If you’re like me, you’ve heard people talk about how therapeutic it can be to write your life stories.
Heck, if you’re like me, you’ve told others how therapeutic it can be to write stories based on personal experiences.
But does memoir writing actually lead to healing?
Can diving head-first into our personal histories be a type of therapy?
Is it time to pick up a pen and fire your therapist?
My own life story writing has brought me to places of deep healing. I have not needed to seek the help of a professional therapist since I began on my writing journey. And yet, I know from my work with clients that revisiting the past through writing can sometimes stir up difficult emotions.
I want you to know it’s completely normal if that happens to you.
I also want you to know there’s something you can do to make the life story writing process more emotionally beneficial for you.
The Proven Benefits
Let me explain by way of the research conducted by Dan McAdams, a personality psychologist at Northwestern University. Over the past few decades, Dr. McAdams has studied how hundreds of people describe the narrative arc of their lives.
When Dr. McAdams interviews people, he encourages them to divide their lives into chapters, to reflect on early memories, and to look for recurring themes.
What Dr. McAdams discovered in his research doesn’t surprise me: He found that some people tell what he calls “redemptive” stories about their lives, while others tell “contamination” stories.
According to Dr. McAdams, we all make “narrative choices” when telling our stories. Our interpretations of the past determine what details we include, what parts we leave out, and what conclusions we draw from our experiences.
Two people can have the same experience but tell two different stories about it—one a contamination story and one a redemptive story.
Redemptive vs Contamination
Both ways can be true, but only one will keep us out of the therapist’s office.
For example, I recently reconnected with a high school girlfriend who I hadn’t been in touch with since graduation.
As we talked, we realized our lives had many parallels. We both moved from Virginia to California, had one daughter, we’re both entrepreneurs, and had been divorced three times.
As we compared notes, I confessed that for many years I felt ashamed to admit my poor track record in relationships.
“I haven’t felt that way,” she said playfully. “The way I see it is that I’m the kind of woman men want to marry!”
We had the same set of experiences (three divorces), but I was carrying a contamination story while she carried a redemptive story.
My theme was that I was a loser regarding marriage. My friend’s theme was that she was a winner.
Indeed, studies show that telling redemptive stories can lead to better psychological well-being and mental health while telling contamination stories more often leads in the opposite direction.
So, don’t fire that therapist yet. Not until you’re ready to turn your contamination stories into redemptive stories. That’s what we’re all about at Journey to Legacy. We’re gearing up for the next session, so if you want to find out more, CLICK HERE.
A relationship coach made the distinction between victor and victim, depending on how you perceive the story and assign meaning to it. Experiences have many layers and shades–which ones and combinations do you choose for your story?
Great point, Jeanne. Redemption and contamination is similar to victim and victor. As far as which ones and combinations to use in our stories, for me the most important thing is that my story is authentic to my experience and that it seeks the lesson or silver lining in even the most difficult circumstances. How do you choose?