Our life experiences, or stories, help us organize and understand how we became who we are today. As new experiences come in, for better or worse, the things that matter to us change (Greigor, 2013). This means that the stories we choose to tell ourselves, or tell about ourselves to others, changes with time. McAdams (2008) explains that the stories we tell ourselves form our self-identities and create our personalities. People are defined by their stories and rewrite their own self-defining life stories as needed.
People, particularly when young adults, experiment with different stories or different angles of the same story, by telling them to their family and friends. Eventually people figure out their life themes and learn to present their identity by choosing the proper story lines to share (McAdams, 2008). If we have the power to change and polish our stories, then, does changing our stories have the power to change our lives?
Ullrich & Lutgendorf (2002) found that telling one’s story can bring powerful benefits, not just in terms of organizing our identities, but for people who have experienced suffering, telling their stories can even create changes in the brain. However, these benefits are not achieved when people simply recite the facts of their traumatic experience. The benefits occur when people make a cohesive narrative that includes their feelings and what their painful experiences mean to them now (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Niederhoffer & Pennebaker (2009) explain that as people tell their stories, they structure them and give them meaning which ultimately allows their past experiences to become integrated in their self-identity in a healthy way. McAdams (2008) explains that “changes in narrative identity constitute real personality change” (p. 246).
People have the power to control their narratives as they have a menu of stories from which they can choose. These stories are chosen and interpreted from within the culture where they exist. They can also choose to modify their stories as their understanding evolves and their values change. In a professional sense, storytelling can be help people take control of their life stories and by so doing, actively craft a healthy self-identity.
Gregoire, C. (2013). What your ‘life story’ really says about you. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/18/how-your-life-story-is-a-_n_4284006.html
McAdams, D. (2005). Studying lives in time: A narrative approach. Towards an Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Life Course Advances in Life Course Research, 10, 237-258. doi:10.1016/S1040-2608(05)10009-4
Niederhoffer, K.G. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2009, July). Sharing one’s story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience. In Snyder, C.R., Lopez, S.J. Eds, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd ed.) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.013.0059
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274– 281. http://dx.doi.org.fgul.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.3.274
Ullrich, P. M. & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 3), 244-50.