Life Stories

Our personalities and the way we react to each other and new situations has long been a topic of interest, served by a wide range of psychometric tests.  Generally, these measure our tendency to behave in certain way along the “big five” axis: extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, and affability.  Others, such as MBTI or PROPHET, often used in business environments, look at how we take in information and make judgements about the world.

These tests measure “traits” which are our unconscious and automatic reactions to various situations and tend to be fairly stable over long periods.  But there is more to personality than our traits.

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, suggests we should think of personality at three levels.  Traits are the first level – creating a basic framework which suggests how we are likely to automatically respond across a wide range of situations.

The second level, which he refers to as “characteristic adaptations” includes the goals, values, and coping strategies that people use to manage and thrive in their day to day lives.  These are very dependant on the particular situation and are usually consciously created based on experience and the requirements of the role or task.   They are influenced by the underlying traits – so that a person with a higher level of neuroticism for example would have a range of different defence strategies, or a high level of openness might drive a focus on trying new experiences.   As the situation changes, these “adaptations” will also change to reflect this – although the underlying traits are still basically the same.

The third level is what McAdams calls “life stories”.    We have always been fascinated by stories – and how we make meaning of events in our worlds.   McAdams suggests that we create a narrative for ourselves that allows us to integrate what has happened to us in the past, our current situation, and an anticipated future in a way that is cohesive and allows us to define ourselves and our role in the world.  The ability to keep a coherent narrative going is at the heart of what we think of as our identity – rather than how we behave or our character traits.

Our versions of events however, are more like historical fiction as we make interpretations of what happened in the light of our own biases and selective remembering.  Psychologists have shown that what we remember depends on our goals and objectives, and so we are more likely to store and recall specific incidents and details that align with how we see ourselves.  It goes the other way too, our ability to define goals is strengthened by examples in the past of how we demonstrated agency which is a key element in many counselling sessions.

Like any good story, you need stuff to happen.  If the character in a story has no challenges, it’s not going to be interesting to the audience.   Having had periods of difficulty and then overcoming them often leads to a greater sense of wellbeing, and that it is from these challenges that we become more aware of our capabilities.  Equally, a narrative in which the character starts off well but is constantly beaten by events may not lead to a happy ending, which will be reflected in how the narrator sees the world and his resultant behaviour.

So, what do we take from this?

Firstly, its important to realise that we’re not defined by our traits.  Our personalities  and our identities, are created by a combination of our traits, our adaptations to the situations we find in our lives and the overall narrative we tell ourselves – and probably others – about our life stories.  Our adaptations are specific to particular situations, but the overall narrative enables us to create an integrated representation that helps us understand ourselves.  Our traits are largely unconscious and change slowly, but our adaptations and narrative are conscious and are more under our control.

Secondly, we’re not historians.  What we choose to remember is influenced by our narrative – and that may not be the best reality for us.  We often make decisions and then find the facts to suit – in some cases a similar bias may exist in our narratives, which could be limiting our potential, or causing us to carry resentments about people or situations which could be interpreted and remembered differently.

Finally, we own the narratives of our lives.  We can be active participants in our stories or passive observers.   How we choose to tell the story has a large bearing on whether we feel we had a hand in the outcomes and the ability to choose and influence our futures.

What is your own narrative?  Are there other ways you could tell the story that could open you up to different possibilities?