Narrating the Self in the Past
and the Future:
Implications for Maturity
Laura A. King and Joshua A. Hicks
University of Missouri, Columbia
In this article, we review research on narrative possible selves as correlates and pre
dictors of well-being and ego development in individuals who have experienced im-
portant life transitions. This research has shown that positive well-being is best
predicted by investment in current life goals and a divestment of interest in “lost
goals.” In contrast, ego development is correlated with the capacity to elaborate on
one’s lost possible selves. In addition, this capacity to elaborate on lost goals pre-
dicts enhanced development over time. Based on our findings, we propose a general
model of goal processes in personality development, suggesting that the outcome of
maturity is best captured by a convergence of happiness and ego development.
In psychology, motivation has often been portrayed as that aspect of human life
that lends coherence to our behavior (e.g., McClelland, 1985; Murray, 1938).
Events gain meaning because of their relevance to the ends we seek (e.g., Can
tor, Norem, Langston, & Zirkel, 1991). Our research begins with the necessity
of motivation as the core of experience. Although often motivation has been
portrayed as largely unknowable, particularly to the person himself or herself,
we have relied on subjective accounts of motivation or goals in our research.
Conscious intents have been shown to function as motivational units in a variety
of contexts (e.g., Little, 1999), suggesting that the goals people seek provide a
psychic hub in their lives—lending a sense of purpose to what people do. Goals
are inherently contextualized. They attach people to the events of the day and
are situated in the circumstances that make up the psychological context of their
lives. Truly embracing life’s second chances requires that these goals remain
flexible—that these aspects of the person remain sensitive to changing contin
gencies in the environment. Yet, cherished goals may be the very aspects of
Correspondence should be sent to Laura A. King, 210 McAlester Hall, Department of Psychologi
cal Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211. E-mail: KingLa@missouri.edu
RESEARCH IN HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, 3(2&3), 121–138
Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
people’s lives that are particularly difficult to surrender when circumstances
change because of their central place in the experience of life as coherent and
In our work, we (e.g., King & Raspin, 2004; King & Smith, 2004) have ex
plored the role of narrated “possible selves” in well-being and personality devel
opment. We argue that such goals represent a fertile ground for understanding the
role of motivational processes through life transitions. When we ask individuals
to provide narrative descriptions of their goals, we are asking them to describe and
illuminate the phenomenological experience of motivation in their lives. When
human beings consider their lost or forsaken goals, they are thinking back on their
previous sources of meaning—those things that made their life make sense at one
time. Relying on these self-generated narrative accounts of motivation, one can
examine the role of goals in the process of identity change—how individuals per
ceive their goals changing over time and how the capacity to invest in and revise a
life dream relates to important life outcomes. Such goal narratives allow for an ex
amination of the implications of how individuals take stock of their “first
chances” and reconstruct their life goals with an eye toward the second chances
offered by life experience.
HAPPINESS, PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT,
It may be valuable, before describing research examining the relations of the pos-
sible self variables to well-being and personality development, to consider the po-
tentially multifaceted nature of positive functioning. Often, when psychologists
discuss positive human functioning, we are talking about how generally happy a
person is. It hardly seems necessary to argue for the importance of psychological
well-being to any notion of optimal functioning. People want to be happy
(Baumeister, 1987; King & Broyles, 1997; King & Napa, 1998; Schwartz &
Bilskey, 1987). Furthermore, it may be that happiness is not only a consequence
of positive life outcomes but a predictor of these outcomes as well (Lyubomirsky,
King, & Diener, in press). However, such an emphasis has drawn criticism, sug
gesting that it has limited psychology’s appreciation and understanding of the
multiple facets of the good life (King, 2001; King, Eells, & Burton, 2004; Ryff,
1989; Ryff & Singer, 1998). From a goals perspective, it is important to keep in
mind that happiness is only one value among many that humans may seek in their
lives. Within the larger framework of motivation, happiness may be sacrificed in
the pursuit of other ends. Motives toward self-understanding, personal growth,
generativity, and so forth may take precedence over the pursuit of happiness. Fur
thermore, coping with life-changing experiences may lead to important outcomes
that are independent of happiness itself.
KING AND HICKS
One variable that appears to be independent of positive emotional experience
is ego development (ED; cf. Noam, 1998; Vaillant & McCullough, 1987). ED re
fers to the level of complexity with which the person is able to experience himself
or herself and the world (e.g., Hy & Loevinger, 1996; Loevinger, 1976; Loevinger
& Wessler, 1970). According to Loevinger’s (1976, 1998) theory, at the earliest
stages of ED, people are dominated by impulses, lack insight, and engage in
simplistic thinking. With ED comes an increasingly complex experience of them
selves and the world. People come to control and channel impulses. They recog
nize that life’s big questions may have a variety of valid answers. As people
develop, they increasingly recognize conflict in the world and in themselves.
Individuals become occupied with issues of identity and mutuality. The more de
veloped individual is capable of experiencing a degree of ambivalence that es
capes the less developed person. High levels of ED involve a more complex but
also more expansive view of the self and world. Not surprisingly, then, Westen
(1998) referred to ED as the development of character.
Loevinger (1976) conceived of the ego as a buffer between the person and the
world, a buffer that is changed via life experience. This perspective is particularly
appropriate to the study of goal change and personality development. Goals repre-
sent individuals’ hopes for the future—what they expect to happen. In Loe-
vinger’s (1976) view, growth may only occur when the environment fails to
conform to the person’s expectations. Loevinger (1976) referred to “pacers” as
complex interpersonal situations that might pull an individual to a higher level of
In considering the relationship between ED and experience, we suggest that a
lens may be an appropriate metaphor. The relatively less developed ED sees the
world “through a glass, darkly”—in simple ways, missing the nuances that a
sharper focus might provide. Experiences confront the person, perhaps beveling
the lens in particular ways, allowing aspects of reality to come into sharper focus.
When people are faced with significant life events, they have the opportunity to
develop the complexity of their perspectives and ultimately themselves. Research
on important life changes has supported the notion that the ego may well develop
through such experience (Bursik, 1991; Helson, 1992; Helson & Roberts, 1994;
Helson & Wink, 1987; King & Smith, 2004).
Block (1982) borrowed the Piagetian concepts of assimilation and accommo
dation to describe the process of personality development. In assimilation, the in
dividual avoids any meaningful change of orientation and manages to interpret
and incorporate a new experience into his or her existing framework. Alterna
tively, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, the person may “construct
or invent new schemes that are equilibrating” (Block, 1982, p. 291). In the process
of accommodation, frameworks are revised and rewritten. Accommodation can
not occur if a person is not invested in his or her frameworks for understanding
life. Thus, development requires that the individual is committed in some real
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 123
sense to his or her first chances, to goals that are ultimately forsaken due to chang
ing circumstances. Note also the potentially active role of the person in his or her
own development here. The ego is not simply a passive recipient of experience
but also the active creator and interpreter of that experience. True change can be
avoided if all new experience is effectively relegated to “old news.” Furthermore,
the person’s ego can grow by seeking out challenging experience and actively and
deliberately processing those experiences (Singer, King, Green, & Barr, 2002).
Thus, a person can come to a psychological understanding of the examined life as
one in which the person can engage in his or her own development by actively
confronting loss and reconstructing a life worth pursuing.
As previously mentioned, historically, research has shown no consistent rela
tion between ED and measures of mental functioning. This empirical fact may be
viewed as a failure of ED to capture the true sense of maturity (Noam, 1998). In
our view, maturity is best understood as multifaceted—as combining the com
plexity that Loevinger (1998) described with a sense of positive well-being and
perhaps other important characteristics such as wisdom, generativity, and so
forth. By examining both measures of happiness and measures of ED, we hope to
present a portrait of maturity that includes at least two of these important facets.
We treat these two variables as relatively equal in importance. A complex life of
misery is certainly possible but not likely to be generally desirable. An individual
who is overwhelmed by the conflict and ambivalence afforded by development
clearly falls short of some important aspects of maturity (e.g., contentment, self-
acceptance). Similarly, an undifferentiated self in an undifferentiated world, even
in the context of happiness, is likely to lack important capacities requisite for ma-
turity such as compassion, tolerance, and insight.
POSSIBLE SELVES IN WELL-BEING
AND PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT
In research of possible selves by King and colleagues (King & Raspin, 2004) par
ticipants are asked to generate written narrative descriptions of their current best
possible self (BPS) and an unattainable BPS that they may have once cherished,
but that is no longer possible, what we refer to as a lost possible self (LPS). Possi
ble selves are representations of goals and serve as cognitive resources that moti
vate the self throughout adult development (Cross & Markus, 1991; Markus &
Nurius, 1986). Narrative methodology is ideal for this research because it allows
one to gather a richer portrait of the individual’s life goals than would be afforded
by questionnaire measures of these constructs (Whitty, 2002). Typically, the in
structions used to generate possible selves are the following (e.g., King & Raspin,
KING AND HICKS
We would like you to consider the life you imagine for yourself currently, and
in the future. What sorts of things do you hope for and dream about? Imagine
that your life has gone as well as it possibly could have. You have worked hard
and achieved your goals. Think of this as your “best possible life” or your
“happily ever after.”
In addition to writing about their current BPS, participants write about goals that are
no longer a part of their lives. This LPS represents a part of the individual’s life
story that previously provided the individual with a source of meaning and coher
ence in his or her life. The instructions for the LPS are variations on the following:
We would like you to consider your future as you imagined it before (the life
changing event). Try to remember how you imagined your future to be. What
sorts of things did you hope for and dream about for your life? Think of this as
your “best possible life” or your happily ever after, if you had not experienced
Using these narratives, research has examined two aspects of possible selves—
salience and elaboration. Salience refers to the extent to which individuals think
about the possible self and the ease with which it can be recalled in memory. A sa-
lient possible self is one that is frequently activated in the working self-concept.
This possible self may be chronically available to the person—a relatively constant
source of motivation. Typically, salience can be measured using self-report by sim-
ply asking individuals to rate how much they currently think about that possible
self, how easy it is for them to imagine, and so forth (e.g., King & Smith, 2004).
Elaboration, on the other hand, refers to the detail, vividness, and emotional
depth of the possible self. Here, we focus on the richness of the narrative the per
son has generated. Elaborate narratives suggest the individual has a complex and
intricate understanding of his or her life story. In studies (e.g., King & Smith,
2004), elaboration has been reliably content analyzed by independent raters cod
ing these protocols on dimensions such as elaboration, vividness, emotionality,
Although possible self-narratives can be both salient and elaborate, they need
not be both (or neither). An individual may often think about a possible self but
not have a detailed, rich understanding of these particular future goals. For exam
ple, premed majors might often think about becoming doctors without having a
rich understanding about what their lives would be like if they achieved their
goals. Conversely, an individual may be able to generate a rich, detailed descrip
tion of a possible self but not often think about that possible self much in everyday
life. For instance, a person may have once thought deeply about pursuing a career
in medicine and developed a vivid idea of what that life might be like. After com
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 125
ing to the conclusion that such a life path is not necessarily a preferred life, how
ever, the person may not often think about the once important goal.
To examine the role of possible selves in well-being and personality develop
ment, King and colleagues recruited samples of individuals who had undergone
important, sometimes extraordinary, identity-challenging experiences. Presently,
these studies include samples comprised of parents of children with Down Syn
drome (DS; King & Patterson, 2000; King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000),
women who experienced divorce after more than 20 years of marriage (King &
Raspin, 2004), and gay men and lesbians (King & Smith, 2004). Many people in
these samples have had to endure the difficult process of disengaging from a set of
important, desirable goals. Although quite unique in many ways, these samples
share a common theme: they have all experienced a life change that impinges on
identity, that has implications for the future, and as such requires a consideration
or reconsideration of the next chapter of their lives. Using these exceptional sam
ples, we have been able to direct the types of possible selves participants write
about using a particular life transition as a focal point.
