Does our narrative identity get better with age?

by Carolyn Thomas   @HeartSisters  

I’m often moved by the stories my readers share with me here. Most of them start with dramatic cardiac crises, with survival, with the sudden shock of learning what it means to become a “patient”, with the skilled cardiologists who saved them or the ones who misdiagnosed them. Others share personal hardships they’ve been enduring long before their first cardiac event ever occurred. At age 10, for example, Marie sat in her bathtub one day and counted 33 bruises on her small body, all caused by vicious beatings with a wire coat hanger at the hands of both her mother and sister.* In a family defined by alcoholism, violence  and drug abuse, her siblings also suffered terribly. Two of her brothers became heroin addicts and died within months of each other.

Yet what truly struck me about Marie is that she tells her story without blame or resentment or self-pity. She points instead to what has helped her avoid her siblings’ fate. What Marie is quietly demonstrating is how she decided to create her own narrative identity.      .       .     

Narrative identity, as explained by Northwestern University professor of psychology  Dr. Dan McAdams, is basically the story of who we are and where we’re going. As he told a Nautilus interviewer: 

“It’s a story you’ve got about how you came to be, who you are, and where your life’s going. Narrative identity is just as much about how you imagine the future even though it hasn’t happened yet as it is about how you reconstruct the past.”

In Marie’s case, she could clearly recall both the horrors of an abusive childhood and also the powerful factors that changed the trajectory of her own life, e.g. her faith, her childhood vow to never touch drugs or alcohol, an influential high school teacher, finding a sense of purpose in helping others.

It turns out that as we get older (particularly after age 50), our life stories tend to become more positive, and sometimes a little simpler, too, says Dr. McAdams. It’s called the positivity bias in aging.

That statement made me wonder, as a person well past 50, how we will one day look back on the COVID-19 crisis and describe our experience during the pandemic. Will we one day look back on this time and describe it differently than we do right now, or will our response depend on whether we are the patients or the family of patients or the front-line healthcare professionals or the conspiracy theorists who didn’t believe the pandemic was real – or the journalists writing about it?

Researcher Dr. Laura Carstensen at Stanford explains positivity bias as the realization that we don’t have a lot of time left in life. As we get older, and the end is approaching, it’s as if we start saying: “What good is it going to do me to obsess over all the negatives? Maybe it’s better for me to focus on the positive.” 

Easing up on the precise recall of every hurt, every insult, every failing doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen or didn’t matter, as Dr. McAdams reminds us:

“You live your life and you collect material as you’re going along for your life’s story. You’ve always got this material, but you could also reshape it. You can rewrite it. I think we’ve evolved not to have perfect memory, but to have strategic memory, memory that helps us accomplish our goals.”

And we all grow up within unique cultures, he adds, where we learn how to tell stories, and what makes a convincing story.

Our own cultural influences have been a focus of researchers for decades,  specifically on how those stories can unfold in a way that mirrors what we heard while listening to our families describe their own history of getting through the hardest times.

In other words, how did our own families look back on economic hardships, or medical crises, or the unfairness of life? Did they blame the government, the doctors, the banks, and the “system”?  Or did they demonstrate a less dramatic and mellowed positivity bias as they grew older?

Researchers Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush at Emory University suggest that rolling with the punches may indeed be a learned skill from childhood. They summarize three general forms of family story-telling(1):

  • Ascending family narrative (“Things always got better for us.”)
  • Descending family narrative (“Things always got worse for us.”)
  • Oscillating family narrative (“We’ve been up. We’ve been down. We’ve had terrible, painful times but we got through them. We’ve also enjoyed the best of times, but when they didn’t last, we survived no matter what.”)

And as I wrote in my book (A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease, Johns Hopkins University Press):

 “In my experience with heart disease, I learned to cope with crisis by coping. I learned to adapt to crisis by adapting. I learned to roll with the punches because, like so many of us, I’ve practiced rolling with so many figurative punches during my life.

“It’s not because I needed the crisis to become a better person, not because the diagnosis itself was some kind of a gift, and certainly not because I needed to add meaning to a meaningless existence, but because human beings have a remarkable ability to get used to almost anything in life (both positive and negative).”

As Marie told me after I’d published her essay here, she had been raised to believe she deserved to be last on any priority list. But as she grew up and was diagnosed with coronary microvascular disease (a diagnosis I share with her, by the way), she decided this:

   “If childhood trauma set me on this course, I can at least now try to get on a better track in terms of caring for myself, body, mind, and soul.  It actually gives me more impetus to give myself permission to treat myself with more kindness.”

* Marie is not her real name, by request.

1. Duke, M.P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R.  Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268-272. 2008.

Image of pink flowers: Vinson Tan, Pixabay

Q:  How has your own narrative identity changed as you get older?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more on the experience of becoming a patient in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”.  You can ask for it at your local bookshop (please support your neighbourhood business owners!)  or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon  – or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

– Read the rest of Marie’s essay in “Dear Carolyn: People Can Change for the Better”

Oh, great. Another cardiac risk factor to worry about… my original blog post on how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are often linked to future health issues, the post that inspired Marie’ to share her story here

– More about ACEtake the ACE test, and learn more about how to help prevent the poor outcomes associated with ACE

Oscillating narrative: the learned art of re-creating ourselves

– Do you think you’re a “somebody”?

