WHAT IS GUIDED AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
Excerpts from Lindy Pfeil's M.Sc. (Psychology) dissertation
Guided Autobiography was developed by Dr. James Birren in the mid ‘70s at the University of Southern California. It has been used widely over the past forty years to help people document their life stories, through a series of priming questions, turning points and life themes.
Research over the past 40 years has found that people of all ages benefit from Guided Autobiography, particularly those in transition, entering a different phase of life, or seeking clarity around new directions. Listening to others’ stories in a supportive environment can trigger forgotten memories, allowing for reflection and new insights. Benefits include increased self-acceptance, positive views of others and sense of connectedness, and decreased anxiety.
such as family, life work, health, spirituality and goals and aspirations. No writing experience is necessary to participate in these sessions.
Each time we restory, old meanings are transformed, providing deeper understanding and a path “toward self-transcendence and ordinary wisdom” (Reker et al., 2012, p. 388). Working with our life stories – even if they are contradictory – provides access to new meaning and purpose.
Working with autobiographical stories has many benefits for our psychological and physical well-being (Pfeil, 2018), including improved self-esteem and sense of belonging (Routledge et al., 2013). It activates transcendence and transformation (Reker et al., 2012) and can enhance or restore LS, purpose and MIL (Cook, 1998; Lai, Igarashi, Yu, & Chin, 2018; Reker et al., 2012; Routledge et al., 2013).
By integrating our autobiographical memories with future life goals, we can create a cohesive narrative identity, understanding how we came to be who we are today, and who we think we might be tomorrow (McAdams & McClean, 2013).
It is the developmental exchange that distinguishes GAB from other life review processes. Sharing emotional material creates strong affective bonds between group members (Reker et al., 2014) and a change in attitudes toward self and others (Reker et al., 2012; Thornton & Collins, 2007). When deep sharing is combined with positive, non-judgemental feedback, participants are assisted in their search for MIL (DeVries, Birren, & Deutchman, 1990). Birren and Svensson (2013) suggested that the central function of autobiographical memories is, in fact, to give our lives meaning. And indeed, in one GAB study, almost all of 38 older adults reported increased or new sense of MIL (Thornton & Collins, 2007).
GAB themes are carefully sequenced and scaffolded (Thornton et al., 2011) to facilitate the developmental exchange, enabling participants’ stories to connect with “the evolving stories of others, our community, and our world” (Randall et al., 2015, p. 156.). Shared autobiographical stories are viewed as social acts that increase awareness of self and others, “with the general intention of sharing their legacy with family and community” (Thornton et al., 2011, p. 229).
Participating in GAB promotes physical, emotional and psychological well-being across the entire adult lifespan (DeVries et al., 1990). In one early GAB study (Birren & Hedlund, 1987), 90% of participants reported positive effects that persisted two years later. Participants described their experiences as “overwhelmingly positive” (Vota & de Vries, 2001, p. 331) and transformative (Birren & Svensson, 2013) because they were able to view past experiences from new perspectives (Reker et al., 2014; Thornton & Collins, 2007). GAB participants reported greater sense of purpose (McAdams & McLean, 2013; Birren & Svensson, 2013; Thornton & Collins, 2010) which carried them into a more optimistic future.
Other positive outcomes include improved self-worth (Thornton & Collins, 2010) and decreased depression and anxiety (Birren & Svensson, 2013; Bohlmeijer et al., 2005) as well as increased sense of meaning (Birren & Birren, 1996) and a “restructured and expanded worldview and a widening and deepening of one’s personal identity” (Reker et al., 2014, p.9). This is key, because MIL has been linked to identity processes (Vignoles, Regalia, Manzi, Golledge, & Scabini, 2006). A sense of coherence is how we make sense – and meaning – of our lives (Costin & Vignoles, 2019).
This study confirmed what is now widely recognized: that life review and reminiscence can “create bonds between people, to cope with important life events, and to attribute meaning to life” (Westerhof & Bohlmeijer, 2014, p. 112). Consciously recalling one’s past, as Butler (1963) contended, provides the opportunity for integration and self-awareness, and ultimately healthy functioning and wellbeing (Bluck et al, 2014). The findings here are consistent with previous studies (Routledge et al., 2013; Steger et al., 2006) suggesting that meaning can be found by accessing autobiographical memories. GAB facilitates looking back on our lives, to recognise that we have a place in the larger universe – that we have a purpose – and this is when we experience our lives as meaningful (Halusic & King, 2013). GAB helps us to uncover meaning, as Frankl proposed, through “creative, experiential and attitudinal” (Wong, 2014, p. 17) values.
We can’t change past experiences, but by writing about them, and sharing our memories in the safety of a GAB group, we gain new insights into where we have come from, where we can go, who we have been and who we can still become. This aligns with the postmodern perspective of identity as a psychosocial construction (McAdams, 2001): GAB workshops are a powerful force for acceptance. Through re-telling and interpreting our own stories, personal identity is strengthened and meaning is made.
It was Socrates who said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but perhaps it is only by examining our lives that we come to understand how much worth they truly have. One GAB participant had this to say: “Guided autobiography changed my life” (Birren & Cochran, 2001, p. 3). That elusive ‘thing’ we seek, then, could be as close as a pen, paper and our memories.