Coherence and chance: a life story

Ever wondered at what age an individual starts to put together a coherent life story? This is the question examined by Tilmann Habermas and Susan Bluck in a paper published 18 years ago in the Psychological Bulletin. The article, Getting a Life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence, is available to download so I will just summarise some of the main points, with added commentary.

imagesA distinction is made between the life narrative and what Habermas and Bluck call autobiographical reasoning, the latter being how a person organises the threads of one’s life through reflection, identifying themes and links between past events and current concerns. For instance, I now work as a social worker but was a journalist for two decades: what links the two careers, what did I bring from the first to the second in terms of insights and skills, what made me change direction?

Habermas and Bluck identify four ways coherence is found in life: temporal, causal, thematic and cultural. Of these I find causal coherence one of the most interesting, as it is a way by which a person seeks to find explanations for events that have determined one’s life course. Without these, write Habermas and Bluck, ‘life appears to have been determined by chance and therefore to be meaningless’ [p.751]. [I might contend that chance does play a part in life, for without chance life might be seen as monotonous. For example, how did you meet your partner, land that first job? But this is a discussion for another time and place.]

For those working in TLSW, however, coherence is what is lacking and is what we, as practitioners, seek to develop in those with whom we work. As such, life might well be ‘meaningless’ for those children and young people unable to deconstruct their internal schema.

As the paper’s title indicates, the authors argue that it is in adolescence when a person starts to ‘construct’ their life story, and is also a time when this story is ‘most intensively rehearsed’ [p.762]. This is when links are made between episodes in a life, themes emerge and a narrative thread spun [p.752] Furthermore, ‘adolescence is the period of life in which many of the adult individual’s self-defining characteristics originate. Many characteristics are therefore anchored in episodes from that time’ [p.762].

This also relates to the determination of adolescents to forge their own identity, different to their parents and, indeed, their peers. Consider your own adolescence and the diaries you may have kept. When I look through my diary entries of that period I find my then self reflecting on how I want to make my own place in the world, while highlighting the social and cultural context in which I find myself living. Those diaries [I actually called them  Journals, referencing those 19th century and earlier authors I was then consuming] were also a way I sought to express myself creatively, as I struggled to accommodate my desire to write with familial and community norms to attend university, study law and become a ‘decent member of society’. [In fact, I was the first of my family to eventually take a degree: in Archaeology and Anthropology as it happens, a far distance from either English or the Law!]

In the context of trauma, Habermas and Bluck suggest life story enables an individual to make a coherent life: ‘…experiments have demonstrated that when participants wrote about traumatic experiences for several days, an increase in causal and insight words predicted an increase in psychological and physical health’. The authors also suggest further research in areas where life story may assist, such as depression, borderline personality disorder and attachment status. I would be interested to examine links between writing and psychological health, and perhaps this might arise through TLSW’s Life Story books. But writing about ‘traumatic experiences for several days’. Really? Is that possible?

Note: Habermas and Bluck followed up this paper with Getting a life takes time: The development of the life story in adolescence, its precursors and consequences [2015]. In this they refer to the life script, which would seem to resemble the movement boxes used in TLSW [p. 10].

But of greater interest to practitioners of TLSW is their argument that well-being and being able to articulate a coherent life story [or autobiographical reasoning] appears to be significant only in older adolescents and young adults. ‘For younger adolescents [14 and under], whose autobiographical reasoning has not fully developed, there is no evidence yet that their solo efforts toward meaning-making are positively linked to well-being. They may even have difficulty with the concept of a turning-point event, and especially the concept that a negative event can have positive spin-offs in the long-term’ [p.15].

This could well be an area future TLSW research might focus on, with specific attention to younger adolescents with complex trauma.

Author: john pitt

Social worker/creative

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