What Personality Psychology has to teach us about inner growth and crafting our identities.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
This is the opening sentence of Jeanette Walls’s book The Glass Castle. It is a memoir of surviving an unconventional childhood in poverty, and a fascinating look at one person’s experience of creating the narrative that defines who they are.
Personality Psychologist, Dan McAdams says that we all have an “evolving story that integrates a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future into a coherent and vitalizing life myth.” According to his theory, The Narrative Theory of Personality, there are 3 layers to what we call our self or personality.
Layer 1- Born this way
Most personality tests measure some combinations of the basic traits, which are often labeled as the “big five,” neuroticism, extroversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
These traits are fairly similar in identical twins, even those who are reared apart, which shows that we do indeed have innate personalities to an extent. This aspect of personality is referred to as one’s dispositional traits.
While the results of something like a Myers-Briggs test may resonate with your own perception of your personality, there are usually aspects that do not fit the picture. These anomalies are often the result of the next level of personality getting into the mix.
Layer 2- The land of Coaches and Therapists
The second level of personality is where your life experiences and your innate traits interact to shape your personality further.
This level is called “characteristic adaptations,” and it includes things like defense and coping mechanisms, values and beliefs, and personal goals. Riding on the back of one’s innate personality traits, this level is the place where so much of what we refer to as our self, is developed. This is the home of social conditioning and the shaping that is done in the context of our families of origin and our life experiences.
The last level takes the first two layers and transforms them into a story by infusing them with meaning.
Layer 3- You Become the Storyteller
Called The Integrative Life Story, this level is where we create a story in our consciousness about who we are in totality. This includes our past and our interpretations of our own behaviors, combined with what others say about us. This story is more like historical fiction than fact and has the potentially transformative power that all great stories have.
How to use this theory for more effective inner growth
I really love this theory because it enables us to see more accurately where different aspects of ourselves reside and whether it makes sense to influence, versus accept, those aspects. It gives us a perspective that helps to save us from perpetual self-improvement by encouraging us to get creative with the vision of our narrative.
Level 1 is a great place to start practicing self-acceptance because changing dispositional traits is probably not an effective use of your energy. This is an area where a focus on playing up one’s strengths may be much more effective than trying to change areas that you view as less desirable.
If you are an introvert that wants to be a great public speaker, you can build skills to do that, while also being accepting of the fact that you may always struggle to feel comfortable with it or you may decide that that particular goal is just not in alignment with your disposition, and move on.
Level 2 is where much of the magic happens in terms of inner growth and well-being. Here is where we can unpack the motivations, tendencies, and triggers that we have developed throughout our lives. This is also the level where we have the power to direct our futures; we can hone in on what we really value and set goals to create the lives we want.
We are pretty familiar with change at this layer because much of our current focus on self-improvement happens within this realm. The home base of therapists and coaches, this layer is where you practice self-awareness, and get intentional and courageous, moving life in the direction that you want it to go.
The danger here is to not get stuck on this level, under the belief that there is always more to improve. Putting layer 2 into the context of meaning from layer 3 can help you to avoid getting caught up here.
The 3rd level is where we transcend the first 2 levels and assign meaning and purpose to our lives by creating the story of what our life means. For many people, religion and spirituality come into play here, as a way to make sense of the things in their lives that seem unfair. All good stories have highs and lows, so when zoomed out looking at life from the level of an identity narrative, even the lows are important parts of the whole.
Looking at the self through this layered framework is powerful because it can help us identify where we should focus our energy when it comes to personal growth. Do we need to focus on unpacking our conditioning in level 2, or would it be more effective to shift the story of our personal narrative, and use it to overcome parts of our personalities that are not serving us? You can write into your story that it is okay to be an imperfect parent, or that your life is meaningful despite your failures- which may take some pressure off your layer 2 self.
Beyond inner growth to storytelling
My guess is that Jeanette Walls was born with a set of personality traits that offered her a better chance at growing from her traumatic life experiences than others might have, (for example she seemed high in conscientiousness) but I also think a large part of what allowed her to become a successful writer is that she used her experiences to craft a life narrative that had meaning for her.
Walls is a great example of focusing her inner growth energies in the right place. I don’t know the details of Walls’s inner work and healing, but I do know that many of us get stuck on level 2, doing the “work,” but never rewriting our narratives. We get stuck on healing and improving, never moving towards embracing the creative aspect of crafting our identities. Instead of perpetually working in level 2, Walls moved to level 3 to transcend the part of her narrative that might have otherwise taken her away from crafting a meaningful life.
Zoomed out into the realm of narrative, we have to power to take advantage of our strengths, re-frame our adversities, and write our own stories. We are all writers of historical fiction.
Thanks for reading,
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW