Life stories

Definition, beginning, and structure

Life stories, also known as Narrative identity, are a model of understanding human behaviour which asserts that we all construct a narrative identity of ourselves in order to provide purpose, unity, and meaning in our lives.

These narratives begin to be constructed from as early as 16 months of age when infants begin to mimic the behaviours of those around them. Memories that are used to support the development of life stories begin to be formed from around the second year of life.

The structure of the life story is learned through listening to adults describe their own personal memories and experiences. They learn that these stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They also learn what a life should contain within a particular culture – for example, a family life and schooling leading to a career and marriage, followed by providing support to the family and so on.

Evolution

The life story then begins to evolve in late adolescence. This is a time when a young person begins to realise that there are many different, and sometimes conflicting options and roles, but they are being encouraged by society to choose just one. So they begin re-constructing a personal past to reflect present circumstances and anticipate the future. This integration of past, present, and future creates a narrative that provides unity and purpose so that our life story makes sense to us and to an audience, and at the same time differentiates ourselves from others.

A cohesive life story allows us to answer questions like:

Why do I behave in these ways in these situations with these people and why am I in this job and feeling this way about it?

Late adolescence is a time when people begin to integrate beliefs and values into their narrative identities and to make provisional commitments to life plans that place them within a social niche,

Also at this time, autobiographical memories and narratives have reached a point where they can be used to create a personal identity.

Refining

Work continues on creating and refining identity throughout adult life to reflect events and changes in roles such as wife, mother, employee and so on. In midlife, roles to integrate could include taking a more influential position within the family and within the workplace and society.

This phase is followed by contributing to the next generation and leaving a legacy for the future. Finally, the end of the story can be concerned with generating outcomes that will outlive the self and lead to a satisfying ending.

Comment

The making of a personal identity a conscious process at the early stages of creating a personal identity allows young people more control over who they will become.

Notes from The psychology of life stories by Dan P. McAdams, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. Published in Review of General Psychology 2001, vol.5, No.2, 100-122