A new study published in the Journal of Research of Personality highlights the importance of writing and telling your story of adversity in your own words to truly understand how much you have grown.
Questionnaires are a common tool used to study and measure ‘adversarial growth,’ or the positive change cultivated as a result of adversity. Psychologist Laura Blackie of the University of Nottingham wanted to go a step further and see if there are other methods that could give us more accurate insights.
“Questionnaires assessing adversarial growth have been critiqued by researchers for several reasons,” she explains. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to report their experiences in their own words, and with a measure that did not explicitly ask them to consider and weigh up whether or not the event had changed them either positively or negatively.”
According to Blackie, questionnaires can fall short when measuring adversarial growth for a few reasons:
- They ask people to compare their past selves to their present selves which is a complex and mentally taxing process, often laden with inconsistencies.
- They are positively worded (e.g., I feel much more appreciative of my life now) forcing people to frame their adversarial experience in a positive manner, even in cases where they might not want to.
- They ask about changes directly, robbing participants to arrive at the concept of adversarial growth themselves.
In comparison, Blackie lists three advantages that narrative methods have over questionnaires:
- Narratives do not confine you to the limited contexts of questionnaires.
- Narratives consider the individual’s subjective experience of adversity by keeping things open. This leads to unique expressions of adversarial growth as people are inclined to share their individual perspectives about how the experience added meaning or value to their lives, if at all.
- Narratives cull out information that would normally require multiple questionnaires. The freedom to meander enables people to go into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of their adversarial growth, instead of being forced to agree or disagree with pre-prepared statements.
To understand how these advantages impact people’s perspectives on adversarial growth, Blackie’s study asked 411 participants from college and community samples to write a narrative about a highly challenging experience and fill out a self-report questionnaire measuring adversarial growth.
Interestingly, the study found novel expressions of adversarial growth in people’s narratives which were missing or poorly explored in questionnaires.
“For example, we found that people were talking about adversarial growth as a newfound prioritization of their health and well-being,” explains Blackie. “This involved many different things, including challenging one’s character flaws, learning to value and appreciate oneself, and disengaging from activities or people that came at too high a cost to one’s health or emotional well-being.”
According to Blackie, this knowledge can add more nuance and novelty to conversations about adversarial growth. It might even lead to even better questionnaires that cover more dimensions of adversarial growth than before.
For anyone struggling to see the silver lining in a difficult experience, Blackie advises to not force yourself to find the positivity in pain.
“We found that 52-64% of people across our college students and online community samples did not report experiencing any form of adversarial growth at all,” she highlights. “These percentages are meaningful because they suggest that adversarial growth is not necessarily the common or expected outcome to occur after adversity. People should not feel pressure or obligation to be transformed by, or better versions of themselves, after adverse and difficult experiences in their lives.”
A full interview with Laura Blackie discussing her new research can be found here: Why narrating your struggle story in your own words can benefit you
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