesn't specify whether they controlled for that, but it does say that the behavior was different between the two groups who received two different sets of instructions, so that difference is interesting. Without reading the study itself it would be hard to be sure if their conclusion is fair.

Also, the couple of times I've been through difficult episodes, or episodes of depression, it does seem almost as though it happened to another person. I can think about "the Miko of that time" with a degree of third-person objectivity, whereas I don't do that with myself in the present moment.

Basically, what I get from the article is that there's a strong suggestion that looking at the way you tell the story of your life - whether it's first person or third, to yourself or to an audience - is a useful tool for mastering your emotions and making choices.

On preview: thanks, katallison. It strikes me that the couple of times I've had good help from therapy, it's because the therapist was able to support the part of me that saw myself as a resilient person, with a lot of past successes, capable of handling the invasive and temporary problem at hand. Cool.
posted by Miko 22 May | 09:43
Interesting point about the 3rd person narrative being correlated to future action. I think I tend to do that, but I always chalked it up to my acting experiences - if I imagine myself as a character I'm playing, I will see it in the third person. So, if I need to do something, I end up mentally "casting" myself in that role and I see the character of myself doing it. I always thought I was just weird doing this.

It does take a little time to get into this mindset, though, so I rarely manage to get into it when I'm put on the spot to talk to people.
posted by backseatpilot 22 May | 10:00
I was trained as an actor to see and speak about the character in the first person, which I continue to do. Maybe that helped mess me up - ha.

The language in your second quote was confusing for a layperson - the bold should have said "were instructed to" or something.

She said.

Even that was hard, I find it hard to let go of my me-ness. Verrrry interesting. Thanks Miko.
posted by rainbaby 22 May | 10:07
Thanks Miko, I found the article interesting.
posted by drezdn 22 May | 11:37
This is cool -- I'd kind of picked up on this sort of thing intuitively after a couple years of really good therapy -- this helps confirm that I wasn't just tripping. Thanks.
posted by treepour 22 May | 12:16
Awesome article, and awesome comment, katallison.

I keep hearing mentions of narrative therapy during my counseling-training program. It's always sounded totally fascinating, and something I keep meaning to research further. The stories we tell ourselves are *so* powerful; even just the abstracts, for lack of a better word -- "I'm so bad with names," "I've never been good at school," "I don't do well in relationships" -- can so completely dictate how you act. You believe X about yourself, so you always act as if X is true, even if you could change it fairly easily. Or even if you have changed your behavior or circumstances, but you still see yourself through the old lens, because that's "who you are."

And, as always, I think it ties in with so much of the meditative practices I've learned about, with seeing your thoughts and emotions as part of you, but not the entire you, with being able to find a "you" that's entirely outside all your beliefs and actions and thoughts and emotions and not bound up or defined by any of them.

Woo! Between this article, the coffee I'm drinking, the yoga class I just got home from, and the start of a new semester, I'm all charged up to go therapize someone! Tell me your stories, patients!!! :-)
posted by occhiblu 22 May | 13:30
(Also, I think the "small talk with stranger" thing was measured specifically because the researchers were trying to find out if people had changed their views of their own social awkwardness, and whether those changed views would change their behavior. A willingness to have a conversation with a stranger seems a pretty standard measure of social confidence, I think.)
posted by occhiblu 22 May | 13:35
I really, really need to get into yoga and meditation. That was another thing I got from reading "Eat Pray Love" -- that there might be a way to view my own existence with fuller compassion and enough objectivity not to be continually batted about by changes of emotion.
posted by Miko 22 May | 14:10
For me, the main benefit of yoga and meditation stuff has been not being battered about by my thoughts; it's such a profoundly un-Western way of envisioning the self. (Though it's also what Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy teaches.)

Imagining emotions as things happening to me rather than things I was caught up in is definitely most helpful day-to-day, and probably in some senses more useful, but for some reason that's an easier concept for me to grasp. Letting go of my thoughts in the same way has been more of a challenge, but one that's been really worthwhile. (And that's kind of what I imagine to be helpful with narrative therapy -- putting new *words* to old emotions as a way of changing the thought patterns, rather than just getting insight into the emotional patterns.)

It's interesting to note how, in myself, it's easy to think of what's going on in the heart as something that's changeable, temporary, and therefore ignorable; but that what's going on in the head is somehow profoundly true, unchanging, and demanding of attention. Some of my work lately has just been learning to listen *more* to my emotions (even while realizing they're temporary) and not getting so wrapped up in my head.
posted by occhiblu 22 May | 14:30
According to this article, it's interesting to learn that people with mood problems put a negative spin, or negative ending, to their good memories. "Generative adults" — those who are likely to be "energetic and involved" — tell stories of redemption. I do a bit of both. When I tell my story, there are stories of redemption, but there are also stories of self-pity and blame for my turbulent childhood and circumstances. Mainly, the circumstances I was born into. Family, neighborhood, socio-economic class, etc. My "story" is laced with thoughts such as, "If my parents hadn't done XYZ, or weren't the way they were, I could have gone to different schools, had better self-esteem, associated with better adjusted people, etc. I endured a lot of physical abuse. I felt cheated. Many of my stories end with blame toward my parent's incompetence. I don't wish to play the role of the victim, and I've never verbalized that I feel resentment, but I have these thoughts.

