Alusine M. Kanu, D.A.
In McAdams’s (2006) article titled Continuity and Change in the Life Story, there are attempts to answer the question, should life narrative accounts reveal developmental change? The answer to the question calls for an explanation of what narratives are, their application to counseling, and the usefulness of narrative “therapy” and narrative theology. Narrative approaches to personality suggest that people create meaning and purpose in their lives through the construction of life stories. Bruner (1990) reports that people explain who they are, how they came to be, and where they believe their lives may be going by formulating, telling, and revising stories about the personal past and the imagined future. In some cases individual stories often differ from narratives provided by religion or culture.
A personal life story is an internalized and evolving narrative of the self as a way to provide a life with an overall sense of coherence and purpose. Hooker and McAdams (2003) discuss that life stories represent significant and measurable aspects of personality. Self- appraisal develops from words and actions, from what others say, and from ways one perceives self. The self is socially constructed through communication; that is, the self is a result of how others speak to you and treat you and how one sees self. Counselors can help clients in self-monitoring through the use of feedback and adaptation of behavior to counseling cues.
Life stories speak to how a person integrates his or her life in time and social context and what he or she believes that life means, ultimately expressing the person’s narrative identify (Singer, 2004). The article shows significance that individuals telling life narrative accounts featuring motivational themes of personal growth scored high on measures of ego development as well as psychological well being. Generally self-presentation may be defined as the way we portray ourselves to others at times through narratives. Self-presentation is consistent with an ideal self-image that permits us to define the situation in our terms, and (or) influences the progress of interactions.
Erving Goffman (1981) describes everyday interactions through a narrative, dramaturgical, or theater arts viewpoint. Goffman’s theory embraces individual identity, relationships, the context or situation constructed to provide others with “impressions” consistent with the desired goals. Identity management may be unconscious and second nature. An important aspect of identity for many people is their spirituality. Spirituality includes the principles someone values in life. Identity and spirituality involve people’s beliefs about the meaning of life, which often includes personal philosophies, an awe of nature, a belief in a higher purpose, and religious beliefs and practices such as, “I believe in God.” For people who include spirituality as a part of their identity, communication provides a means of expressing and sharing spiritual ideas and practices with one another.
High self-monitors are those individuals who are highly aware of their identity, management behavior, and low self-monitors communicate with others with little responses to their messages (Snyder, 1979). As people tell and reflect on their stories, from a counseling perspective one can identify emotional tone, motivation themes as well as narrative complexity and self-differentiation with outcomes of understanding their own personal development.
One of the most important forms of communication that help to maintain relationships in counseling is stories; the use of narrative accounts shared repeatedly binds the relationship between the counselor and the counselee. Stories provide a sense of identity, establish the mores that govern life, and provide knowledge that allows connecting past experiences with current ones. Stories are what some researchers call true self-disclosure which exists when the teller feels the risk he or she is taking in telling the information. A disclosure should be considered story even if it does not seem personal to the average listener. Some stories seem to be inherently more personal than others. How a person can reveal an actual disclosure (that is, story) has consequences. Self-disclosures should be encouraged by counselors because there is always something more to tell or someone else to whom to disclose. What complements story telling or self-disclosure is narrative therapy and narrative theology. The approaches to counseling and community work are informed by the narrative metaphor and story analogy and being sensitive to issues of social justice, particularly in the various dimensions of diversity including class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The telling of a story is powerful. The world’s help books such as the Bible, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha are practically devoid of statistics but are full of stories and parables.
The basic theme of narrative therapy is that “the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.” Narrative therapy is applicable for work with families, groups, individuals, and communities. Narrative therapy is a respectful and collaborative approach to counseling and community work. It focuses on the stories of people’s lives and is based on the idea that problems are manufactured in social, cultural, and political contexts. Each person produces the meaning of their life from the stories that are available in these contexts. In essence, within a narrative therapy approach, the focus is not on experts solving problems. It is on people discovering through conversations the hopeful, preferred, and previously unrecognized and hidden possibilities contained within themselves and unseen story lines.
