How Your Life Story Is Central to Your Identity

Who are you and what’s your life story? Answering one of these questions might tell you a lot about the other.

People have a tendency to create stories out of things. Seeing our lives as having themes and narrative arcs is more appealing than the idea that our experiences are just strings of random events that happen to us for no reason.

As it turns out, how we understand our life stories is also a key component of how we build a sense of identity.

For example, consider a recent study published in the journal Memory. In the study, high school students in Denmark were asked to outline their life stories by dividing their lives into up to ten chapters and rating how positive or negative each chapter was. (If you want an interesting exercise in self-reflection, try the experiment on yourself!)

Analyzing the life stories they’d collected, the researchers found that people who had constructed more positive life stories overall tended to score lower on “identity disturbance” – that is, these people had a more stable sense of self. They also scored higher on empathy.

Along similar lines, a 2015 study found that how people frame their life stories is also related to how they experience a sense of continuity across different phases of their lives. Specifically, the research looked at how people between the ages of 16 and 69 differed in autobiographical reasoning – that is, how they tended to give their lives narrative structure and draw connections between different phases of their lives.

It turned out that people who engaged in more autobiographical reasoning had a greater sense of continuity in their lives when they experienced significant life disruptions. This suggests that how people tie together different phases of their lives influences how they maintain a coherent identity in the face of major life changes.

Ultimately, how we interpret and make connections between our past experiences is a major factor in our identity. “Who are you?” is a question that’s so vague it’s hard to answer, but “what’s your life story?” is a more specific question that may amount to more or less the same thing.

Image: Flickr/Denise Chan