Wednesday 6 September 2023

Is it good to conceive of one's life narratively?

This post is by Sally Latham. Sally is a PhD candidate with the Open University Philosophy Department, researching non-narrative approaches to treating mental illness. She also teaches Philosophy A Level at Birmingham Metropolitan College. 

Sally Latham

Stories are undoubtedly amazing things. Telling and listening to them improves our lives in many ways. However, in my view, this is not true of the stories we tell about our own lives.

In my PhD thesis I reject the widely-held view that telling our life-narrative is a good thing. I focus particularly on why illness narratives and narrative-inspired therapies are not always the ideal form of treatment for mental illness (and in fact can do more harm than good). This sits within a far broader social paradigm in which ‘telling your story’ has become almost a cultural imperative, especially when recovering from mental illness.

One of the many reasons I believe the dominance of life-narratives to be so worrying is that – contrary to the prevailing view – they are likely to hinder self-understanding, misrepresenting our lives.

In this blog, Grace Hibshman discussed her paper "Narrative, Second-person Experience, and Self-perception: A Reason it is Good to Conceive of One's Life Narratively" (2022). In it, she argues that life-narratives can yield a rare second-person insight into oneself, which you can obtain by imagining an audience immersed in your life-narrative. This insight can enhance self-understanding, which contributes to flourishing.

In our short paper "Is it Good to Conceive of One’s Life Narratively?" (2023), Mark Pinder and I argue that, pace Hibshman, life-narratives are likely to misrepresent our lives and therefore hinder self-understanding and flourishing.

One way in which this can happen is because we confabulate. We give earnest, coherent reasons for our choices, but these are not backed up by relevant evidence and do not correspond to our actual decision-making process (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). These will sometimes conform to already existent biases (Bortolotti 2018). This will naturally translate into the decisions we include in our life-stories, meaning that despite our best intentions, the explanations given in our narratives will be confabulated.

Additionally, we seek the gratification of the emotional closure that a good story brings, and mistake emotional closure for truth. A ‘good’ story provides an emotionally satisfying resolution, often conforming to familiar tropes, such as rags-to-riches, sinner-to-saint or triumph over adversity. A story that provides such emotional closure is more likely to seem true, regardless of its actual truth, even when that story is about ourselves.

Moreover, even if individual events within a narrative are accurately represented, a life-narrative can still misrepresent due to the way those events are selected. In putting together our life-narratives, we disproportionately favour events that support our self-conception: if I believe I am courageous, I will discount the times I shrank from danger. The resulting life-narratives misrepresent us.

We tell our stories to ourselves and others, in good faith. In so doing we may well gain a new perspective on ourselves. But that new perspective is likely to be of a misrepresentation. In telling our life narrative, we mislead ourselves about who we are.



  1. This is sharply put and FWIW I think it's right. For the sake of argument, though: many narrativists (e.g. Marya Schechtman, Mark Freeman, Jerome Bruner) are going to say that you're missing their point. It's not that there's a self or a life there in advance, which a life-narrative could misrepresent; it's that self-narration constructs the self. I can't misrepresent myself in my life story, because my self is my self-told life story. (Sorry for blowing my own trumpet, but you might find my book Good Lives (OUP 2021) useful or interesting on narrative and human flourishing.)


  2. Thank-you Sam, I will definitely check out the book, and thanks for taking the time to read the piece and comment. I think a distinction between stories about the past and future could be useful here. If we are supposedly creating the self by retrospectively telling our life-story, then it follows that I could tell one life-story one day and another the next, and that the self I create is arbitrary. Maybe some narrativists wouldn't perceive this as a problem, but I think it is a recipe for inauthenticity. In my PhD I am arguing against metaphysical narrativism, the theory that being narrative is the necessary for the existence of self and/or stable character traits. However this does not preclude the use of positive future-looking life-stories as a psychological motivator. Each morning I might tell myself the story that I am going to be a successful PhD candidate and produce an amazing thesis, and this might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if I am convincing enough. McConnell and Snoek (2012) argue that narrating recovery from addiction can have a positive impact on actual recovery.


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