The Development of Narrative Identity


The Development of Narrative Identity

Beyond starting families and careers, which most people do at some point, another important life task is faced by everybody. This is the task of developing a sense of who you are. According to the psychologist Dan McAdams (2013), every individual develops three aspects of identity one on top of the other (see Figure 7.2).

The first step is to learn to see oneself as an actor, and the mission is to develop the social skills, traits, and roles that will allow one to begin to take a place in soci- ety. This task begins very early, as the young child begins to take on competencies that allow her to separate from her parents and do things independently. She learns to read; she learns to add and subtract; she learns to drive; she learns a profession and the skills of parenthood. This task of learning new skills required by new roles continues throughout life.

The second task is to become an agent, a person who is guided by goals and values. This process begins at around ages 7–9 and, again, is a lifelong endeavor. When you begin to think of yourself as an agent, you look beyond the present mo- ment, and start to plan for the future and align those plans toward the outcomes that are important to you. Serious attention must be paid to the tasks of choosing a career, choosing a life partner, and developing the values that allow you to make these choices wisely.

The third and final task is to become the author of your own autobiography. This process begins in late adolescence, and results in the narrative that one can tell when asked, as McAdams often does, to “tell me your life story.” This story is

Author: Life Narratives Agent: Goals and Values

Actor: Traits and Roles
0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60 65 70+

Age (in years)

Figure 7.2 McAdams’ View of How the Three Layers of the Self Develop Over Time The view of oneself as an actor begins first, followed by developing a sense of how one is an agent, and then also an author of one’s own life story. All of these aspects of the self continue to develop throughout life.
Source: McAdams (2013), p. 280.



also continuous; you add chapters as long as you live, and this whole, self-authored “book” comprises your ever-evolving narrative identity.

The story that comprises a person’s narrative identity is important because it reveals how she views her entire life, up until now, and how its trajectory fits into her goals and dreams. And it turns out that just about everybody has such a story. McAdams reports that in his research, people love to tell them! The narratives have various themes, consistent with the individual’s cultural background and personality. For some people, the story of one’s life is about a series of lucky breaks; for others, the theme may be hard luck, success, or tragedy.

People from different cultures may tell different kinds of stories about them- selves. One pioneering cross-cultural study found that nonimmigrant European- Canadians, when asked to explain how they are the same person over time, refer to stable aspects of themselves such as their values, their beliefs, their eternal souls, or even their birthmarks! Canadians who had immigrated from Asia, in contrast, were more likely to spin a more complex story in which events in their lives affected their personalities, which in turn affected future events in their lives. For example, being arrested for shoplifting might cause a person to rethink the kind of life one wants to lead, which can lead to changes in how one acts in the future (Dunlop & Walker, in press).

Most research on narrative identity focuses on its relations with personality. A particular theme that appears fairly often in North American culture, a theme that McAdams calls “agency,” organizes the life story around episodes of challenging oneself and then accomplishing goals. Such a story might be the hallmark of a person high in the trait of conscientiousness. Another important theme, called “redemption,” typically includes an event that seemed terrible at the time, but in the end turned out for the best. For example, a person might describe how the tragic death of his father led the rest of the family to become closer together (McAdams & McClean, 2013). Redemptive stories appear to be a good sign. People who think of their lives in this way are able to change their behavior for better—for example, stop problem drinking—and in general develop healthier habits (Dunlop & Tracy, 2013).

A couple of years ago I was at a psychology conference where McAdams gave a keynote address in which he presented some of the research just summarized. The next speaker was the newly elected president of the society. The new presi- dent proceeded to tell the audience a bit of his own life story, including the time he failed to be awarded tenure at his first university job. While this can be a devastating blow to one’s academic career, he described how instead it led him to take a different position where he was able to finally do the kind of research he really wanted, which led to many future successes. McAdams sat politely and silently while this story was being related, but I’m fairly sure he was thinking

something along the lines of, “That’s what I’m talking about.”