The inclusion of gay men and lesbians perhaps warrants some discussion. In
this sample, participants were asked to write about their best possible “straight”
selves (along with their best possible gay selves). Best possible straight selves are
not necessarily lost goals per se. It is possible that many gay men and lesbians had
once thought of themselves as straight, subsequently constructing a future life
narrative in which they were straight (this would be assumed by most theories of
gay identity development, for instance, Cass, 1979). Moreover, even among gay
men and lesbians who never thought of themselves as being straight, identity (and
goals) likely developed in a context in which important aspects of the self stood
opposed to essential assumptions of the dominant culture. Thus, even gay men
and lesbians who never considered themselves straight are likely to be well aware
of the opportunities they might have pursued or the benefits they might have en
joyed if they were straight.
These tasks may seem to assume a great deal of insight on the part of our par
ticipants. We do not maintain that these narratives are necessarily completely ac
curate descriptions of previous (or even current) motivational concerns. Rather,
we can think of these narrative accounts of motivation as reflections of life experi
ence as viewed through the lens of the survivor of that experience. What the per
son tells us is at least partly a function of “what really happened” and partly a
function of the person’s capacities to perceive, encode, recall, imagine, and nar
rate that experience. For this reason, these narratives are thought to bear the mark
ings of important psychological characteristics. Clearly, the person’s current
levels of well-being and development may play a role at each stage of the transla
tion of experience into narrative. As we discuss following, the capacity to imagine
or reimagine one’s forsaken goals may reveal important aspects of one’s current
and future personality development.
KING AND HICKS
As previously described, research to date has examined how salience and elab
oration of narrated selves are related to well-being and personality development.
Psychological well-being has been measured using questionnaires that gauge an
overall sense of how happy a person feels generally with his or her current life cir
cumstances. The use of self-report to measure well-being is certainly the estab
lished method in the research literature.
To measure personality development, participants completed the Sentence
Completion Task (SCT; Hy & Loevinger, 1996), a measure of ED. On the SCT,
participants respond to a variety of stems, and these responses are content ana
lyzed according to published guidelines. Research supports the notion that this
test measures sequential stages of personality development (e.g., Redmore &
Loevinger, 1979) and that it can be used to track development in response to life
events (e.g., Bursik, 1991). Most studies (King & Raspin, 2004) have included
follow-up measures in order to track changes in well-being and ED over time. The
data analytic strategy employed begins by examining cross-sectional relations
among the variables in terms of bivariate and multivariate relations. Prospective
hierarchical regression equations are then conducted, regressing the two indica-
tors of maturity (well-being and ED) at follow-up on their values at the first wave
of data collection along with the possible self narrative variables of salience and
elaboration (King & Raspin, 2004; King & Smith, 2004).
Happiness and Goal Change: Letting Go
and Investing in the Present
Generally speaking, pursuing and progressing on important goals is associated
with enhanced psychological well-being (e.g., Little, 1999). Thus, not surpris
ingly, results with regard to the salience of possible selves have shown a strong
relationship between the salience of current possible selves and subjective well-
being. For example, salience of current BPS was concurrently related to subjec
tive well-being for the parents of children with DS (King & Patterson, 2000),
divorced women (King & Raspin, 2004), and gay men and lesbians (King &
Smith, 2004). These results have suggested that investing in one’s current goals is
a strong correlate of happiness. Interestingly, in the gay and lesbian sample, the
salience of the BPS (i.e., the gay BPS) was also correlated with being “out” such
that more out individuals tended to have more salient identity-consistent goals.
