Narratives of Self-Redemption Predict Behavioral Change and Improved Health Among Recovering Alcoholics
In our previous blog “Shame keeps you ill” we looked at how shame about addictive behaviors interferes with addicts’ recovery by increasing their propensity to engage in the shame-inducing behaviors. Specifically, the more shame behaviors individuals displayed, the more likely they were to relapse and decline in health within the next 4 months. These findings indicate that responding to past problematic drinking with pronounced behavioral displays of shame is a strong predictor of future drinking, and that shame about one’s addiction may be a cause of relapse.
The 12 steps ultimately deals with feelings of shame about previous behaviour by acceptance of your disease of addiction and by processing these shameful emotions by working the steps, particularly steps 4-7 and by making amends to those affected by our behaviour in steps 8-9.
This sense of self redemption brought via the 12 step program of recovery is also reinforced by “sharing” our stories at 12 step meetings. We share with others what it was like drinking, what happened for us to come into recovery and what it is like now for us in recovery (often referred to as one’s experience, strength and hope). These three part shares are ultimately stories of self redemption. They are also part of the formation of recovering self schema.
Here in this blog we look at an academic study (1) which addresses the positive behavioural changes brought about by these self redemptive stories. The authors are the same as in our previous blog.
“The present research (1) examined whether the production of a narrative containing self-redemption (wherein the narrator describes a positive personality change following a negative experience) predicts positive behavioral change. In Study 1, we compared the narratives of alcoholics who had maintained their sobriety for over 4 years with those of alcoholics who had been sober 6 months or less. When describing their last drink, the former were significantly more likely to produce a narrative containing self-redemption than the latter. In Study 2, we examined the relation between the profession of self-redemption and behavioral change using a longitudinal design, by following the newly sober alcoholics from Study 1 over time.
Newly sober alcoholics whose narratives included self-redemption were substantially more likely to maintain sobriety in the following months, compared to newly sober alcoholics who produced nonredemptive narratives; 83% of the redemptive group maintained sobriety between assessments, compared to 44% of nonredemptive participants.
Redemptive participants in Study 2 also demonstrated improved health relative to the nonredemptive group.
Collectively, these results suggest that the production of a self-redemptive narrative may stimulate prolonged behavioral change and thus indicate a potentially modifiable psychological process that exhibits a major influence on recovery from addiction.
Humans are natural storytellers (Bruner, 1990). They construct stories to bring a sense of comprehension and coherence to the events around them. In the same vein, they construct life stories to bring comprehension and coherence to their lives (McAdams, 2001).
In recent years, there has been a shift in narrative research, toward the examination of how life stories influence certain life outcomes, most notably psychological adjustment (Adler, 2012). This transition is consistent with McAdams’s (1985, 1993) original conception of the life story as functional, serving, in essence, as the “story we live by” (McAdams, 1985, 1993). From this perspective, once a narrative about one’s past is constructed, an individual feels compelled to maintain congruence with this self-defining story or, in Giddens’s (1991) words, to “keep a particular narrative going” (p. 54).
Interestingly, if this is the case—that personal narratives are developed for the purpose of providing direction to one’s life—then for those who create a story that professes positive or adaptive self-change following a negative or harrowing experience (i.e., redemption), the life story may function to promote not consistency in one’s behaviors but, rather, change. In other words, those who construct redemptive stories may be motivated to change their behaviors to align with the bettered self-image that is described.
As a result, upon constructing a story in which a bettered self emerges following adversity, narrators may actually become better, in part by reducing their engagement in problematic behaviors.
We investigated the relation between the narration of a positive self-transformation following a difficult experience and behavioral change, and we did so by examining stories and behaviors among a unique sample of individuals for whom these issues are likely to be particularly relevant, as they are seeking (or have sought) to dramatically change and improve their lives: recovering alcoholics.
These individuals represent an ideal population within which to test this relation, both because they are, by definition, actively seeking to change their lives and behaviors in a fundamental way, and because many self-help addiction recovery programs (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous [AA]) encourage recovering addicts to develop coherent personal narratives about their addiction that climax with a positive personal transformation and successful recovery (Denzin, 2009; O’Reilly, 1997)…. that addicts’ behaviors will come to align with the narrative plot of the personal stories they create; that once a story detailing personal growth following abstinence is constructed, the story will come to influence the narrator, thereby stimulating the recovery process.
In the present research, we asked alcoholics who were members of AA to construct and narrate a story regarding a (potentially) critical moment in their lives—their last drink. In the minds of some, this drink represents the turning point at which commitment to sobriety is renewed and and recovery is stimulated. In the minds of others, however, this drink simply represents the most recent lapse, one soon to be followed by a long line of others. Drawing on the theoretical work outlined above (e.g., Giddens, 1991; McAdams, 1985), we predicted that individuals who narrated stories depicting personal improvement following their last drink would exhibit a change in behavior consistent with this description (i.e., extended sobriety, improved general health), relative to those whose narratives did not reflect a sense of positive self-change.
Alcohol addiction is one domain in which the construction of a story containing self-redemption has been deemed particularly relevant (Diamond, 2001). Surveying the personal stories of a group of alcoholics who had repeatedly failed to maintain sobriety, Singer (1997) observed that these individuals tended to struggle when tasked with authoring a redemptive personal story. Similarly, in his psychobiography of George W. Bush, McAdams (2011) proposed that the formation of a redemptive life story may have played a role in Bush’s recovery from alcohol addiction.
Furthermore, in small-scale qualitative investigations of alcohol recovery programs such as AA, researchers have noted an emphasis on the construction of stories that are redemptive, in which the self and one’s life improve following sobriety (e.g., Denzin, 2009; O’Reilly, 1997). Indeed, the emphasis on striving for self-redemption is particularly apparent within AA, a self-help alcohol recovery organization boasting over 2 million members worldwide. This focus on positive transformation in the wake of alcohol addiction is manifest in the organization’s official guidebook (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2004), which includes a collection of transformative life stories written by its members. This emphasis is also manifest in AA’s regularly held speaker meetings, at which members are encouraged to share their experiences pertaining to alcohol and addiction, and professions of self-redemption from consistently abstinent members tend to be particularly well received (Denzin, 2009). Indeed, it has been proposed that the purpose of these meetings is to reward and foster such stories, leading O’Reilly (1997) to assert that “there is really only one story in AA” (p. 24).
The present research demonstrated that (a) there is a strong association between the tendency to perceive past traumatic life events as resulting in positive personality change and corresponding behavioral change, and (b) the perception of positive personality change predicts subsequent positive behavioral change.
…alcoholics who had maintained sobriety for 4 years or longer were significantly more likely to describe their most recent drinking experience (prior to sobriety) as stimulating a positive development in the self, compared to alcoholics who had maintained sobriety for 6 months or less...newly sober alcoholics who perceived a sense of self-redemption in the wake of their recent sobriety demonstrated improved health months later, and were over twice as likely to have maintained sobriety across the two waves of assessment than those who did not evince any sense of self-redemption in their stories during the initial wave.
These results are suggestive of the possibility that developing a story of self-redemption about one’s addiction may be a causal factor underlying long-term behavioral change.
1. Dunlop, W. L., & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Sobering stories: Narratives of self-redemption predict behavioral change and improved health among recovering alcoholics. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(3), 576.