Emotion and narrative

Psychoanalytic therapy uses narrative co-construction and shared understanding to transform urges and emotions into stories that make sense of contradictory experiences. Our research focuses on how emotions are symbolized and communicated in the relation narrator-narrative-listener/co-narrator. We focus on formal aspects of autobiographical narratives of everyday experiences and significant life experiences.

  • Habermas, T. & Bartoli, E. (2021). Development of autobiographical narrating: Possible implications for coping with social trauma. In A. Hamburger, C. Hancheva, & V. Volkan (Eds.), Social trauma: An international textbook (pp. 201-207). Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Habermas, T. (2019). Emotion and narrative: Perspectives in autobiographical storytelling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Habermas, T. (2015). A model of psychopathological distortions of autobiographical memory narratives: An emotion narrative view. In L. Watson & D. Berntsen (Eds.), Clinical perspectives on autobiographical memory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Research questions focus on

  1. Coping, retelling, and emotion specific narratives
  2. Listener emotions
  3. Psychopathology and autobiographical narrative


1) Coping, retelling, and emotion specific narratives

Narrating ambiguous and definite loss (2016-2019)

Manxia Huang, dissertation
This study compares adults’ narratives of the loss of a loved parent through death, of physical ambiguous loss through the disappearance of a parent, and psychological ambiguous loss through Alzheimer disease (N = 3 * 30). The study aims to explore differences between the three kinds of loss in terms of narrative characteristics as well as narrative correlates of protracted grief.

  • Huang, M., Schmiedek, F., & Habermas, T. (2021). Only some attempts at meaning making are successful: The role of change-relatedness and positive implications for the self. Journal of Personality 10.1111/jopy.12573
  • Huang, M., & Habermas, T. (2019). The ambiguity of loss affects some, but not all autobiographical memories: Redemption and contamination, agency and communion. Memory, 27, 1352–1361. doi 1080/09658211.2019.1655579

Emotion co-regulation in narratives of everyday experiences (2013-2018)

Alice Graneist, dissertation; Master theses by Anna Risswig, Julia Maier, Johanna Augart, Sharyar Kananian, Hannah Jöckel, Sophia Bukowski, Jannis Pohl, Philipp Noack, Paul-Phillip Stieper, Johanna Gardecki, Mascha Brieden, Marleen Tentscher
This study of 60 mother-adolescent dyads at age 12, 15, and 18 examines monologic and co-narrated stories of sad, angering, and happy events. This research project investigates, amomgst others,  the following questions: (1) Does the use of internal state language change with adolescents’ age and do mothers and their adolescent offspring resemble each other in their language use? (2) How do mothers support their adolescents in coping with the events; as reported in narratives and by co-narrating emotional events? (3) Do narratives of everyday emotional events differ by attachment status?

  • Graneist, A., & Habermas, T. (2019). Beyond the text given: Studying the scaffolding of narrative emotion regulation as a contribution to Bruner and Feldman's cultural cognitive developmental psychology. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 53, 644-660. Doi 1007/s12124-019-9474-x

  • Graneist, A., & Habermas, T. (2020). Exploring gender differences in the use of internal state language in mother-adolescent reminiscing. Sex Roles, 82, 321-335. doi 1007/s11199-019-01053-9

Retold emotion narratives of everyday experiences (2004-2007)

Tilmann Habermas, diploma theses by Nadine Berger, Michaela Meier und Barbara Mukthar
This project answered three questions: Are different emotions narrated differently? Are these differences already in place in pre-school and grade-school children? How do emotion narratives change over three months and how do these changes reflect coping with emotional experiences. The study is based on 600 narratives of everyday events of five differing emotional qualities by young women and 160 narratives by 5- and 8-year-old girls. Narratives were analyzed in terms of relative frequency of narrative structural elements (abstract, orientation, complication, attempt to solve, result, coda), emotion terms, global evaluations, reported speech, and personal and temporal perspectives of these.

  • Habermas, T., & Berger, N. (2011). Retelling everyday emotional events: Condensation, distancing, and closure. Cognition & Emotion, 25, 206-219.

  • Habermas, T., Meier, M., & Mukhtar, B. (2009).Are specific emotions narrated differently? Emotion, 9, 751-762.