Good news: your story is not yet locked in

– When an illness narrative isn’t just about illness (the preface of my book, citing physician and author Dr. Suzanne Koven’s CBC Radio interview with Michael Enright about writing “sick lit”)

– The bumpy road between diagnosis and getting better

– Almost anything written by Dr. Jonathon Tomlinson, a GP in East London who writes eloquently about ACE issues and social determinants of health in his highly recommended blog.

Dr. Victor Montori works on a unique concept focused on reducing a patient’s “burden of treatment”, which he and his Mayo Clinic-based team call “Minimally Disruptive Medicine”. His wonderful little red book Why We Revolt calls on his medical colleagues to provide care that is careful and kind. .


10 thoughts on “Does our narrative identity get better with age?

  1. I would say that my life narrative has been a journey of discovery and rediscovery.

    I am not one to dwell on childhood since it is far in the past but recently I have been stuck in a place mentally that I don’t want to be.

    By going back to the gifts I came into this earth with, I realized many of my gifts were trained out of me by loving but somewhat ignorant parents.

    I was born loving and equinanimous, in love with nature, easy going, seeing beauty in small things… Values that were not shared by my parents.
    Hard work, resting is laziness, grades, financial security, impressing the neighbors…Those were my parents’ values.

    I learned them, I got very good at them, then fell apart at the age of 42 because I felt totally drained and empty.

    Thirty years later …LOL… I am still finding new gifts that were trained out of me.

    Learning to love the present and not fear the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such good points, Jill… I suspect many of us of a certain age had parents with similar values (work hard, do well in school, look good for the neighbours, and if you do all those things, you’ll do well financially and make us proud of you). My parents sure did!

      For the last years of her life, my mother proudly displayed five business cards lined up in a row on her fridge door (one from each of her five grown children). The fact that we all had our own professional business cards was for her a sure sign that her kids had “made it”!

      (And those business cards were probably also useful for impressing the neighbours, too…)

      It’s not that those parental value aren’t important, it’s just that from our parents’ perspective, it was unthinkable to be both hard-working and resting at the same time!

      Good luck discovering all those wonderful new gifts.

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


    2. Jill, So true about your parents’ view, I never thought about them in those terms…but my parents did work hard but took naps and enjoyed vacations. My husband’s parents never took naps because that was a sign of the military years ago, my husband and I came home and stayed with them. I actually had to feign a headache to go and take a nap. At my parents’ home, you could disappear and take a nap and no one thought anything of it.

      We had jobs to make money to live. The saying if you do something you love, you will never work a day in your life . If we had something we loved to do, it was our hobby but we could not make a living doing it. I personally never thought if I liked my many jobs. Its what I did to support myself and family.

      I am in my 70’s now and retired. We enjoyed our time off. Now I am a widow and with Covid, I am home a lot but it doesn’t really bother me. I do what I want and when I want . I was married over 50 years and they were happy until the last few when my husband went downhill in health and became a person I didn’t know.

      My 3 grown children and grandkids are loving and affectionate. So my narrative is different now. I just want peace in my life and that’s why I can’t watch all the news lately. The young ones can change the world, if it offends anyone or everyone that I don’t join them, too bad.

      Just let me be!!!!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I believe that wisdom comes with age…if we allow it. I also see that many children are coming into this world with a greater degree of wisdom than we (I’m 71) had. So they will change the world….I’ll just stay home and watch it unfold.
        Naps are the greatest! ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Chris, my parents were oddly intolerant of their children’s claims of headache or any other complaints. My Dad had a favourite expression: “I think you’re swinging the lead!” whenever any of the five of us reported that we were feeling sick. Not sure of where that statement came from (maybe my Dad invented it) but we ALL knew exactly what he meant: that he suspected we were just pretending to be sick to get out of doing something important…


        1. Yes Carolyn…
          I call it the German work ethic as instilled by my father…both helpful and harmful. I remember hearing “What is the matter with you? Do you have Dropsy?” “Get up out of that chair and get to work.”

          Obedience without Self-Reflection was expected….Someone else knew more what you were capable of than your Self.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh wow! Did our Dads go to the same Parenting School, Jill?!? A child’s ‘self-reflection’ was considered entirely unnecessary in my family. To encourage that kind of thing was to end up with a child who “thought she was a SOMEBODY!” which, as all parents like ours knew, was the worst thing that could ever happen to a kid, and would also reflect poorly on the ineffective parents who raised a kid so badly! FYI, I wrote more about this a few years ago (“Do You Think You’re A Somebody?“)


  2. Another excellent article–thanks Carolyn. I have been writing my life stories for about 8 years now. I was married to a violent alcoholic, left him to raise kids alone. I’ve written through tears and anger, making greater peace with trauma as well as seeing my own resilience more clearly.

    Feels like a life review knowing that whatever time I have left is short.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sara – so true! “Whatever time I have left is short”! That’s sound advice for every one of us.

      I worked for many years in hospice/palliative care, where my colleagues often reminded us that the only difference between US (staff) and THEM (our patients) is that *they* had some idea of how and when they might die. We knew, however, that we just might die before them if we get hit by a bus tomorrow – but not one of us knows for sure!

      By the way, I wanted to mention that researchers have surprisingly positive outcomes to report when studying women who have left violent spouses, as I wrote about here. One researcher concluded, for example: “In the study, we took into account the fact that divorce can sometimes have a negative financial impact on women, but despite that it still makes them MUCH HAPPIER than men.” Not knowing this can keep many women in terrible – even dangerous! – relationships for far too long.

      I hope that this observation has also been true in your own case…

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


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