Review: The stories we live by: personal myths and the making of the self by D. P. McAdams   Leave a comment


Who Am I? How do I fit in the world around me? Is the first line on most websites that sell the book, The stories we live by: personal myths and the making of the self by D. P. McAdams. We give meaning to our lives as certain questions are asked such as, who you are, where did you come from as stories reflect culture or what is your purpose in life? The author utilized the interview approach to learn how people build their stories in order to make sense of them so they may share their story to others.

The story also has a beginning, middle, and an end. It is this story that can be broken down and analyzed through themes which are recurrent patterns of characters wants and how they pursue their objectives (para. 67). For instance themes could be of power and love. The story has a conflict leading to a climax and resulting in a resolution or a denouement (para. p. 25). There are settings of time and place, and expectations such as, human like characters. Initiating events motivates the character(s) to reach a certain goal as James explained the long list of human impulses incorporating fear, sympathy, sociability, play, acquisitiveness, modesty, nurturance, and love (para. p. 70). Motives shape identity focusing on specific themes in a personal myth. Baken discussed human motivations that overlap for instance, in power/independence and love/interdependence and distinguished them as agency and communion. Agency refers to the need to be independent, power, achievement, a master and protector. However, the communion refers to the desire of intimacy and to become one with a group by losing their individuality for the bigger picture, in caring ways.

Furthermore, McAdams explained that story is connected to personal myth. What is a myth? According to the author it is, “…defining the self through myth may be seen as an ongoing act of psychological and social responsibility” (p. 35). The personal myth describes who you are as well as, who you want to be in life as it depicts society’s basic psychological, sociological, cosmological, and meta-physical truths” (para. 34). It is developed through stages, age and maturity.
Moreover, from the ages of infancy to the first year of life the child will be gathering material and attaching with the parents resulting in a narrative tone for their personal myth while achieving a psychosocial breakthrough in which subsequent development is oriented (para. p 40). There are four types of bonding. The preferred is the secure attachment or B-babies based on trust and security who display exploratory behavior. According to McAdams, “Secure attachment in infancy may promote the development of a confident and cohesive childhood self” (p. 44) and can reinforce an optimistic narrative. Insecure attachments such as, A-babies display avoidant patterns, The C-babies are resistant in patterns and D-babies are disorganized in patterns of attachment. An infant at eight or nine months old will begin to develop a sense of subjective self through affective attunement and mirroring for example, in the sharing of responses with a parent.
As a result, the first two years of life is expressed by what McAdams called narrative tone in life stories which is conveyed in the content of the story and in the manner in which it was told (para. p. 48). For instance, in a secure and trusting attachment a child will move through childhood and beyond with faith in the goodness of the world and hope for the future (para. p. 47). In contrast, insecure attachments lead to a pessimistic narrative where stories are bound to have unhappy endings (para. p. 47). McAdams (1993) noted, “Secure attachment may nudge us in the direction of comedy and romance insecure attachment, in the direction of tragedy and irony” (p. 53). A life story can be either one or both as a narrative mixture.

As maturity continues by the second and third year of life, development of images occur as recognition takes place in a mirror reflecting their own face and body (para. 46). Satre defines image as, “…an image as a synthesis of feeling, knowledge, and inner sensation, captured in an episode in time (p.65). A child then begins storytelling. Piaget concluded that the preschooler collects images that functions within a preoperational stage of cognitive development (para. p. 59). By the age of two or three years of age the child has a basic sense of self and the verbal self is portrayed through simple expressions. Through childhood and maturity the verbal self develops and is refined. A child’s reality is centered on them as the rules change in new occurrences for instance, in symbolic play as McAdams described, “Symbolic play is driven by the child’s idiosyncratic use of symbols and images in episodes of make-believe (p. 59). As maturity continues a child’s playtime carries a new meaning as it becomes more rule-governed. Other developments occur in their preoperational thoughts such as, the stage of intuitive-protective stage in which a child combines pieces of stories and images associated with their culture and environment creating their own important associations in dealing with a higher power, God (para. p. 61).
A school aged child ages six to twelve will have learned the connection between characters and goals in which they relate to their own motivational patterns and these patterns of desire will be reflected thematically in their personal myths (para. 36). According to McAdams, “…children high in intimacy motivation tended to have more stable and enduring relationships with their ”best friends,” to know more about their best friends personal lives, to be rated by their teachers as especially “affectionate” and “sincere” (p.74).

As a child develops, changes and matures so does their motivation. They begin to understand the meaning of stories and view the world in terms of what it can accomplish and mean for them. It is during this time that thought processes begin to take on a systematic quality, reaching a level of cognitive growth called concrete operations in which concrete reality and fundamental principles help to create a connection between objects and concepts, as a ten year old knows how the world must work (para. p. 68). As McAdams (1993) stated, “When a child moves from cognitive stage of preoperations to that of concrete operations, thinking becomes governed by rules” (p. 69).

The next stage of maturity is late adolescence and young adulthood as individuals are challenged to formulate their ideological setting in order to build a stable foundation for their identity. It is during this time that stories are created of a certain type (para. p. 53). A young adult has accumulated material, symbols and objects and as an adult from early childhood, it is the process of creatively drawing upon the imagery in fashioning their personal myth (para. 55). Adams (1993) commented, “…to understand our own myths we must explore the unique way in which each of us employs imagery to make sense of who we are (p. 55). It is the adult personal myth that combines the unconscious imagery of childhood which was created through family and culture. Furthermore, it is the combination of imagery and narrative tone that is a crucial influence on adult identity.

Presently, I am in a grad student who registered for a course resulting in my receiving the power to select what books would be incorporated into my academic program. What drew me to this book? It was the concept that we are the stories we tell, that we play different roles as we progress though life. McAdams called these main characters that dominate our life stories imagoes which are personified and idealized concepts of the self (para. p. 122). My reflections of the imagoes and their characteristics resonate with who I am today. I can see the conflict of the ritualist versus the traveler and the healer versus the warrior. I can see the harmonizing of the sage and teacher as well as the lover and humanist. My central imago presently is the maker who has appeared in the past and continues to guide me into the future. I live to create whether in my art, literature, or to create a unit for a gender studies course. My goals are to educate others and to leave a gift from me to them in hopes to empower them on their own journey in life. It is clear that my narrative may have started out pessimistic with tragedy mixing with optimism, but it is the optimistic personal romantic myth that has taken the lead. I embrace each day, each challenge and overcome obstacles in my path as I look forward to the next. I am on a never ending venture that creates change, enlightenment and personal victory in order to fulfill my myth.

In conclusion, I have been enlightened by the book, The stories we live by: personal myths and the making of the self by D. P. McAdams more than I ever thought I would. It would appear that the characters in my life have guided me, protected me, enlightened me, educated me and empowered me in my complex personal myth and journey. I have learned that I have gathered materials all along in creating my self-definition and can see myself evolving and growing. I have described myself in the past like being a tree whose roots are grounded deep in the earth as the sun light gives me the nutrients of knowledge and the rain provides my growth. My branches are extensions of myself as each limb symbolizes my past experiences. In my future, who will be the next imagoes to take the stage?

McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: The Guilford Press.


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