Re-telling Our Stories: Liberation or Re-oppression?


The Wall Street Journal reports on two recent studies that found that people who “narrate” their own lives to put a positive spin on them feel better overall. But a paper in Intersectionalities explores how re-narrating one’s own sense of personal identity may either help free one from oppression or become a mere expression of one’s oppression.

“The issue is much more complex than just ‘look on the bright side of life.’ There are concrete, methodical approaches to changing how we think — and also wrong ways to do it,” reports WSJ. “Two studies, published together in March in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that people who frame events in their lives — even negative ones — in positive ways have better mental health, and those who frame events in negative ways have poorer mental well-being.”

The studies identified four key themes — having agency over one’s life, communion and connection to others, redemption after negative experiences, and contamination of good by the bad — as central to the types of narratives which could help people feel better about their own lives.

In a creative essay in Intersectionalities, Essya Nabbali sees the issue of re-narrating one’s own identity as more complex and potentially risky:

Where papers trail us like never before, registries digitize, medias interconnect, context’s forgotten, time’s ignored, labels proverbially bleed, assumptions prescribed, bodies appropriated, minds manipulated, reconfigured, or else denied, our stories do not liberate us. Whether of recovery, reconciliation, that “autoethnographic ‘I’”, or what famed French philosopher Michel Foucault might have described as the confession, they are “the illusions of closure, of completion”; the great purveyor of human vulnerability, self-sacrificial and rather coercive in their effects. “The obligation to confess,” Foucault demonstrated, “is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the [result] of a power that constrains us.”

It’s Healthy to Put a Good Spin on Your Life (Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2015)

Nabbali, Essya M. “ID Politics: The Violence of Modernity.” Intersectionalities: A Global Journal of Social Work Analysis, Research, Polity, and Practice 4, no. 1 (April 16, 2015): 1–14. (Full text)


  1. All this “positive thinking” psychology sounds like a big scam to me. While I can see how not concentrating on the “bad stuff” is kind of healthy it’s also devoid of realism. Tell that to a single mother who has to provide for her kids and just got fired in a town with 30% unemployment. Or someone who just got diagnosed with terminal cancer. Or a rape surviviour. It will be nothing other than insulting. People do have an ability to find strength and positivity even in most dire circumstances but it’s up to them to do so. Having some clueless psychologist come to you and tell you to think positively while your life is in crumbles makes you think of extended suicide.

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