, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 561-573
Date: 19 May 2009

Listening for Avoidance: Narrative Form and Defensiveness in Adolescent Memories

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We describe a linguistic clue to speakers’ states of mind that has utility for psychotherapists and counselors, and summarize the theoretical and empirical support for using this clue in clinical practice. Specifically, we posit that the degree to which people relate stressful episodes from their lives as a chronological sequence of events is negatively associated with the extent to which they self-protectively avoid experiencing negative affect. We review relevant discussions and findings from linguistics and psychology, and then present a new study that replicates previous research. In this study of the relationship between defensive avoidance and the narrative structure of stressful memories in non-clinical adolescents, 168 high school students spoke for 10 min into a tape recorder about “your most stressful life event.” Transcribed interviews were analyzed for narrative immersion, the extent to which the past is retold in chronological order, using a method adopted from Labov and Waletzky. A negative association was found between narrative immersion and avoidance (as operationalized by scores on the Marlowe Crowne Social Desirability Scale). Listening for narrative immersion in the speech of clients discussing past stressful times may therefore represent a useful tool in exploring defensive avoidance of stressful episodic memories.