Narrative therapy assumes each story is ideological and a representation of reality. (White, 1987). While the stories are co-authored within a society and within the context of organizations and family structures, narrative therapy places a great deal of importance on finding ways in which an audience can be invited to play a part in authenticating and strengthening the preferred stories that emerge in therapy.
Narrative theology encompasses a variety of specific approaches to theology, interpretation, and application. People generate common meanings through the messages they provide. Meaning understands messages. Meaning facilitates appropriate responses that indicate messages are understood. Most generally, it is that approach to theology that finds meaning in story. Such a view is associated with the idea that to learn ethics from scripture is to learn to relate to God, and to play our part in the helping professions in our common humanity will result in the great meta-narrative of salvation.
The idea that we learn theology from narrative portions of scripture is not only sound, but biblical. The Bible stories are there to teach us truth; we are supposed to learn from those truths and to apply these lessons to our lives. We are supposed to interpret and apply these stories. This is why the stories have been preserved for us. A narrative theology encourages us to draw meaning from larger structures. A narrative theology is informed not by a post-biblical belief system, but by a community, which has to act and interpret its actions in the light of theological tradition and of immediate experience. Within a narrative framework, it should be easier to maintain a sense of how the relation between Jesus and God must be understood dynamically and functionally.
The narrative setting in view draws contextual and appropriate conclusions from the tests. We need to recognize that within the covenant community, within the body of Christ, the spirit of God prompts (continues to prompt) a wide range of insights into the nature of the overlap of identity and purpose between Jesus and God. Narrative theology, when used rightly, provides insights and true understanding. Narrative approaches, counseling, and narrative theology are approaches that are inseparable and complement one another. Narrative approaches are analyses of the concept of meaning through life stories. Meaning includes the thoughts in one person’s mind as well as interpretations counselors make in clients’ messages in stories they tell. Counselors can help clients to manage identity by listening to stories they tell and by deciding communication behaviors that influence. To be our social selves, individuals functioning within social cultural and political communities, poses the need to voice our identities.
When one voices identity through narrative, the role of the counselor is to be a good listener with empathy. Empathic listening focuses on understanding a member’s situation, feelings, or motives. Empathic listening is difficult, but it also is “the pinnacle of listening” because it demands the “fine skill and exquisite tuning into another’s mood or feeling.” Empathic listening is a good idea for counselors to monitor feedback, show interest and concern, have a posture that communicates friendliness and trust, and avoid evaluative reactions with focus on the narrator. Empathy is the counselor’s ability to sense the client’s world the way the client does and to convey that understanding.
Self-fulfilling prophecies from the client’s point of view mean something happens because it is expected to happen. Self-fulfilling prophecies may be self-imposed when expectations influence behavior or other imposed when the expectations of another person influence a behavior. Self-fulfilling prophecies usually follow a pattern. First, we form expectations of ourselves, others, or particular events. Next, we communicate those expectations to others. Third, others respond to our behaviors. Fourth, our expectations confirm our original thinking. McAdams proposes that future research on continuity and change might shed light on narratives and personality which emerges from adulthood into midlife and beyond including the varied notions of narratives.
Bruner, J.S. (1990). Acts of meaning, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hooker, K. and D.P. McAdams (2003). “Personality reconsidered: A new agenda for aging research,” Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. 58B, 296-304.
McAdams, D.P. et al. (2006). Continuity and change in the life story: A longitudinal study of autobiographical memories in emerging adulthood, Journal of Personality. 7495) 1371-1400.
Singer, J.A. (2004). “Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult life span: An introduction,” Journal of Personality. 72, 437-459.
Snyder, M. (1979). Self monitoring processes: Advances in experimental social psychology. New York: Academic Press.
Whtie, M. (1991). “Deconstruction and therapy,” Dulwich Centre Newsletter. 1, 6-46.