Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Self as Narrative: Is it good to tell stories about ourselves?

Is the self divided? Since the time of Freud the notion of a fragmented self has taken deep root in how we think of ourselves. Freud thought we were subject to competing forces, some conscious and some unconscious. It was from the conflict of these forces that the self emerged. Enduring conflicts between different elements of the self could lead to mental breakdown and illness.

Many other psychologists and psychotherapists have proposed similar theories, suggesting that we split ourselves into different roles and identities and sometimes struggle to integrate the competing elements into a coherent picture. In his book, The Act of Living, the psychotherapist Frank Tallis argues that achieving integration between the elements of the self is one of the primary therapeutic goals of psychotherapy. Why? Because personal fragmentation is thought to lie at the root of human unhappiness:

The idea that fragmentation or division of the self is a major determinant of human unhappiness, anxiety and discomfort appears in the writings of many of the key figures in the history of psychotherapy. Our sense of self accompanies all our perceptions, so when the self begins to crack and splinter everything else begins to crack and splinter too. The world around us (and our place in it) becomes unreliable, uncertain, frightening, and in some instances untenable. We experience ourselves as a unity and threats to cohesion are deeply distressing. 
(Tallis 2021, 150)


You may have felt this distress yourself. I know I have. There are parts of my identity that I struggle to reconcile with others. There is, for instance, the conflict between the ideals of my working self and parenting self. I often ask myself how can I justify spending time writing articles like this when I could be spending time with my daughter, particularly when she is so young. I don’t know how to reconcile the two sides of myself.

How can we resolve the distress into something more psychologically appealing? One solution is to tell ourselves a story. As Joan Didion famously remarked: we tell ourselves stories to live. We are narrative creatures. If we can knit the elements of our lives into a satisfying narrative perhaps we can achieve some psychological stability. It’s an attractive idea and one that has resonated with many thinkers over the years.

Or is it? Some people disagree. One of the most prominent is the philosopher Galen Strawson. Echoing millennia of Buddhist thinking on the matter, Strawson has argued that he (at least) does not experience his life as a narrative, nor does he think it is a good thing to do so. On the contrary, he thinks that integrating one’s life into a narrative may be an impediment to insight and ethical decision-making.

In this article I want to consider the conflict between Strawson and defenders of narrativity. I start by outlining some of the research that has been done on the psychological value of self-narratives. I then move on to consider Strawson’s critique of this idea.

1. The Value of Self-Narrative

Those who think of the self as narrative are proponents of something Strawson calls the ‘narrativity thesis’. There are many different construals of the narrativity thesis. Some people argue that the self is, necessarily or quintessentially narrative. Daniel Dennett, for instance, has developed a theory of self that maintains that what we call the self is the ‘centre of narrative gravity’ in our conscious minds. In other words, our consciousnesses are constantly writing multiple draft stories about who we are. The self is the draft that emerges from the melee. Others have adopted a similar view suggesting that we are essentially narrative beings who experience and make sense of our lives in a story-like way.

There is, however, another construal of the thesis. Instead of maintaining that there is something essentially narrative about us we could hold that we are often fragmented but that it would be a good thing for us to integrate the elements into a coherent narrative. In other words, even though we may struggle to tell a coherent story about ourselves, we need to do this in order to maintain psychological stability and well-being. This normative or axiological version of the narrativity thesis is the one that interests me.

Is there any reason to endorse it? There are some intuitive reasons to do so. As noted in the introduction, the failure to integrate various aspects of your life into a common framework can be psychologically unsettling. It can lead to distress, procrastination and anxiety. For instance, when I think about my own personal ideals as both a parent and an academic, I find myself landed in an internal conflict not dissimilar to the dilemma faced by Buridan’s Ass (the mythical creature that was equally poised between the water and the food). The net result of this conflict is that I default to procrastination and apathy, living up to neither set of ideals. This is deeply frustrating and, from what I gather, not an uncommon experience.

But we can go further than mere intuition. There has been a lot of psychological research on the value of telling a coherent story about yourself. One of the chief researchers in this area is Dan P McAdams. Over the years, McAdams has defended two key claims about the importance of narratives to the human condition. First, he claims that narrativity is a central part of our self identity. In other words, we come to understand who we are through the stories we tell about ourselves. This occurs through what McAdams calls synchronic and diachronic integration. In other words, we integrate different roles or elements of our lives as they arise at one time (synchronically) and across time and space (diachronically). McAdams claims that it is during later adolescence that people form distinct and coherent self narratives that become a key part of their self-identity. This doesn’t mean that they lack a ‘self’ at an earlier age but they do lack a coherent self-identity:

To the extent that a person’s self-understanding is integrated synchronically and diachronically such that it situates him or her into a meaningful psychosocial niche and provides his or her life with some degree of unity and purpose, that person "has" identity. Identity.. is something people begin to "work on" and have…[in] the emerging adulthood years. At this time…people begin to put their lives together into self-defining stories. It is an internalized and evolving story of self that integrates the self synchronically and diachronically, explaining why it is that I am sullen with my father and euphoric with my friends and how it happened—step by step, scene by scene—that I went from being a born-again Christian who loved baseball to an agnostic social psychologist. 
(McAdams 2001, 102)


