shakespeareWe tell stories. This occurs naturally. These narratives help us comprehend the events which happen around us. We also construct life stories. These representations of our past, present, and anticipated future can foster self-understanding and personal meaning. Our life story helps us comprehend who we are and how we behave. Life stories also can build coherence in those things. In short, our life story provides a way for us to make sense of the experiences we have amassed and which we can foresee into a “unified, coherent, and compelling whole.” This psychological construction helps us build our narrative identity – the story we live by.

Researchers have discovered that our storytelling plays not only an important role in helping us maintain consistency and coherence in our lives, but our narratives can also promote behavior change and influence important life outcomes, like psychological adjustment. We can become “better” by reducing problematic behaviors which do not align with the “adaptive” self-image embedded in our life story.

Some very important research about a special kind of personal narrative – “redemption story” – occurred recently. This research investigated the relation between redemption stories and a commitment to sobriety and improved well-being. Alcoholism has many law students, lawyers, judges and other professionals in its grip. Those who construct a redemption story in relation to their recovery efforts have reason to believe, this research suggests, that they can put their lives on a recovery trajectory. There, they stand a better chance to get sober, and stay sober.

Who Should Read This Post and Why? Alcohol abuse impairs the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of American lawyers and judges, fractures their relationships at work and home, and impairs their ability to work and serve clients or the public. Also, hundreds of thousands of people directly or indirectly suffer the effects of alcohol abuse in the legal profession daily. Recent cutting edge research about alcohol abuse in the U.S. legal profession – see Statistics, Stigma, and Sanism: A Public Health Warning About the “Perfect Storm” Heading Toward America’s Legal Profession – emphasizes the choke-hold that alcohol has on the lives of many American law students and lawyers.

The research study featured in this post did not address any specific profession or occupation. But, the authors noted that their “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.” So, even though this research did not involve recovering alcoholic lawyers as participants, the results from this first of its kind study about this special kind of story – narrative of self-redemption in the context of recovery from addiction – merit our [legal academics, law students, lawyers, judges, lawyer assistance program leaders and staff, and legal organization leaders] attention and deep consideration.

books-storiesResearch Background: Life Stories, Redemption Narratives, Psychological Adjustment, and Positive Life Outcomes. The stories that we construct from the events of our past and those which we foresee provide a “unified, coherent, and compelling whole”. We amass these experiences and from this construction we attain a narrative identity. Professor DP McAdams*, a leading narrative psychologist, has produced a long line of research articles and books about a special aspect of narrative identity – the redemption story.

Life stories include redemptive themes in varying degrees. Basically, a theme of redemption “is identified when a negative experience is described as leading to a positive outcome.” We want to make sense out of difficult life experiences. By framing those traumatic events or harrowing experiences in a redemptive manner, i.e. perceiving benefit in life’s hardships, it can become easier to comprehend. Researchers have also suggested that the process of such framing may result in psychological well-being and adjustment, too. Some scholars have suggested that, in addition to its linkage with positive life outcomes, the redemption story may have predictive value. No studies had considered that issue – prediction. The research featured in this post “tested whether the narration of personal growth stimulated by a negative experience predicts subsequent life changes consistent with the story told.”

The researchers examined the stories and behaviors of a unique sample of people. Recovering alcoholics seek a positive self-transformation. They want to dramatically change their behaviors and improve their lives in a fundamental way. The authors stated that those actions and desires by recovering alcoholics “by definition” makes them “an ideal population”. According to the authors, the assumption in such programs “is that addicts’ behaviors will come to align with the narrative plot of the personal stories they create.” More particularly, the researchers considered the personal narratives of growth following abstinence in self-help addiction recovery programs, i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] participants. They investigated how those recovering use their stories to stimulate the recovery process. No prior research had ever investigated that core assumption about the power of the redemption story. A final aspect of the research background involves investigating whether positive life outcomes can result from the behavioral changes associated with redemption stories.

The authors noted that a number of studies about stress and coping have shown that when people perceive that they receive benefits from the adversities in their lives, compared to others who do not hold such beliefs they have a higher level of adjustment. This effect – sense of redemption from narrative life story – has been shown in grief, cancer, heart attack, and a number of other traumatic events. Research in the narrative psychology discipline has specifically addressed whether the process of telling one’s life story in redemptive terms corresponds with psychological adjustment. According to the authors, a recent study “found that producing a narrative containing the profession of self-growth was positively related to psychological well-being.”

last-drinkWhat the Researchers Did – Examination of  “Last Drink” Self-Redemption Stories, Analysis of Covariates of Recovery, and Predicting Behavioral Change and Change in Health and Well-Being. The research teams recruited alcoholics who were members of AA. The participants constructed and narrated a story about a critical moment in their lives – their “last drink”. The authors designed their study in consideration of the research background noted above, and “predicted that individuals who narrated stories depicting personal improvement following their last drink would exhibit a change in behavior consistent with . . . extended sobriety, improved general health. . . relative to those whose narratives did not reflect a sense of positive self-change.”

