We all face challenges. To overcome them we need to learn not just to write but to edit our life story.
“Everybody is the hero of their own life story,” said the American novelist and short-story writer John Barth. How we view ourselves as protagonists in a narrative, coming up against the challenges that life throws at us and either handling them successfully or buckling under their destructive impact is an essential driver of our personal and professional successes.
Few people undergo the challenges and struggles faced by refugees. Are they victims or survivors? To find out how this group answered this simple question themselves, researchers at the Free University of Berlin recruited nearly 100 refugees who had arrived in Europe four years earlier.
They were split into two groups, one of which was invited to reframe their experience by reading statements written by what appeared to be previous refugee students about how their experiences had made them more resilient and independent. They also wrote about incidents and lessons learnt in their own lives that might help them to become good students. The other refugees, the control group, were asked to focus on good study techniques only.
Reframing your narrative
Both groups were then invited to choose a logical thinking exercise of varying degrees of difficulty. The reframing group, the researchers discovered, opted for more challenging exercises than the control group. Their written activity based on their own lives was also considered, when it was independently analysed, to be more motivating and empowering and it suggested that they felt that they had greater control over their lives.
When this idea was applied to a group of over 500 real refugee students a year later, they were found to have engaged 23 per cent more on the learning platform that they and the control group were using.
These findings are supported by the work of Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. “Many of us have healthy, optimistic stories that serve us well,” he said in an interview with Scientific American magazine. “But sometimes, people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories.”
As well as psychotherapy, Professor Wilson recommends “story editing.” There are a number of ways of doing this. “In one, called ‘story prompting’ people are given information that suggests a new way of interpreting their situation. This is particularly effective when people haven’t settled on the narrative they will tell about what is happening to them,” he told Scientific American.
Struggling at college
In one experiment, Wilson took a group of students who were struggling academically and might therefore have begun to think that they just weren’t college material and should drop out. These students were told that finding the early years at college difficult is not at all unusual and most people who go through the experience flourish later in their academic careers.
This point was underlined by showing the group videos of interviews with students who were in more senior years at college that had been through this experience. By editing their own narrative and changing it from “I’m not good enough to be at college” to “I’m struggling at the moment but this is normal and it will pass,” the group performed better academically and emotionally than a control group.
Professor Wilson points out that young people who are at risk of teenage pregnancies that they might not be able to manage properly can be helped to avoid this narrative by being encouraged to do voluntary work. As a result they often edit their story from being one about an alienated youngster with nothing to contribute to the world to that of someone who has the ability to do good and make good decisions.
Our role – victim or survivor?
In our own narratives, on the one hand we can choose to identify as a victim or someone who’s angry with the world and alienated from it. On the other hand, we can edit our life stories to cast ourselves as a survivor, someone who has been bloodied and challenged but carries on, wiser and more resilient. This role also means that we put other people’s bad behaviour into context and handle future challenges more effectively.
If we want people to achieve better outcomes in their lives, whether they’re children, students, or colleagues, we need to encourage them to be ready to re-frame and edit their own story.