Self-Defining Memories Help People with Depression, Bipolar Disorder


Other than SDMs, the study also focused on another important aspect of identity, which is known as self-concept clarity (SCC). This is defined as the degree of certainty and confidence concerning self-descriptions. As well as finding that depressed and bipolar patients recall fewer SDMs with meaning-making content, the study also established that these patients reported lower SCC levels compared to healthy subjects. According to Wagener, this demonstrates that the ability to evoke SDMs with meaning-making is correlated with SCC.

“We believe that SDMs help people improve their self-concept clarity because SDMs are related to the main concerns and values of the individual,” she explained. When patients have problems retrieving SDMs, this can threaten their self-perception and how confident they are in describing themselves.

Wagener also adds that when patients possess a low SCC, they might also demonstrate a poor feeling of self-continuity. “Indeed, they might feel lost, and this could present them with some difficulties in projecting themselves in the future,” she said.

The findings of the clinical study imply that there is a need to improve the recall of SDMs with positive valence for depressed patients, and the recall of SDMs with meaning-making for depressed and bipolar patients. According to Wagener, patients have to ask themselves memory-evoking personal questions, such as ‘What has really mattered in my life since my early childhood?’ and ‘Which events have made me who I am today?’

“We believe that the retrieval of SDMs might help patients gain insight of what really matters in their lives. These questions might improve their self-concept clarity,” she added. The goal of recalling SDMs, Wagener explained, is to enable depressed and bipolar patients to recognize the nature of their main concerns and the values that are important to them. It also enables patients to recall their personal problem-solving techniques. “Recalling SDMs,” she observed, “might also help patients to remember how they solved their problems early on and eventually help them solve current issues.”

Besides asking patients questions that facilitate their memory recall, the participation of physicians and family members during psychotherapies can also be very helpful in this area. According to Wagener, “Doctors and psychologists can help patients retrieve memories that are particularly relevant for their sense of self. Family members can assist when patients are not able to recall memories on their own. They might suggest some memories, and the patients could then explain these memories more deeply.”

Overall, SDMs are a major foundation in the formation of an individual’s identity. They are reflections of a person’s key life lessons, central goals, values and conflicts. They often guide our decisions and sense of self-continuity. For people living with depression or bipolar disorder, recalling affirming and meaningful memories can help to re-establish a positive sense of self and thereby assist in their treatment.

Nicola Davies, PhD, is a psychologist and freelance writer who lives in Bedfordshire, UK. She has a love of learning and a passion for making scientific knowledge accessible to everyone.


  1. Blagov PS and Singer JA. Four Dimensions of Self‐Defining Memories (Specificity, Meaning, Content, and Affect) and Their Relationships to Self‐Restraint, Distress, and Repressive Defensiveness. J Pers. 2004; 72(3): 481-511.
  2. Wagener A, Boulanger M and Blairy S. Self-defining memories and self-concept clarity: A comparative study of depressed patients, bipolar patients and healthy subjects. Presentation at the  2015 Annual Conference  of the British Psychological Society.  Available at: