Story Editing to Prevent a Downward Spiral
From writing down your experiences to reframing your perspective, myriad techniques can help you transcend painful setbacks and reshape your own story.
by Susan Gregory Thomas
My oldest daughter was usually quiet and exhausted on the hour-long ride home from seventh grade. Not this day. She slammed the car door shut and spat that a classmate had been “incredibly rude” to her. She veered into a rant on hypocritical teachers and finally inventoried the despicable qualities of nearly every girl in her class.
I asked her what was really going on, and she answered truthfully: For the past six months, my daughter, who is mixed-race, had been viciously bullied in racist attacks by girls at her Philadelphia school, often in classrooms, while teachers seemingly took no notice.
I pulled over and began calling every teacher and administrator involved. They would hear every detail of my daughter’s story, and then this story was going to end because she needed to know that it was over.
The next morning, as we met with school officials who pressed her for specific names and incidents, I asked them to withdraw so I could talk to my daughter alone for a moment. There she sat, crumpled, shaking, terrified of retribution. But if she did or said nothing, those past few months would stay forever lodged, ruinously, in her psyche. She needed a victory, to feel her own power. So I put it to her: Today, she, an ordinary girl, could decide to be a hero and change the story for every nonwhite student at that school forever. And she did.
Now 15, my oldest is back to her charismatic, hilarious, sparkly self (and we are living in Brooklyn). The experience is melded to her core, and she’s tougher, but also more compassionate. She changed her story.
The experience was an exercise in narrative identity theory, a model for understanding human thought and behavior so flexible that its applications extend across disciplines from psychological and social science to medicine, therapy, and beyond. The premise: We are the stories we tell—and we are compelled to create stories to understand ourselves.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously observed in The White Album, and we live “by the imposition of a narrative line, upon disparate images” because of a critical need “to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
There is something intrinsic in our drive to explain, order, and extract meaning from the chaos of our lives. Storytelling is, after all, an adaptive behavior dating back as far as 40,000 years. The stories we tell ourselves don’t get fact-checked, but they do have to feel authentic to our personal experience. Our ability to make sense of, and create meaning from, memories defines how we feel about ourselves and shapes the identity we create throughout our lives.
“There is a very powerful impulse for us to take those stories of being shamed, of loss, of rejection, and figure out a way to give them a spin that allows us to see them as wisdom-building,” says Connecticut College professor of psychology Jefferson Singer. “We want to be able to say, ‘In a way, I’m glad that experience happened because it’s taught me something about how I want to live my life.'”
How do we go about converting those experiences to life stories, ideally positive ones? University of Virginia social psychologist Tim Wilson conducted landmark research in rapid, positive reframing. He devised what he calls “story editing” and “story prompting” techniques, which have been shown to produce surprisingly effective changes in perspective and behavior. He found my daughter’s story to be a prime example of taking a U-turn on a difficult stretch of one’s life.
The objective of story editing is to defuse harmful, possibly self-defining experiences that can cue defeating, destructive thinking or behavior. The technique can actually be most powerful as a strategy for dealing with broad social experiences, Wilson says—teenage pregnancy, violence, and substance abuse; racial prejudice in schools; PTSD—and can dismantle destructive cultural views, often surprisingly quickly. “It’s not so much designed to address personal distress,” he says. “It deals with issues psychotherapy isn’t geared to.”
Studies at Stanford and the University of Virginia, for example, have shown that simple, subtle story “prompting” can help minority and economically disadvantaged students at risk of dropping out turn their mindset around. Just dislodging pessimistic thinking has the potential to produce positive change in self-esteem, and, in turn, academic performance. One experiment involved students who had shared a group narrative identity along the lines of, “We’re too different from these rich kids—we’ll never catch up, and we’re probably not smart enough anyway.” Researchers showed them seemingly professionally produced videos citing evidence that many kids enter school believing they don’t belong or aren’t smart enough to handle the work—but that after a few months the majority adjust socially, get help from faculty, work diligently, and go on to succeed. Students who watched the videos experienced marked improvements in grades, graduation rates, and self-confidence.
There is nothing magical about the approach, Wilson says. It’s just a question of properly framing the “story prompt” in a social context to change group thinking. “The idea is to change kids’ idea that intelligence is this fixed thing we have,” he says, and instead help them realize that “achievement is about seeking the right help and overcoming obstacles.”
The experiment with students represents just one application of prompting. But the approach may be less helpful healing long-engrained traumatic narratives. “I like to think of story editing as catching people at the early stage of the game, before psychotherapy is called for,” Wilson says. “If we’re dealing with someone who’s been living with a negative story for years, these tweaks might not work.”
What if my daughter had decided against ever standing up to the bullying she experienced? What if she had kept the racist taunts a secret? What would have happened if she instead internalized it and folded it into her sense of self and identity? Potentially, very bad things.
Our formative life stories become entrenched, whether we like it or not, by adolescence, as we begin to orient our psyches around powerful memories, though we can’t necessarily control which will affect us the most. These “self-defining memories” come to reflect our most persistent psychological bêtes noires. We understand our internal selves and public identities through our interpretation of their value and significance.
“Life stories do not simply reflect personality,” according to psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. “They are personality.” By early adulthood, we’ve developed narrative scripts that we follow to predict, evaluate, respond to, and control our lives. We continue to update the narrative and refer to it for guidance when we encounter challenges: How do I respond to something like this? If our stories tell us we are resilient, we will be. If they tell us we’re not up to the fight, we likely won’t be.
A new approach to improving our outlook, then, literally asks us to rewrite our stories. A growing body of research finds that, on paper or out loud, reviewing setbacks with the fresh eyes of distance can help people come to terms with who they’ve been, better envision who they want to be, and find a way to make a course correction. Reframing helps people see events as opportunities or waypoints instead of the end of the road. And the psychologists who have developed such techniques argue that, in many cases, change can come far faster than we might expect.
We can’t change the past, but we can change how it affects us and who it makes us. When we tweak what we tell ourselves about the past , we can redirect our future. In our relationships, through our life choices, or at our jobs, we can recognize our mistakes, move on, and start to embody a different story.
Susan Gregory Thomas is a writer whose books inlcude In Spite of Everything: A Memoir.
Rewriting Your Present No Matter Your Past
by Sherry Hamby
The results were remarkable, even hard to believe. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas had assigned half of a group of students to write about a traumatic experience and half to write about a neutral topic—specifically, time management. In total, the students wrote for only an hour, spread out over a few days. But months later, those who had written about a traumatic event not only reported better psychological health but also had fewer visits to the student health center.
Was it a fluke? No. The benefits of rewriting—from improved mood and well-being to boosts in the immune system—have since been demonstrated in dozens of studies, including my own. Rewriting helps you organize your thoughts and feelings and put them into words. This, in turn, helps you gain perspective, sort out your emotions, and increase narrative coherence—your understanding of who you are, how you became that person, and where you are going.
Prompting a Reckoning
Some psychologists suggest that you write about the most traumatic experience you have been through, but that’s not the only type of writing that has helped individuals. Other prompts that have been successful include:
“I am thankful for all the experiences
in my life. However, what shaped me into who I am today was…”
“I will never forget the lesson I learned when…”
Think about an upsetting experience and replay it in your mind, trying to see it as
an observer. Try to understand the thoughts and feelings you had.
Think about a wonderful experience you had. Write about its impact on you.
Rewriting Your Wrongs
1. Very short writing times are helpful—as brief as two minutes at a sitting—and, in total, around two or three hours appears to be the most beneficial. More than that may not be better, as too much “navel-gazing” creates its own problems.
2. If you have an encouraging person in your life, ask him or her to give you feedback. If you do not, seek out someone, such as a therapist or counselor.
3. Share your story, perhaps with people who might be helped by hearing it. In my own research, sharing added to participants’ benefits.
4. Make sure your writing is grounded in your life. Writing about abstract principles does not appear to deliver the same benefits.
5. Avoid rewriting when you are in the middle of a crisis. Let some time pass so you can step back and reflect.
6. Focus on post-traumatic growth—the fact that you can often learn something from bad experiences, such as increasing empathy for others, realizing that you have more inner strength than you thought, and identifying your true priorities.
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at the University of the South and director of the Appalachian Center for Resilience Research. She is also founding editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.
Updating Your Fable After the Glory Days Pass
by Susan Krauss Whitbourne
Seeing oneself as the hero or heroine of the grand drama that is your life is an almost universal feature of adolescent egocentrism. Preoccupied with issues of identity, and emotionally if not cognitively unable to see things from other people’s point of view, young adults are prone to adopt a mindset that they are always at center stage and that an imaginary audience follows their every move.
