The Autobiographical Psyche

As was noted in a previous post titled Your Autobiography: Thoughts on Getting Started, there are multiple possible goals as one considers writing an autobiography. These goals fall along a continuum as follows:

What follows will explore the far right hand side of this continuum, where an interest in self-discovery is of leading importance.

Philippe Lejeune, a French commentator and observer of the autobiographical form, offers the following definition of an autobiography:

“Retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own  existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality.”

Lejeune’s inclusion of personality as a central ingredient to autobiography indicates his interest in developing insight into who we are and how we approach and interact with the world.

How might we further conceptualize personality?

Henry Murray at Harvard in the 1930s coined the term personology, a concept that was meant to capture the complexity and uniqueness of each individual. In order to probe the depth and breadth of a personality, Murray pioneered the use of writing autobiographies. Murray also pioneered the use of storytelling to images as a way to enhance understanding of personality. He found investigation into an individual’s various types of stories told would yield critically insightful themes. Through the use of these and other tools, Murray categorized 29 different possible needs or motives, such as a need for achievement, and 20 environmental or situational factors, all interacting in a multitude of ways, that contribute to the shaping and characterization of a unique personality.

A more recent, broad schema of personality that is very applicable to the psychological aspects of an autobiographical project has been proposed by Dan McAdams. McAdams suggests personality is comprised of three levels. Think of them as layers of a cake. The bottom layer’s ingredients are a mixture of traits. Traits are things like conscientiousness or friendliness. These can be thought of as broad descriptors. They are what a person is seen as generally like. The second layer includes those components that reflect taking action or initiative in some way. These include our goals, values, plans, and motivations. In other words, “What do I think I want?”

The third, top-most layer is, for our purposes, the most interesting, for it makes the case for a critical connection to life story. It is in this third layer where we see the ultimate evolution and expression of our unique personality, based upon a narrative identity. Here we take on the role of true autobiographical author. As McAdams notes, it is at this level where we attempt to integrate “our understanding of who we once were, who we are today, and who we may become in the future.” We deal at this layer with big questions such as “What does my life mean?” and “Who am I becoming?” The concept boils down to this: To truly know yourself fully, to be best able to create and live a life of meaning and purpose, you need to really know your stories.

McAdams adds two further points. When we take the time to reflect on and study our stories, they help explain why we do what we do, why we want what we want, and how we have developed across time. The autobiographical process thus provides a way to build a coherent view of who we are and to gain a glimmer of greater insight into the ultimate Self in all its grandeur. Through story reflection we also come to see more clearly that while we are “the authors of our own unique stories, we get plenty of editorial assistance, as well as resistance, from the social, ideological, and cultural world around us.”

The notion of “editorial assistance” speaks to an existential question pondered over the millennium: To what degree does free will exist? Or in other words, what degree of agency or lack thereof do we have over our life’s direction and purpose? Academic and writer Richard Freadman addresses this concept directly in his book, Threads of Life. Freadman posits that one of the key factors underlying the motivation to study one’s life story is to tackle the very question, “How free is my will?” For those who want to contemplate the world and his or her place in it, Freadman has coined the term “reflective autobiographers.” He defines this type of approach as “first-person life writing in which there is a significant and sophisticated component of reflection on the meaning and larger implications of the life being written, and of life in general…”

Freadman thus believes autobiography provides a valuable tool with which to study and appreciate the topic of human will along with each individual’s capacity to direct their own destiny.

What makes a life story project so impactful, insightful, and meaningful is by definition its inherent reliance on uniqueness. Aspects of personality, such as traits and types, are often probed via self-reported questionnaires and are analyzed and presented with a quantifiable, statistic bent. These assessments have their purpose and are useful, but they should not be considered as providing the complete or or most important picture. As Carl Jung noted in The Undiscovered Self,

“Man, as a member of a species, can and must be described as a statistical unit; otherwise nothing general could be said about him. [But] If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude…He [all human beings] is not to be understood as a recurrent unit but as something unique and singular which in the last analysis can be neither known or compared with anything else.”

It is the unique, lived experience that is of critical important for deriving understanding, not just knowledge, notes Jung. McAdams similarly states many psychologists now hold the belief “that personality makes best sense when it is viewed in the fullness of the individual human life.”

Lejeune. Murray. McAdams. They each speak to the power and application of autobiographical creation and reflection as a pathway to greater self-understanding and finding meaning. I titled this post “The Autobiographical Psyche” to reflect and honor the psychological orientation a person can take to the process of life story review and analysis. Relatedly, the autobiographical psyche is curious. Open to new insights. Perhaps a bit playful. Most all all, it is courageous.

Of course there are other perspectives one can keep in mind approaching an autobiographical project. The “autobiographical psyche” is an important one.