The Storytelling Self in 3 Phases Across the Lifespan

How our "selves" develop from social actor to agent to autobiographer.

Posted Mar 06, 2020

Although many other animals have rich mental lives (see here for a cool study on mental imagery in bees), we humans are unique in that we have symbolic language that allows us to narrate our thoughts and feelings to ourselves and others. Psychologists often refer to this narrating portion of your self-conscious awareness as your “ego” (see here and here for what this means). I also like to call it your “storytelling self.” It is the part of you that can reflect on your inner experiences and narrate what is happening and why and what should be happening and why. Following work by Dan McAdams, I invite you to think about how the storytelling self develops over the course of the lifespan in three phases.

The storytelling self emerges with propositional language, and especially the capacity to engage in dialogue involving questions and answers. By the time a child is asking why they need to do things and making claims about who they are and what they should do in terms of social rules or roles, then the storytelling self is operative. McAdams calls the first phase of the storytelling self the “social actor” phase, which is in full swing for most children by ages three or four.

The social actor is concerned with specific rules and roles and, most importantly, the reviews from others. That is, the child is tracking what they are praised and rewarded for and what they are blamed or punished for. Much of the focus is on their performance and their narrative is deeply influenced by their reputation and how their acting is received and reviewed by others. We maintain a social actor aspect to our storytelling lives through development. Some people, such as those with social anxiety difficulties (see here), can remain largely trapped in a social actor frame of mind, as they are terrified to receive “bad reviews” from others.

Older children and adolescents start to shift out of the specific social roles and concerns they have with their reviews into a more stable sense of self that transcends the specific social contexts and contingencies of reward, punishment, and reputation. This is what McAdams calls the “agent.” Agency means self-control or the ability to be self-determined. What happens here is that the cognitive, emotional, and relational development reaches a point where the individual can self-recursively reflect on who they are relative to who they want to be, and they can start to develop their own sense of what they should do.

As many parents know well, by the time kids are in their teenage years, they can develop very independent ideas about what they should do and what they should be relative to the rules, roles, and regulations of the household. As suggested by this description, the agentic storytelling self is often separating from traditional bonds and moving out to explore other domains—they become more individuated or autonomous in their thinking. In saying this, we must also note that the social actor remains present. As we likely can all attest, there will remain basic concerns for role, reputation, and receiving positive as opposed to negative social evaluations. But now, a relatively stable self-concept or identity is present that is reflecting on what goals or identities the individual should pursue.

In late adolescence and young adulthood, ideally, another shift happens. Here the identity evolves into a longer-term view, what McAdams calls the “autobiographical” self. As suggested by this name, here the storytelling self is transformed into a narrative perspective across time, whereby one’s life becomes a story and, ideally, the individual experiences themselves as a protagonist who is capable of generative triumph in response to the slings and arrows that life inevitably casts out upon them. One way to conceive of the core structure of the autobiographical self is to consider what folks who practice ACT call “eulogy values.” These are the values that one might hope to appear in one’s eulogy. As this suggests, the autobiographical self ideally is defined by the themes, long-term impacts, and core virtues that are found in an ethical, generative life well-lived.

In closing, I invite you to consider your ego as your storytelling self. It is a self that starts telling stories in social settings, looking for rewards and punishments and good reviews. Then it transforms into an agentic storyteller whereby it becomes apparent that one can author aspects of one’s life, including goals, skills, and interests. Finally, hopefully, those agentic components will be consolidated into larger themes that mark the key threads of a life well-lived, such you experience your life as an unfolding, generative story of virtue and positive impact in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.