Just as prominent in adolescence is the myth of invincibility. Not only do many young people see themselves as the stars of their own reality shows, but they also believe they can do no wrong in pursuit of their (momentary) goals, whether it’s achieving a skateboard trick or winning a science fair.
Over time, most jettison the invincibility myth, and their personal fables evolve, as experience pokes holes in the belief that nothing but fame and fortune awaits. We realize we can actually fall off that skateboard, be bested by peers, or get into trouble by staying out too late or drinking too much. As we learn these lessons, most of us start to regulate our behavior accordingly. It’s a healthy way to develop realistic expectations about life.
Some people, however, struggle to surrender their fable. According to research by University of Virginia psychologist Joseph Allen and colleagues, these “pseudomature” individuals—”the cool kids”—are likely to fall much harder when their narrative develops cracks. In a long-term study spanning the critical years between ages 13 and 23, Allen’s team tracked early-adulthood outcomes for 175 males and females. The individuals within this group labeled “pseudomature,” based on early assumption of adult-like qualities in a variety of areas, were most prone to hang onto the myth of invincibility. And why not? At 13 and 14, they were the most popular, the most likely to engage in acts of minor delinquency, and the earliest to experiment sexually. They were also the most likely to prioritize popularity and looks and to choose friends based on appearance.
When we’re young, our personal fable is a scenario of projected accomplishment. As we age, we constantly revise our story to incorporate bouts with failure. Our vision of our lives—what I call our life span construct—is a direct outgrowth of our identity projected into the future and recalled from the past. Ideally, we each adapt it to take into account both success and failure. But for many of the pseudomature, fable remains fantasy. By their early 20s, their promise fails to materialize, and many start to backslide. They are more likely than their peers to use alcohol and marijuana and have problems related to substance use; to engage in criminal behavior; and to have poorer relationships with others.
This pattern of early promise followed by a downward spiral into adulthood is consistent with the findings of my own study of adults followed from college through their mid-50s. Some of the brightest and most talented of the 182 participants were less fulfilled in late middle age, and more embittered, than their “average” counterparts. They peaked too early and locked themselves into a story of expected success that their future efforts could not sustain. In part, this was because they rested on their laurels. But they also built into their identities an image of early stardom, and so everything occurring after that seemed like a letdown. Being successful early is fine as long as you remain willing to accept the realities of later accomplishments or failures.
For most healthy, well-adapted individuals on what I call the authentic road, setbacks don’t become derailments. Life happens, and we realize that there will be times that experiences don’t meet expectations. Bringing your personal fable and life span construct more into sync requires incorporating the knowledge you gain from disappointments into a more balanced sense of who you are and what you’re capable of. The ability to make the adjustments allows you to adapt to, and enjoy, your life’s ups and downs.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts and the author of The Search for Fulfillment.
Reinventing Yourself in Your Relationship
by Hal Shorey
At the beginning of a relationship, most of us feel happy, confident, excited, and hopeful. We are our best selves. As the relationship progresses, however, we sometimes lose that energy and become mired in older behavior patterns that leave us feeling unfulfilled, disappointed, irritable, or downright hopeless. I often hear clients exclaim that they don’t like who they are in their primary relationship—they don’t like how they feel or how they behave. (If they are insightful, they accept that the problem does not entirely reside in the behaviors and attitudes of their partner.) So the question is how to remain, or return to being, the person we want to be.
Philosophers and cognitive scientists agree that the world, including yourself, can only be known to you in terms of how you think about it. Your reality, including who you are, is a story you tell yourself—and you can change it.
To begin, accept that your conscious thoughts are words going through your head, but they are not you. Think about yourself in relation to your partner through a series of “I” statements. Now ask yourself, “Who or what is this ‘I’? My thoughts? Something that exists before my thoughts? Or something that I get to influence and create?” Thinking is a behavior, something you do. By extension, then, you should be able to choose to “do” your thinking differently. This notion is consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests that by altering your thoughts, and changing your life story, you can intentionally change the way you feel and behave, on your own and with your partner.
The common misperception is that you have to “figure things out” or change your attitude before you can change your behavior. Research shows, however, that changing your behavior first can influence your thinking. Sometimes, for example, the best thing to do after a spat or a testy exchange is to greet your partner warmly on your next encounter, as if nothing ever happened. This can break a cycle of negative interactions.
