How your life story shapes you

How you talk about the major events of your life has a profound impact on your personality. If you change your life story, could you become a healthier, happier person?

Imagine that, when you were 12 years old, your family moved to the other side of the country. In your new school, you were bullied for the first time. When you reflect upon this period of your life today, do you see this as just one of many episodes in which things were going great, and then turned sour? Or do you see it as another example of a tough experience that had a happy ending – perhaps the bullying toughened you up, or led you to meet the person who became your lifelong buddy?

It may not seem as if the way you tell this story, even just to yourself, would shape who you are. But it turns out that how you interpret your life, and tell its story, has profound effects on what kind of person you become.

How you talk about the main events of your life can have profound effects on who you are

How you talk about the main events of your life can have profound effects on who you become (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

In the mid-20th Century, the show This Is Your Life was a popular staple on British and US televisions. It involved celebrities and non-celebrities being presented with a red book that featured key events, pivotal turning points and memories from their lives. For the show, these life stories were compiled by researchers. But in reality each of us walks around with a version of the “red book” – one personally authored, often without us even realising it – in our mind.

These narratives exist whether we choose to give them much conscious attention or not. They lend meaning to our existence and provide the foundation for our sense of identity. You are your story. As a team led by Kate McLean at Western Washington University described it in their recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “the stories we tell about ourselves reveal ourselves, construct ourselves, and sustain ourselves through time”.

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The new research from McLean’s group is among the latest to explore the intriguing idea that – though we constantly revise and update them – these personal stories contain various stable elements that reveal something inherent about us. They reflect a fundamental aspect of our personality.

One of McLean’s collaborators, personality expert and pioneer in the field Dan P McAdams at Northwestern University, explained this in his seminal paper The Psychology of Life Stories: “People differ from each other with respect to their self-defining life stories in ways that are not unlike how they differ from each other on more conventional psychological characteristics such as traits.”

People tell their life stories using different styles

In the same way that people have different traits, they tell their life stories using different styles (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

In the almost two decades since McAdams made that claim, evidence has accumulated to support the idea that, alongside our goals and values and character traits, our personal narratives reflect a stable aspect of our personalities. (McAdams labels these three aspects of the self the “Personological Trinity”).

Other work also has illustrated the significance of the idea of self-stories as part of personality, since the way we tell our personal stories turns out to have implications for our mental health and overall wellbeing. For instance, if you’re the kind of person who would remember the positives that came out of that (hypothetical) bullying episode at your new school, it’s also more likely that you enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing and satisfaction in life. Moreover, this raises the tantalising possibility that changing your self-authoring style and focus could be beneficial – indeed, helping people to re-interpret their personal stories in a more constructive light is the basis of what’s known as “narrative therapy”. The red book in your head is not the final edition. Modify your story as you tell it, and perhaps you can change the kind of person you are.

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