The first study involved alcoholics who had maintained sobriety for over 4 years. The researchers compared their stories with “newly sober alcoholics”, i.e. sober for 6 months or less. The researchers tested their hypothesis that redemptive narratives – describing a positive self-change following a negative experience – serve as a principal factor in the successful behavioral changes of long-term sobriety, then longer-term sober people “would be more likely to describe their last drink as leading to self-redemption than newly sober individuals.” In this research, “For self-redemption to be identified in a given narrative, participants must have described their last drinking experience as causing a personal change conducive to sobriety.” Here, that positive self-change meant “becoming stronger”.

The second study used “newly sober” alcoholics. The researchers tested whether the perception of self-redemption occurs before extended sobriety versus the narration of the “last drink” as stimulating positive change in the self follows extended abstinence. The researchers predicted that the members of the short-term sober sample, i.e. 6 months or less, who professed “self-redemption” would have greater likelihood of maintaining sobriety at a later time. In this study, that period an average of 4 months after the first assessments. According to the authors, they targeted that time period length as “previous research has suggested that most relapses occur within the first 3 months of sobriety.”

Many personality and demographic variables can factor in ultimate recovery from alcohol addition. These include age and personality characteristics. The latter includes optimism, depression, experience of certain positive and negative emotions, anxiety, attribution style (beliefs that success and failure result from ability and effort in achievement, e.g. school, and affiliative, e.g. social, domains, and level of alcohol dependence. Recovery program involvement also has been found to predict successful recovery from alcohol addiction. A person’s perception of their physical and mental health correlates with recovery, too. About these covariates of behavioral change and well-being related to recovery from alcohol addition, the authors stated that they “assessed these variables and tested whether any relation between self-redemption and sobriety length might be attributed to them.”

Each participant described his or her “last drink”. The researchers instructed the participant to think about and describe the last time that they “drank alcohol and felt bad about yourself as a result.” In part, the instructions asked each participant to “Please describe in as much detail as possible what happened, how it made you feel, and what you did in response to this event.” The researchers coded the responses in terms of the elements of “self-redemption”, i.e. “last drink” causing  feelings of “becoming stronger”, analyzed the coded transcripts of the video-recorded narratives accordingly. In addition to coding and analyzing for self-redemption, the researchers used linguistic software which analyzed the content of the narratives in terms of certain words and phrases, i.e. positive and negative emotion words, insight words, and causal words, which previous research has shown to predict health behaviors and well-being.

the-bitter-potionWhat Results Did the Researchers Find About the Relation Between Redemption Narratives and Sobriety and Health?  The first study, cross-sectional in nature, showed that the longer-term recovering alcoholics were “significantly more likely” than short-term recovering alcoholics to perceive the “last drink” as stimulating a positive change in their personality. The covariates of age and the many other personality and demographic factors results showing the relation between redemption and sobriety did not alter this finding. This means, according to the authors, that self-redemption narratives in alcohol recovery show a “strong association” resulting in sustained sobriety, and can predict extended behavioral change and well-being. The second study, longitudinal in nature, tracked a subset of the short-term sober sample over an approximate four-month time period.

The results from the second study showed, i.e. “significantly predicted”, that newly sober alcoholics who perceived a sense of self-redemption experienced improved health and sustained recovery months later relative to those who did not perceive their last drink narrative as a redemptive story. These results remained significant after considering the several other factors of recovery, such as age, personality traits, AA involvement, and physical and mental health. The results suggest the possibility that a recovering alcoholic’s self-redemption narrative may well precede long-term behavioral changes of continued sobriety and improved health and well-being.

The authors stated that “the current results suggest that the assessment of themes of self-growth in recovery narratives can provide an efficient and effective means of determining future risk for those beginning the recovery process.” This study also provides a “compelling rationale” for future experimental research. The results, however, do not show causation. The authors provided a lengthy discussion about its limitations and the framework for future research.

So What . . . . Self-Narrative Redemption Stories and Lawyer Assistance. This ground-breaking research has important implications for issues of handling alcoholism and alcohol abuse and in the legal profession, protecting the public, and maintaining the integrity of the profession.*^

The landmark study by a leading foundation noted at the beginning of this post shows conclusively that alcohol abuse and addiction ranges across all demographics of the legal profession and its harm cuts deep. Many casualties result. Thousands of American lawyers attend AA. Some make this choice voluntarily. Others do so for additional reasons related to the judge and attorney discipline process. Many other lawyers who do not have sobriety concerns involve themselves in the recovery process. They volunteer their time in lawyer assistance programs or bar associations or try to help as good friends or concerned fellow practitioners. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse consume much human capital and energy in the American legal profession.