Know Your Pattern
You can choose the words that you say to yourself in your head, but a great deal of brain activity relating to perception and emotion happens below the level of conscious awareness, some of which gets wired into our personalities through interaction with our social environment (notably, our family) in childhood.
You can understand your pattern of detecting threats, reacting emotionally, and behaving defensively (or supportively) in part via your attachment style. When you feel scared or threatened in your relationship, the emotional centers of your brain might trigger an anxiety response, or lead you to emotionally “shut down”—even before you have a chance to figure out rationally what is really going on. When you know that this is your automatic reaction, you can work to change who you are in your relationship by learning to intentionally reengage with your partner if you’ve shut down, or to observe and accept your emotions without acting on them if your narrative leads you to express an anxiety response. Techniques include mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy.
Challenge Your Assumptions
We all have basic thoughts about ourselves, the world, and the people we are in relationships with—thoughts we’ve held so long, and repeated so often, that we forget that they’re just thoughts. They have become our story—a narrative we’ve locked ourselves into living. The problem is that these “core beliefs,” as we call them in CBT, may be irrational. And yet we still rely on them as roadmaps for navigating relationships, unknowingly eliciting behaviors from our partner that support these beliefs in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear of rejection, for example, leads us to behave in ways that increase, not decrease, the possibility of rejection.
Your Partner is Not Just a Character in Your Story
Even when you think that your partner’s behavior is in error, remember that you get to choose your response. When you accept that you have the freedom to change how you behave in the relationship, you should be prepared to see corresponding changes in the attitude and behavior of your partner.
Relationships are like small ecosystems: Everything is in balance, even if that balance is characterized by conflict and chaos. When you change your role in the system, it can go out of balance, and the other person, in an attempt to restore balance, might unconsciously try to pull you back into your old role, even if it’s a role they have not always embraced. But if you stay the course and choose to think, feel, and behave as the person who you want to be, rather than who you have always been, the resulting shift should be a positive one for both of you and lead to a truer and more rewarding relationship.
Hal Shorey, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology at Widener University’s Institute of Graduate Clinical Psychology.
Rewriting Your Career
by Jean Twenge
Career fulfillment has taken a hit lately. Many Americans, especially those under 35, struggle to find work that pays enough and fits with their skills and talents, not to mention their perception of who they believe they are and how they should be seen. Even those who have a “good” job often wonder, “Is this all?”
Perhaps as a result, young people are increasingly cynical about work. In 1976, one in four high-school seniors agreed with the statement, “To me, work is nothing more than making a living.” In 2014, one in three high-school seniors shared that view. Millennials are also less likely to take pleasure in work than are previous generations, less likely to say it’s important to have a job that’s interesting, and less likely to aspire to make friends at work.
It’s a serious problem, because the intrinsic rewards of work—how our careers support our life stories— are among the best predictors of performance. Studies find that workers who fundamentally enjoy what they do perform much better than those who focus primarily on extrinsic rewards like money. Valuing intrinsic rewards is also linked to greater happiness and better mental health overall. To rewrite your career story, buck the trend and focus more on what work gives you while you’re doing it.
Social media doesn’t help us live the career stories we want. We constantly judge ourselves via comparison to others, and social media fuels this fire. Seeing posts from friends about their seemingly glamorous, high-profile work can make us question our focus on intrinsic rewards. It helps to remember that every job has its downside, or at least its dull side, which few share on Facebook.
Keeping that in mind, begin to reframe your workday in ways that better fit your story. Knock off your mundane tasks as quickly as possible, at the times when you’re naturally least engaged (waiting for a train, sitting in the car during your kids’ sports practices, or waiting for a conference call to start). And when you get to the part of your job you really like, that most lets you be yourself, savor it. Put your phone on vibrate, don’t look at your email, and let yourself become immersed in what you’re doing. Aim for a flow state—the smooth passage of time that surrounds you when you are truly engaged.
Opportunities to be intrinsically engaged are harder to come by in distraction-filled workplaces, which is why it’s so important to direct yourself to them. Do it enough, and your performance will also improve. In the end, focusing on intrinsic fulfillment should lead to extrinsic rewards, too.
And if work offers you none of this? It might be time for a change. If your job really is just making a living, you probably deserve a better story—and can still create it. Intrinsic rewards abound in other spheres. Enjoying friends and family, helping the community, and engaging in activities you love outside of the office are all deep sources of intrinsic rewards.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.