The following few posts will be about personal narratives – the stories we create to make sense of our lives.

When we meet someone new and he or she asks what we do, we often offer only a brief response, which doesn’t say much about us at all. I’m a teacher… a mechanic… a dentist… a consultant… a student. When we are asked how we got interested in being a teacher, we are invited to share the part of the story by which we define ourselves. In a social situation, we may say something like, “Well, I’ve always loved math, and I enjoy working with kids. It seemed like a good fit.” But when we look within ourselves, we know the story likely runs deeper.

Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, suggests we make sense of our lives by creating a personal narrative – or myth – to “render sensible and coherent the seeming chaos of human existence.” Our myth gives meaning to what may otherwise be disjointed experiences and allows us to make sense of how we fit into our world. McAdams writes:

“…the stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and   might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large. The self comes to terms with society through narrative identity.”  

Research has shown that children as young as two begin to narrate stories about themselves, but it is in adolescence that we begin to connect events to create an autobiography of our lives. As we continue into adulthood, we begin to refashion our personal narrative to incorporate our life experiences and transitions.

Our personal narrative can give meaning to our parent’s divorce, moving away from where we grew up, poor academic performance, and confusion about what direction to take our lives. For example, the real story behind the math teacher…

“I was in seventh grade when my parents got a divorce. I moved with my mother to a new town that was much bigger than where I grew up. I had never lived anywhere else before moving away. I missed my father, my friends, the house I grew up in… and my grades started to go downhill. I didn’t have the energy for school and I didn’t care. My math teacher asked me to stay after class one day and inquired about my poor grade. He started helping me out after class, answering questions about homework problems. I started to like math. It made sense. Numbers were rational when nothing in my life seemed that way. I majored in math in college and started thinking about what kind of job I wanted when I graduated. I knew I didn’t want to have a job sitting by myself all day crunching numbers. I wanted to be interacting with people, and I’ve always liked kids. So I decided to try teaching. I looked my old teacher up last time I was in town visiting my mom. We had lunch. It was nice. Maybe I’ll help a kid someday like he helped me.” A personal narrative can take experiences that are negative and link them together to create meaning.

The next post will discuss McAdams’s common characters we identify ourselves with in creating our personal narrative.

The first quote is from Dan P. McAdams book, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. The second quote is from a book chapter McAdams wrote, Personal Narrative and the Life Story, in Handbook of personality: Theory and research.