In addition to this, McAdams argues that the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves have a significant impact on our psychological well-being. If you tell yourself the story that you are a perpetual failure and a complete fraud, you won’t be as happy and fulfilled as someone who tells themselves a story highlighting their successes and triumphs over adversity. In a study published in 2013, McAdams and his co-author Kate McLean review the psychological literature on this topic and highlight several specific self-narratives that seem to be associated with psychological well-being. They suggest that research shows that people who tell stories that emphasise personal growth, redemption and an overarching sense of purpose or meaning in their lives are psychologically better off than others. Some examples of such research findings from their paper include:

Bauer and colleagues have examined negative accounts of life-story low points as well as stories about difficult life transitions. People who scored higher on independent measures of psychological maturity tended to construct storied accounts that emphasized learning, growth, and positive personal transformation. 
(McAdams and McLean 2013, p 235 reporting on Bauer et al 2006)


In a longitudinal demonstration, Tavernier and Willoughby (2012) reported that highschool seniors who found positive meanings in their narrations of difficult high-school turning points showed higher levels of psychological well-being than those students who failed to construct narratives about turning points with positive meanings, even when controlling for well-being scores obtained 3 years earlier, when the students were freshmen. 
(McAdams and McLean 2013, p 235)


The psychological importance of such self-storying seems to be confirmed by other sources. For instance, a centrepiece of cognitive behavioural therapy is to reexamine the core beliefs that we have about ourselves. These core beliefs are often the central narrative hinges of our lives. If your core belief is that you are unlovable, you tend to tell yourself a story that fits all your experiences with that core belief. By targeting automatic thoughts and assumptions that are linked to these core beliefs, cognitive therapists have demonstrated considerable success in helping people improve their psychological well-being. Similarly, and just because I happened to be interested in the topic, Houltberg et al’s study of the self-narratives of elite athletes suggests that athletes that have a purpose-based narrative identity score better on independent measures of psychological well-being than those with a performance-based narrative identity (i.e. those that emphasise perfectionism and fear of failure).

There are some important caveats to all of this. The association between certain self-narratives and psychological well-being may be highly culturally dependent. McAdams himself notes this, emphasising that stories of personal redemption and growth have a particular resonance in American culture. In cultures with a more communitarian ethos, other stories may have greater value. This is something to bear in mind as we turn to consider Strawson’s critique of narrativity.

2. Strawson’s Critique of Narrativity

Strawson doens’t buy the narrativity thesis. He doesn’t deny that many people do experience their lives as a narrative, or that some people derive great meaning and value from the stories they tell. He does, however, deny that this is necessary to the human condition and suggests that it is not always a good thing. Indeed, in practice self-storying may be an impediment to the good life.

Strawson has critiqued the narrative view in several venues over the years. As best I can tell, he offers four main lines of criticism.

First, he argues that the narrativity thesis is often unclear. What does it actually mean to say that one does or should live one’s life as a narrative? Does this mean that your life has to fit some well-recognised narrative structure, such as the ‘hero’s journey’ or the ‘rags to riches’ adventure? Or does it simply mean that you have to put some form or shape to your life? If it means the former, then it seems like an obviously false thesis. Not everyone’s life fits a recognised narrative structure and trying to make the events in one’s life fit that structure will lead to a unjustified selectivity in how one remembers and orders events. If it means the latter, then it is arguably too loose a requirement. Virtually any sequence of events can be given some shape or form. Modern literature, for example, is replete with novels that defy traditional narrative structures and yet stil have some loose form.

Second, he argues that narrativity is not psychologically necessary. In other words, contrary to what people like Dennett and McAdams might argue, we are not all essentially narrative beings that come to understand ourselves through stories. Some people don’t think of the events in their lives slotting into some overarching narrative. Strawson usually cites himself as an example of such a person, proudly pronouncing that he has no sense of himself as a narrative being. Consider:

And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past…Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future. 
(Strawson 2018, p 51)


And also:

…I’m blowed if I constituted my identity, or if my identity is my life’s story. I don’t spend time constructing integrative narratives of myself — or my self — that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide my life with some semblance of unity purpose, and identity. 
(Strawson 2018, 192)


Doth he protest too much? Perhaps but what he says resonates with me to an extent. I don’t really invest much time in telling myself some long story about my past. That said, I do sometimes sequence certain events in my life into a story, e.g. intention-obstacle-overcoming that obstacle or not. Furthermore, the notion that someone could have no concern for their past or future is alien to me. Surely we all naturally have a little bit of concern for the past and future? After all, unless we have some serious cognitive deficit, we all naturally remember the past and plan for the future? It’s hard to imagine a human life without that sense of oneself in time and space.