Thousands of untold “redemptive stories” no doubt exist in the American legal world. Translated, this research suggests that a way to achieve sustained recovery and better health for struggling American lawyers and judges perhaps lurks just around the corner. We need to listen better. We can look for and perhaps encourage the struggling to construct their redemptive narrative about their “last drink”. According to results from the researchers’ work, read aloud part of it can sound like this:

“. . . that’s where I slit my wrist, so it was a pretty horrible experiences, I was feeling useless, unloved, lonely, depressed, ashamed, that I, you know, fell through on my recovery plan, and after losing seven months you almost lose  hope, right? But uh, I found my own strength again, through God, and through the NA and AA program, 11 days clean, I feel like the obsession has been lifted from me again, and I need to see everything I did wrong last time to make it better this time. . . .”

inn-with-drunken-peasantsThe authors of research study article featured in this post achieved “robust findings”. Their study did not focus on the alcohol recovery problems of lawyers and judges. But, until our profession undertakes more of its own research and empirical study of its members and their organizations, and takes serious stock in existing research, our understanding of the public health problem of alcohol abuse and its widespread impact will not widen. Our profession’s and its members’ relative inability to proactively intervene to prevent or mitigate the harm will continue. The frustration and widespread harm and hurting from the direct and indirect effects of alcoholism in the American legal profession will likely deepen.

We [law students, legal academics, lawyers, judges, disciplinary authorities, and leaders of court systems and legal services organizations] therefore should try to seek to learn from existing studies, like the ones featured here, and make applications where reasonable. In this context, we should try our best help our professional brothers and sisters discover, develop, tell, and  understand their “last drink” redemptive stories.

The authors noted this short summary:  “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.” Lawyers like to tell stories. As friends, colleagues, and concerned fellow practitioners, we all need to pay more attention, listen better, if possible assist them, and . . . . .perhaps members of our legal profession struggling with sobriety can construct and foster redemptive personal stories, and put themselves on a long-term recovery trajectory.

How will an artist consider the alcoholism and alcohol abuse by its membership, and then conceive it and paint the picture of the American legal profession now? In the next decade? Will the picture resemble what you see here?

Thank You.  Thank you very much. Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices |Web – | Email: | Blog – | Services – Organization Development Practitioner combining and leveraging 25+ years of diverse legal experience, 7+ years of allied health training and work experience, a Master of Science in Organizational Development Psychology, and educationally qualified or earned certifications in industry-leading normal (Myers-Briggs MBTI) and special business (Hogan Assessments) personality; ability (MSCEIT) and self-report (EQi 2.0 [derived from Bar-On model]) emotional intelligence; leadership (Certified Intentional Leadership Coach); and stress management assessment and tools (ARSENAL best practices system for stress resilient emotional intelligence) to partner with client organizations, their leaders, and member to discover needs and opportunities for growth and to design, develop, deliver, and evaluate custom interventions for individual, team, project, or organizational solutions. | Mission:  “America’s leading resource for normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, and related coaching, continuing education programs, training, and workshops for judges, lawyers, law schools, bar associations, healthcare, medical, and other professional services providers and their organizations and leaders.”  Please visit Adlitem Solutions and Psycholawlogy again soon. Thank you very much.

Complimentary Assessment: Contact me via email at to arrange a time for a no obligation discussion and assessment of your firm’s or firm members’ interests or needs regarding emotional intelligence workshops, training, continuing education, or coaching. See this related post at PsycholawlogyEmotional Intelligence Memo to Management: EI as a Buffer of [Lawyer] Stress in the Developmental Job Experience – for more information about taking first steps. Note: Emotional intelligence assessments do not constitute medical examinations and do not diagnose or treat alcoholism, alcohol abuse, or any other substance abuse or disorder.

Article Source: 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), 576-590. DOI: 10.1037/a0031185 (copy currently available at:

Additional Resources: *Professor DP McAdams see profile and access selected publications here. See also McAdams, D. P. (2010). George W. Bush and the redemptive dream: A psychological portrait. Oxford University Press (after years of drinking and partying, George W. Bush, an extravert and party animal on the order of “Bluto” from Animal House, quit alcohol “cold turkey”; and Professor McAdams’s very readable book offers an interesting, insightful account of #43’s “redemptive story” by analyzing the “record” of the President’s life story from the perspectives of narrative psychology and psychobiography and suggesting that it may have played a role in his recovery from alcohol addiction).

*Missouri Supreme Court Rule 16.01(b) provides in part that: “Substance abuse causes or contributes to incompetence and malpractice of the law by lawyers and judges, which damages the public and the legal profession. Substance abusers neglect clients, violate rules of professional and judicial conduct and commit crimes.”

^Missouri Supreme Court Rule 16.02(11) definition: “Substance abuse, the repeated overuse of alcohol, drugs and other chemically addictive substances to the degree of addiction or substantial impairment of a person’s capability to practice law, to carry out judicial duties, or otherwise carry out reasonable business and social activities;”

Lawyers Assistance Programs: Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program – | Kansas Lawyers Assistance Program – | American Bar Association Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs –

Image Credits: Story-teller Shakespeare – | Books – stories – | Last drink – | The Bitter Potion –  | Inn with drunken peasants – |

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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