2) Listener emotions

Narrative perspective representation influences listener emotions (2013-2014)

Tilmann Habermas, masters theses by Josefine Förster & Karin Lingg, collaborating Mareike Kura and Stephan Bongard

Using the same narratives as in the project below, these are now read aloud and listened to. In addition to self-report measures, we also measure mimical and physiological reactions, to vary the mode of presentation and to broaden the emotion measures.

Narrative perspective representation influences reader emotions (2003-2007)

Tilmann Habermas and Verena Diel
Based on an exemplary analysis of the effects of three selected autobiographical narratives and their emotional effects on readers, we hypothesized that reader emotion depends, among other things, on the degree of the representation of different personal and temporal narrative perspectives, which in turn reflect different degrees of maturity of defense mechanisms activated. This was tested in two questionnaire studies with three systematically varied sad narratives.

  • Habermas, T. (2012). Emotionalisierung durch traurige Alltagserzählungen. In F. Poppe (Hg.), Emotionen in Literatur und Film (pp. 65-87). Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann.

  • Habermas, T., & Diel, V. (2010). The emotional impact of loss narratives: Event severity and narrative perspectives. Emotion, 10, 312-323.

  • Habermas, T. (2006). Who speaks? Who looks? Who feels? Point of view in autobiographical narratives. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 497-518.  

3) Psychopathology and narratives:

Young adults’ autobiographical narratives of emotional events from childhood and adolescence: Possible influences of child maltreatment (2019-2022)

Miriam Fishere, dissertation. Master theses: Julia Gauch, Daniela Futschik, Kira Kasteleiner. Bachelor theses: Lea Charlotte Seibt, Ashley Timberlake.

This study aims at describing possible effects of a history of various forms of child maltreatment on young adults’ narrating of emotional experiences.

Separation narratives by Jews who as children had been hidden from Nazi persecution

Adeline Fohn, Souad Bouhmidi, Ekujtesa Bushati, Diane Mba, Eylem Yesilgöz, Tilmann Habermas
Excerpts from life narratives collected by Adeline Fohn regarding separation from and reunion with parents were more immersive the more scary the entire time of hiding was rated, but was unrelated to PTSD symptoms (IES-R).

  • Fohn, A., Bouhmidi, S., Bushati, E., Mba, D., Yesilgöz, E., & Habermas, T. (2017). Given up by parents for survival: Separation narratives by formerly persecuted elderly Belgian Jews. Journal of Applied Research on Memory and Cognition, 6, 74-81 . Doi: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2016.07.015

Emotion narratives of women with posttraumatic stress syndrome (2005-08)

Tilmann Habermas, Susanne Döll-Hentschker, by Sarah Römisch with participation of Ewa Leban

We compared narratives of angering, stressful/traumatic and happy events in traumatized and non-traumatized women to test the hypotheses that trauma narratives contain more evaluations, are psychologically less distant to the event, and are more incoherent.

Römisch, S., Leban, E., Habermas, T., & Döll, S. (2014). Evaluation, involvement, and fragmentation in narratives of distressing, angering, and happy events by traumatized and non-traumatized women. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 6, 465-472. doi: 10.1037/a0035169


Life narratives of depressed in-patients (1998-2005)

Tilmann Habermas, diploma theses by Lisa Ott, Merve Schubert, Beatrix Schneider
We compared life narratives of clinically depressed in-patients with those of a matched control group, finding not only more negative life events and a more depressed explanatory style, but also less linear narratives and constructions of developmental change.

  • Habermas, T., Ott, L. M., Schubert, M., Schneider, B., & Pate, A. (2008).Stuck in the past: Negative bias, explanatory style, temporal order, and evaluative perspectives in life narratives of clinically depressed individuals. Depression and Anxiety, 25, E121-E132.


Narrative processes in psychotherapy

We are interested in how narratives change in the course of psychotherapy and how modes of narrating help in getting better In therapy. We are preparing a study of narrative and co-narrative processes in brief psychodynamic psychotherapies.

  • Habermas, T., & Döll-Hentschker, S. (2017). The form of the story: Measuring linguistic aspects of narrative activity in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research. 27, 300-312. Doi: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1259534
  • Habermas, T. (2013). Come funzionano i processi co-narrativi nella psicoterapia orientata all’insight. Psichiatria e Psicoterapia, 32, 292-303.


Stand: 19.1.2021