(Part 1 of 3)
I love telling stories about other people’s lives, but when it comes to telling stories about my own, I usually get embarrassed and flustered. Part of my dilemma is that I have had a disparate mix of life experiences, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to string them together into a single, coherent narrative. Depending on who I’m speaking with, I tend to narrate different versions of my past. And, usually, the story I tell becomes a dramatized version of events, replete with heightened ups and deepened downs, lessons learned, and projections about how my past will continue to shape my future. And slowly, as I creep into adulthood, these narrativized versions of my past are becoming smoother, more consistent with one another, and easier to tell.
This post is isn’t about one story in particular; it’s about the stories that we all tell about ourselves, who we are, and how we came to be. It is the first in a series of three posts about the ‘personal myth.’ In Part 1, I’ll write about how and when our personal myths are shaped. Part 2 will focus on how we can make changes to these myths once they're in place, and Part 3 will outline some beneficial patterns that we can cultivate (and toxic patterns that we can avoid) when we create a narrative account of our lives.
This series raises the stakes for our discussion of craft and oral narrative, because the same skills required to tell a good story in general (e.g., on on the radio) also enable us to formulate what some have called a good strong story about who we are. Research has linked high levels of narrative complexity in a personal myth to correspondingly high levels of ego development, and openness to experience. So, what are some ways to better craft your own personal myth?
There is an entire wing of psychology, narrative psychology, dedicated to the study of similarities and differences in people’s life stories, and the varieties of narrative identities created through their construction. Reading some of the research in this field has helped me to understand what’s happening when I’m telling stories about myself and my cheeks get all flushed. It has also helped me to become more self-aware, confident, and articulate in these situations. I will summarize my findings here, in hopes that, in the course of mythologizing your own life, you might find these pointers as helpful as I have.
Prominent narrative psychologist Dan P. McAdams at Northwestern University, whose work I will draw on throughout this series, puts forth a model in which a person’s identity develops sequentially in three layers: actor, agent, and author. This model provides a framework for understanding how and when our personal myths are first constructed, how these myths play into our evolving sense of self, and why the mythic or narrative layer of our identity is generally considered to be more amenable to changes than layers that develop earlier in life.
The first layer, actor, comes to the fore in early toddlerhood. Studies have shown that as children we begin to recognize themselves in mirrors as early as 18 months, which probably corresponds to the time when we begin to develop a sense of self-awareness. McAdams calls these little self-aware toddlers actors, because this is when we start to gauge our behaviors and form traits based on the feedback we receive from our caregivers.
Perhaps because traits are established at such an early age (or perhaps because we are born with them), they are pretty stable over time. Even and by the age of ten, most kids will have a pretty solid description of themselves. By the age of thirty, I can now safely report, traits can feel as if they are set in stone (though even stones can be lifted!).
The second layer of identity begins to develop around age five or six, when a child begins to see herself as motivated person, with goals and plans to achieve them.This little kid with an agenda is what McAdams calls an agent.
The third layer of identity starts to take shape in our late teens and early 20s. There is a lot going on in these years, obviously, but chief among them is that we are expected to become more adult-like. McAdams calls these young adults authors, because this is when we first start to narrate our lives as stories. Young adulthood is when we first begin to craft a personal myth, which explains our origins and our destiny. (The graph above was taken from a recent articlerecent article by McAdams, which outlines this model in much more detail.)
A commonly held notion, according to McAdams, is that ‘I choose my goals. I have my traits.’ In other words, we feel as if we can change our goals without too much fuss, but our traits seem like an essential part of ourselves. The underlying assumption here is that the outer layers of our identities are progressively more pliable than the inner layers, because our identities develop in a tree-like fashion wherein the newest layers form in the outermost rings. We develop our life narratives after our traits and goals are already in place, so this outer layer of our identity feels much more malleable.*
Crafting a Personal Myth
There’s nothing objective about a personal myth. There is no impartial storehouse of autobiographical information that magically morphs life events into myth-shape. Rather, crafting a personal myth is an interpretive operation, which draws on a highly selective and reorganized version of the past. Our personal myths are full of biases, distortions, and mistakes. These mistakes aren’t necessarily conscious, it’s just that certain embellishments are inherent to the storytelling process. In order to narrativize the past, we have to smooth things over a bit, sharpen pivotal transitions, add drama, tension, resolution… these are just features expected of good stories! And why not tell good stories about ourselves?
At the heart of the literature surrounding the personal myth is a liberating suggestion: it is not through experience alone that we become who we are, but through the creative act of storytelling that we glean a sense of meaning, identity, and power from our past experience. Of course, the quality of our attachments in early life is very important in determining aspects of our characters, but even if our past experience has bestowed us with certain traits, the narrative part of our identity is open to constant reinterpretation. McAdams likens this part of ourselves to a revisionist historian, who uses the selective, creative, and adaptive powers of the storyteller to create an evolving sense of identity. In an email to me, he wrote,
“People are constantly editing and amending their stories as they go through life, through conversations with others, introspection, and many other means. Many forms of psychotherapy — from psychoanalysis to cognitive behavioral therapy — aim, in one way or another, to alter the person’s narrative of life.”
That’s good news for all of us. In crafting our personal myths, McAdams writes, we can go so far as to make new facts about our lives, draw new conclusions about ourselves, derive new themes, motifs, causal connections, meaningful insights, and life lessons.
As time goes by, your personal myth will probably start to feel more cemented, and yet, at any given moment, you have the opportunity to make changes. This moment, right now, is as good as any to look back and reevaluate which experiences have been the most formative for you, and the meaning that you’d like to draw from them. In focusing your attention on the creative act of narrating your life, you’re giving yourself permission to craft the story you want to be living in.
*After this post was published, McAdams wrote with a correction. In contrast to my portrayal of dispositional traits being ‘set in stone’ by adulthood, research has shown that traits can change quite a bit over time. However, he added, it is true that they do become somewhat more stable as we grow older.