What do your stories reveal? Much more than you might think. A recent NY Times article provides an overview of the research that has been done by personality psychologists on how people’s stories contain themes and elements that reflect their personality. This idea is not a new one. Everyone knows the archetypal psychotherapist holding up an ink blot and asking “What do you see here?” Projective tests have a long history in clinical psychology and therapists look for what kinds of stories clients tell, what elements are in the story, and how the client resolves the story for clues into their psychological health and what is bothering them. A client may not know that they are still struggling with the memory of a harsh and overbearing parent, but may tell stories that reveal those themes.
And stories reveal more than just our problems; they can also reveal our strengths. Many theories of personality propose that our stories reflect the type of person we are. For example, if we are a resilient person, we tell stories of carrying on through difficult times or overcoming tragedy or hard circumstances. What is even more intriguing is that our stories might actually shape the way we behave in the future. A study cited in the NY Times article shows that those who are forced to tell stories where they overcame embarrassment are more likely to be social in a subsequent situation.
So in the future, when you are meeting someone new, listen carefully to their stories. And when you are feeling down or stressed, think about telling a personal story involving a positive outcome, or one that highlights your resilience in times of stress. You might find yourself feeling better.
Dan McAdams is one of the foremost experts on narrative theories on personality. His web page is worth a look. And if you are very interested in this topic you might check out his latest book (he is an excellent writer as well).