Previous research has shown that goal failure or the loss of incentives is related
to distress and depressive affect (e.g., Klinger, 1975, 1977). Indeed, the role of
goals in positive well-being implies that when goals don’t go well, the person is
likely to suffer (see King & Burton, 2003, for a review). Thus, again, it is not sur
prising, that in samples of adults who have experienced life change, in general, the
salience of the LPS (i.e., the goals one is not currently pursuing) has been associ
ated with lowered well-being, heightened distress, and increased regret. For both
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 127
the divorced women and the gay men and lesbians, results (King & Raspin, 2004;
King & Smith, 2004) showed that salience of LPS was negatively related to well-
being. In addition, gay individuals with very salient straight possible selves were
more likely to be “in the closet.” In sum, thinking about goals that are no longer
attainable is related to psychological distress. Few, if any, prospective relations
have been identified predicting well-being from possible self-variables. Rather,
one’s current mental life, the working self-concept, appears to be more strongly
related to one’s overall feelings of happiness. The sole exception was in the gay
and lesbian sample (King & Smith, 2004) in which the salience of the gay BPS
was associated with decreasing levels of distress over time.
Overall, results have indicated that happiness is best predicted by investment
in current goals and the capacity to relinquish goals that are not available. To be
happy and avoid regret, it is best to relegate lost goals to “what might have been”
and move on. The person cannot perseverate on old goals and maintain happiness.
Rather, the pursuit of happiness requires a central change in one’s motivational
system—relinquishing one’s previous sources of meaning and embracing life’s
Ego Development and Goal Change: What Doesn’t
Kill Me Makes Me More Interesting
From a narrative perspective, the ego can be considered the creator of the “Me”
(McAdams, 1998). Thus, the ego might be viewed as the generator of possible
selves. From this perspective, higher levels of ED would be expected to relate to
more elaborate possible self-narratives, demonstrating the capacity of the rela-
tively developed ego to generate a rich motivational landscape toward which to
strive. Thus far, research has provided inconsistent results with regard to this pos
sibility. Among divorced women, current BPS elaboration was related to en
hanced ED (King & Raspin, 2004), but this result is not typical. It may be that
producing a rich description of one’s current life dream is not particularly diag
nostic of ED (although cf. McAdams, Ruetzel, & Foley, 1986). Instead, it has
been found that the elaboration of lost goals, goals one has forsaken or cannot pur
sue, is consistently related to higher levels of ED. It may be that this task, requir
ing the individual to acknowledge incoherent aspects of the self—those things the
pursuit of happiness dictates one might be better off forgetting—is particularly
likely to reveal the individual’s ED level.
Although happiness may require that individuals truly divest themselves of pre
viously sought after goals, ED may require an examination of these very goals.
Consistent with this notion, among divorced women, LPS elaboration related to
current ED in interaction with time since divorce (King & Raspin, 2004). Time is an
important variable in this regard. For women who had only recently divorced, a
highly elaborate LPS might simply demonstrate good memory for recently lost
goals. Importantly, then, LPS elaboration was related to higher levels of concurrent
KING AND HICKS
ED only in interaction with time. Among these women, ED related specifically to
narrating a long-lost aspect of the self with rich, vivid detail. In addition, gay men
and lesbians who described an elaborate straight possible self scored higher in ED
than others (King & Smith, 2004). In a related vein, parents of children with DS
who were able to elaborate on their LPS were more likely to report growing as a re
sult of the experience of having a child with DS (King & Patterson, 2000). Thus,
elaborating on goals that may once have held the promise of positive affect is a cor
relate of ED and personal growth concurrently. The more mature ego is apparently
not threatened by the contradictory aspects of the self that are made salient when
one is writing about an LPS. To place these results explicitly in the context of sec
ond chances, we might say that although investment in one’s second chances is a
key to happiness, the capacity to acknowledge life’s previous chances, those one
has lost or forsaken, appears to be the hallmark of the developed ego.
