Psychotherapy Narratives

Research on personal narratives has typically focused on stories about episodes that are emotional and seen as having some influence on the evolving sense of self. For many people who have been through it, having been in psychotherapy is one such experience. (For example, Lieblich (2004) found that people frequently spontaneously mention having gone to psychotherapy when recounting their life story and point to it as a key source of their personality development.) But psychotherapy stories are not just interesting examples of significant scenes from one’s life; they also play an important role in treatment process and outcome. Indeed, it has been suggested that the ability to construct a viable story to tell about one’s experience in psychotherapy is vital to the individual’s continued functioning once treatment has ended (Frank, 1961; Spence, 1982). Therefore, the study of psychotherapy narratives has the potential to inform both our understanding of adult personality development and psychotherapy process and outcome.

An initial investigation, conducted by Jonathan Adler and Dan McAdams, sought to develop qualitative descriptions of stories about psychotherapy told by individuals with varying degrees of subjective well-being and ego development (complex meaning-making processes), two independent dimensions of optimal functioning (Adler & McAdams, 2007a, 2007b). Subsequent quantitative work empirically replicated the themes identified in this qualitative investigation, pointing towards the role of agency and narrative coherence in contributing to psychological well-being (Adler, Skalina, & McAdams, 2008; Adler, Wagner, & McAdams, 2008). A major longitudinal study, conduced by Jonathan Adler, which focused on the development of psychotherapy stories over the course of treatment, empirically assessed the relationship between narrative changes and shifts in psychiatric symptoms. Blending the thematic analysis of narratives with multi-level modeling techniques, findings from this study indicate that shifts in individuals’ narratives temporally precede their clinical improvement. These results suggest that the development of narrative identity plays a vital role in mental health.

back to Research