However, the older I get, the less resentful I am. Especially in the last few years I've had more understanding and forgiveness. At times, I'm kind of grateful for my childhood. When I tell my story, it's uncomfortable for me to even address some parts of my past life, but all in all I feel redeemed. In my mind, I've come such a long way. On the flip side, I've beaten myself up for not "being more" than I am.

It's also interesting to note how siblings perceive the same event of circumstance. My sister is only two and a half years younger, but doesn't harbor the same kind of resentment. She has commented that, "it wasn't that bad", or "I didn't feel that way" when we have discussed our childhood. My sister does admit it was pretty sucky, and I got the brunt of abuse. In Jeannette Walls' memoir, "The Glass Castle", Jeannette's sister would become tearful and terribly upset when recollecting a terrible childhood event they both experienced. Walls could talk about it without becoming emotional, even laugh about it, but the sister found it incredibly painful.

I'm afraid I'm not making sense, and going off the topic of the article, so I'll stop.

Occhiblu, I think you're going to be a great therapist. I've promised myself to seek therapy so many times. On the weekends when it is impossible to make an appointment I always have the urge to call. On business days I talk myself out of it. Hmmm.

Miko, I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love. I checked it out from the library, which only had the large-type version. It took some getting used to. :)
posted by LoriFLA 22 May | 17:21
A professor of mine said I had a gift for clinical insight. Any takers?
posted by Pips 22 May | 17:47
I'm with rainbaby - that was not clear that the subjects were instructed to tell the stories in 3rd person. I was also thinking how strange that was.

I think I know what you were getting at LoriFLA. Some of us are just hard-wired differently. I think that's what makes studies like this so fascinating.

When I was little, my brother and I both had hamsters, one for each of us. They both looked the same so we could never tell who's was who's. One day, our little dog Piper chewed one of the escaped hamsters up real good, killing it. My mother brought my brother and I down to the basement where the dead hamster lay and explained what had happened. My immediate reaction was "that one's yours, Scott!" and ran back out to play. My brother, of course, began crying and grieving for his dead hamster.

According to my mom, some psychiatrist she knows still uses that story for an example of, uh, resilience maybe?
posted by Hellbient 22 May | 17:54
and I got the brunt of abuse

bore the brunt

I might try to write my life story in the third person. But then what?

In my early twenties is when I had the most feelings of resentment. It peaked again when I had my first child. Things are a lot, lot better nowadays.

Pips, do you set up your stand for that crazy husband of yours? ;) Actually, I love being analyzed. I like to self-analyze. I think that's part of my problem.
posted by LoriFLA 22 May | 18:16
Thanks, LoriFLA.

You know, despite my wanting to be a therapist, and my complete belief in the power of therapy, whenever I've decided to see a therapist myself, it's taken months of psyching myself up (heh) to make that phone call.

That alone is one of the reasons I think being in therapy should be a requirement for training to be a therapist -- I think the therapist really needs to understand, viscerally, how hard it is, how courageous it is, to show up for the first appointment.
posted by occhiblu 22 May | 23:25
Stories are stories, after all. The attractive stranger at the airport bar hears one version, the parole officer another, and the P.T.A. board gets something entirely different.
This is something I have been working really hard on in myself over the past couple of years - trying to move away from presenting myself as the person I think my "audience" wants me to be. As I get older, I find that I care less and less about how others perceive me and am slowly coming to an understanding that I really can't affect how others perceive me all that much anyway.

I think people tend to make judgements about people they meet almost immediately and it is only after some time that they really start to see who you really are. By trying to fit in with what I think they see me as, I have always screwed up this process. By just showing who I am, warts and all, I have probably cut short some possible friendships, but I have gained some others and these are with people who react positively to me based on a truer picture of me than the ones I used to construct. I have to keep reminding myself that I am who I am and that is fine - some people won't like me, but that doesn't matter and I have got to the point where I know that I don't need everyone to like me. This seems so simple in hindsight, but some of us are slow learners, I guess ;-)

The people here are some of the first to see the real person that is me and I am sometimes amazed that not too many seem to hate me too much. I do sometimes have to remind myself to not try and act cool or impress people, but it gets easier with practice. The hardest part has been accepting that some people who I admire think I am a bit of a tool, but I am getting over that (slowly).

I find it hard to conceive of speaking or thinking of myself in the third person - I am totally wrapped up in me being me and could not portray my self in the third person without a real and conscious effort.
posted by dg 23 May | 05:40
Goat raped in Florida and now pregnant??? || Smoke!