In addition to looking at these samples cross-sectionally, research has exam
ined how the capacity of the ego to elaborate on lost goals not only relates concur
rently to ED but predicts increased development over time. Lost self-elaboration
predicted enhanced ED among divorced women (King & Raspin, 2004), in inter-
action with time prospectively, over 2 years. Similarly, gay men and lesbians who
elaborated on a straight possible self also demonstrated increased ED 2 years later
even after controlling for such potential confounds as gay self-elaboration, age,
age of commitment to gay identity, and income (King & Smith, 2004). These re-
sults have suggested that being able to elaborate on lost goals not only reveals a
capacity of the developed ego but also may also reveal processes that lead to en-
hanced ED over time. Elaborating on one’s lost goals suggests a tolerance for
one’s own vulnerability, an acknowledgment of change, and a lack of defensive-
ness in the face of one’s inconsistencies. These qualities may be viewed as charac
teristics of the developed and developing person.
Some examples of elaborate lost possible selves help to provide a flavor of the
mature person’s construction of previously cherished goals. The following ex
cerpt from a divorced woman (King & Raspin, 2004) illustrates the capacity to
fully acknowledge the promise of positive affect that characterized one’s previ
ously cherished life dream:
I imagined a deliriously happy “empty nest” syndrome. Neither of us likes to
travel, but sports are a big priority. I figured we would exercise, go to see the
Rangers/Mavericks/Cowboys, etc., together. I envisioned weddings with lots
of family pictures. There would be grandchildren to baby-sit. Life would be
calm, easy and sweet. (from King & Raspin, 2004, p. 616)
Similarly, the following excerpt from a lesbian in King and Smith (2004) demon
strates the developed person’s capacity to (enthusiastically) acknowledge the
value in goals one is not pursuing:
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 129
Here I am a happy . . . straight woman: I’ve lived independently for about five
years after college, traveled my country and the greater part of Europe. During
these years I have scraped to get by but that is okay with me. I feel complete
and whole as a strong independent woman. Nothing could be better until . . . I
meet HIM. He is worldly, strong intelligent, and equipped with the best sense
of humor of anyone I’ve met. Of course he is also extremely good looking and
loaded but not pretentious. We fall madly in love and live our lives as rich gyp
sies, traveling the world until we find the perfect place to call home and start a
family. . . . Our kids grow up in a nurturing non-judgmental environment.
(from a dataset described in King & Smith, 2004)
Here one can see the capacity of the developed ego to see valuable lives in a vari
ety of life contexts and to see one’s values legitimately attainable in a very differ
Finally, the following excerpt from a mother of a child with DS (King &
Patterson, 2000) demonstrates the capacity of the more developed ego to take a
long, unflinching look back at the full details of one’s lost goals:
Before I had my son, we were considering taking a job in California. I had vi-
sions of my blonde-haired son playing on the beach, being a movie star, or
model. I also had planned on going back to work after a couple of months and
continuing on with my career. I thought my son would ride his bike around the
neighborhood with all his friends, play football, baseball, and all the other
“boy” sports with the neighborhood children, effortlessly. I thought the devel-
opmental milestones would be attained, effortlessly.(from a dataset described
in King & Patterson, 2000)
The preceding excerpt demonstrates the discovery process that may occur
when a person’s first chances meet reality. One can imagine that it is only through
the retrospective lens of experience that this woman is able to see explicitly the
“effortlessness” that she expected in her previous life. This quality may have re
mained implicit except for her life experience.
These narratives of lost selves demonstrate the importance of considering the
complex trade-offs of being happy and growing—the compromise that is likely to
be required for true maturity. These data allow for a portrait of the healthy, some
times happy, mature person as one who can sacrifice happiness to fully confront
and examine the legitimate losses of life.
Goal Processes in Life-Changing Experience:
A General Model of Personality Development
The model of personality development that we propose here involves two proc
esses. First, to maintain a sense of positive well-being, the individual must relin
KING AND HICKS
quish cherished goals that are no longer available and reinvest in new goals
commensurate with what has been lost or forsaken. A second process involves
the place of those forsaken goals in the individuals’ enduring self-story. Here,
the capacity to acknowledge a previous self in its fullness is associated with
heightened development and increasing development over time. Previous re
search has focused on individuals whose life experience was known, a priori, to
have included a life-changing event. More garden variety goal change occurs in
every life. Transitions to parenthood and marriage, career changes, significant
losses, and so forth all may involve similar processes to those described here.