Strawson is cognisant of this and elsewhere in his writings he insists that one can have a sense of oneself as an enduring human being without have a sense of oneself as a narrative being. We occupy the same human biological form over time and we remember what happened to our bodies and we have to plan for the future of what will happen to those bodies, but we don’t have to fit all of these happenings into a psychological narrative. He goes on to suggest that an enduring non-narrative being might represent their lives as a list of remembered events and not a narrative. This suggests to me that Strawson might see his life as a ‘listicle’ and not a story.

Third, Strawon argues that no ethical virtue or duty hinges on narrativity. Some people have the opposite view. They think that interpersonal duties and values such as loyalty and friendship depend on having a sense of oneself as an continuing narrative being. After all, how can you motivate yourself to be moral if you don’t care that much for your future (as Strawson proudly proclaims for himself)? Strawson rejects this. In his paper ‘Episodic Ethics’ he maintains that people who experience their lives as a series of short episodes can still have relatively normal moral lives. A sense of concern and empathy for others does not depend on narrativity. Indeed, it often depends more on attentiveness and awareness of the other in the moment. Projecting into the far future or past can dissociate you from the moral demands of the moment. He also cites examples of prominent people that profess an episodic experience of life and yet live morally normal lives.

Fourth, and adding to the previous argument, Strawson maintains that narrativity is often counterproductive both from the perspective of individual psychological well-being and from the perspective of one’s relations to others. If we constantly try to fit our lives into a narrative, there is a danger that we tell ourselves a false story. This falsity can work in different directions. Sometimes we might tell ourselves a false positive story, painting ourselves in a better light than we deserve, suggesting that we are more generous and caring than we really are, giving ourselves a free pass when we fail to do the right thing in the moment. Sometimes we might tell ourselves a false negative story, painting ourselves in a worse light than we deserve. Many people with depression and anxiety do this. They see themselves as failures, as useless, pathetic, unfit for life. They often experience profound shame and guilt as a result, and they can be ’toxic’ to other people as a result of these stories.

Against this, Strawson argues that some of the best chroniclers of the human condition — the ones that display the greatest empathy and understanding of what it means to be human — are non-narrative in their outlook. Contrary to the therapeutic interventions of psychotherapy, these non-narrative people often have the best kind of self-knowledge. Michel de Montaigne is a favourite example:

Montaigne writes the unstoried life — the only life that matters, I’m inclined to think. He has no “side”, in the colloquial English sense of this term. His honesty, though extreme, is devoid of exhibitionism or sentimentality (St. Augustine and Rousseau compare unfavorably). He seeks self-knowledge in radically unpremeditated life-writing: “I speak to my writing paper exactly as I do to the first person I meet.” He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.
(Strawson 2018, 196)

There is something to this, I believe. An honest and ethically sensitive appraisal of one’s life requires a dispassionate observance of what is going on, almost like a sustained form of mindfulness. If the narrative self takes over, you often lose a true appreciation of who you are and what you owe to others.

3. Conclusion

So should we be narrative or not? My stance on this is equivocal. On reflection, I don’t think there is as much distance between the two views outlined in this article as might initially seem to be the case. I agree with Strawson on two main points. First, we are not necessarily narrative in nature and, indeed, the suggestion that each of us does (and should) fit the entire course of our lives into a single overarching narrative strikes me as absurd. If I asked any one of my friends to tell me the story of their lives, I doubt any one of them could do it. They don’t think about themselves in those terms. Second, I agree with Strawson that narratives often distort the truth and this can be unhelpful. Narratives can lead to overconfidence and excessive pessimism.

But I don’t think we can completely dismiss the psychological appeal and moral value of narratives either. While I don’t think of my entire life as a single extended narrative, I do think episodes within my life have some narrative-like structure. There are often important lessons to be learned from our experiences and telling stories about those experiences can be an effective way to remember those lessons. The empirical work done my McAdams and his colleagues cannot be rejected out of hand. The stories we tell about ourselves can have a positive and negative impact on our mental health and well-being.

The important thing is to do your best to avoid narrative distortion. Have a realistic sense of your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a tendency to fit everything within a narrative, try to take a step back from doing so. List the events within your life. Gather the evidence carefully. Avoid assuming that you are the hero of your life story; avoid assuming that you are the villain.


  1. Could one not argue that Strawson’s insistence on his being a person that has no sense of himself as a narrative being, is itself a narrative. It seems a strongly held story about his self that he tells himself and tells others about himself. More than merely an observation, an explanation (a story). I’m not being flippant, I wonder if it’s difficult to argue against the narrative theory due to its nature...

    1. It's certainly a deep belief that he has about himself, perhaps one of his core values. Does that make it a story or narrative? I'm not sure. That said, I wrote a previous article looking at other problems with narrativist views and arguing that the concept of a narrative is too loose

  2. Could one not argue that Strawson’s insistence on his being a person that has no sense of himself as a narrative being, is itself a narrative. It seems a strongly held story about his self that he tells himself and tells others about himself. More than merely an observation, an explanation (a story). I’m not being flippant, I wonder if it’s difficult to argue against the narrative theory due to its nature...