We believe that the research described here may contribute to a more general
model of the role of goals in adult development—that motivational concerns
provide a general framework for one’s understanding of developmental change
First, we begin with a consideration of motivation—a person’s goals. Progress
on these goals provides a sense of well-being. Changing circumstances requires a
change in goals. Note that life circumstances themselves have impact to the extent
that they are relevant to one’s valued ends (e.g., Cantor et al., 1991). Furthermore,
goal-relevant events themselves may serve to heighten a person’s awareness of
his or her values: People may “not know what they’ve got ’til it’s gone” or at least
threatened. When valued goals are lost because of changing life circumstances,
the distress that is likely to ensue is well-documented (e.g., Kuhl & Helle, 1986).
Negative emotional experience has been shown to have specific effects on cogni-
tive processing such that negative affect is associated with narrowing of focus, an-
alytical processing, and self-focus (e.g., Salovey, 1992; Schwarz, 1990; Wood,
Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990). These cognitive effects suggest that this time of
distress may also be a time of intense self-examination. Surely, negative affect
may promote rumination, and there is a danger during this time that the person
will fall prey to a downward spiral of rumination and self-focus (e.g., Lyubomir
sky & Nolen-Hoeksma, 1993).
Truly relinquishing a lost identity and its concomitant goals may require that
the person acknowledge the potentially threatening truth that he or she has been
changed in some central way by the circumstances of life. The individual must
stop waiting “to go back to normal” and instead invest deeply in a new, foreign
life. An appropriate metaphor here might be that of acculturation—to thrive in
this new life, the person must adopt a new system of meaning and acknowledge
new values while maintaining the capacity to see the value of one’s old ways of
being. Our examination of the role of goals in self-change and development sug
gests, ironically, that the very level of investment that might contribute to the
“disequilibration” resulting from goal loss also makes it more likely the individ
ual will grow through such experience. Importantly, distress over lost goals pro
vides evidence of prior goal engagement—without previous investment, the
person wouldn’t feel the loss so keenly. This history of goal investment may indi
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 131
cate an enduring capacity for planfulness, hope, and a lack of cynicism. Goal loss
may be viewed as a focal aspect of the crisis of life change. At this point, the per
son can step into a new way of living (accommodation) or step back into the com
fort zone (assimilation).
That comfort zone is likely to be a tempting alternative to change. Research on
goal change has tended to show that when individuals are confronted with failure,
they tend not to change their goals but rather to redouble their efforts (e.g.,
Emmons, Colby, & Kaiser, 1998). However, our research (King, Baker, & Bur
ton, 2004) has shown that perseverating on unavailable goals is not likely to bring
fulfillment. Rather, one must acknowledge (even tacitly) that one has been
changed by life events and shift one’s incentives and sources of pleasure accord
ingly (King, Baker, & Burton, 2004). Rather than viewing personal growth
through life experience as a means of “coping” or as a positive illusion used to
fend off the negative feelings promoted by life-changing events (Taylor & Armor,
1996), a person might begin to see such change as part of the hard work of accom
modation and as part of constructing a self that can experience meaning, happi-
ness, and fulfillment in one’s present circumstances. The difficulty associated
with this admission of vulnerability is revealed in this quote from a parent of a
child with DS (King & Patterson, 2000): “Parenting a child with DS has not
changed my life, at all (except in very very small ways).”
We suggest that the process of confronting one’s losses during a challenging
time may serve as a pacer in Loevinger’s (1976) sense. Responding to this chal-
lenging life circumstance with openness to new and different life directions may
be the hallmark of developmental change. The capacity to acknowledge one’s
past values, desires, and life dreams involves an admission of the bittersweet
truths of adulthood.
Some factors may facilitate personality development via goal change. First,
clearly, research has indicated that “the rich are likely to get richer” when it comes
to ED (e.g., King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000). Individuals who are rela
tively more developed may be those who are most likely to continue to develop
through life transitions. It may be that ED transforms the experience of distress it
self, causing the person to view life change in more varied, differentiated, and po
tentially expansive ways.
Another potential contributor to the capacity to develop through life-changing
experiences is the frequency of positive emotional experience even during diffi
cult times. Research on coping has begun to recognize that positive emotional ex
periences may have a role to play even during very stressful times (e.g., Folkman
& Moskowitz, 2000). The tendency for positive affect to relate to taking an ap
proach orientation toward life, to be more open to exploring and pursuing new
goals (e.g., Carver, 2003; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005), is well documented. In addi
tion, the cognitive effects of positive emotional experience (e.g., Clore, 1994;
Isen, 2003) suggest that even during turbulent times, positive affect may facilitate
KING AND HICKS
the making of meaning, the capacity to see “the big picture” and allow the person
an awareness of a broad array of opportunities (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001; King,
Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, in press).
Evidence from another investigation (King & Smith, 2004) leads us to surmise
that personality development might also be more likely to occur through life tran
sitions if the person is able to experience the life change within a warm interper
sonal context. A study (King & Smith, 2004) that examined the coming-out
stories of the gay men and lesbians from prior research, King and Smith found
that those whose coming-out stories were characterized by high levels of intimacy
motive imagery were higher in both well-being and ED.
Of course, it is possible for someone to emerge from this process disillu
sioned—sadder but wiser. The experience of goal loss might, in fact, lead to a de
sire to remain unencumbered by caring. We suggest that although this is possible,
it is not the optimal outcome of such a process. It may be that dedication to com
mitments is an important aspect of maturity itself. Indeed, we suggest that the ca
pacity to commit to goals, within the context of having experienced goal loss, may
be the best expression of maturity. One may be made well aware of the folly of
planning or the potentially disastrous consequences of hoping by life’s disap-
pointments and calamities. The mature person is one who maintains the central
notion that life does matter and that there is meaning in one’s attachment to the
events of the world.
These rather lofty sentiments are made more concrete in the narratives of the
current BPS provided by the happy and ego-developed participants studied to
date. As noted previously, happiness and ED are unrelated to each other. This
does not, of course, preclude the possibility that individuals can be both happy
and ego developed. Indeed, the person who experiences the complexity of Loe
vinger’s (1998) developed ego without being overwhelmed, who nevertheless
maintains a capacity for positive feelings toward the self and others, may embody
the ideal of maturity. From the work reviewed here, we conclude that the happy
and ego-developed individual is one who is confident in his or her coherence and
has the capacity to acknowledge and expound on inconsistencies or incoherent as
pects of the self. The following excerpt is from a happy and ego-developed
mother of a child with DS (King & Patterson, 2000):
I see myself on an exciting journey. I like who I am. I have many areas that
need work but for the most part I’m present and attentive to my needs and
dreams and goals. . . . I am finding that giving is truly more satisfying than re
ceiving. I have had a challenge in accepting my son’s DS. It’s taken time but
unconditional love and acceptance are truly there. . . . I want to work within the
community to be an agent of change. We all have a time of being a caregiver—
to our children or parents, or someone. I want to offer . . . tools for people to
find their own balance and peace. . . . I am quite selfish by nature: My son has
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 133
opened that perspective—a new window for loving and caring now exists for
me. I’m proud that I have taken responsibility for my own growth and chal
This mature participant demonstrates a level of self-knowledge but also self-
deprecation that is typical among mature individuals. Note that the capacity to
admit one’s mistaken expectations sits alongside an energetic commitment to
continue to expect. Within the mature person’s motivational life, second chances
exist within a larger, explicit context of lost or forsaken opportunities.
Goal Loss Versus Goal Change: Life Experiences
and Changing Priorities
We may also apply this work to individuals who have experienced life changes
that do not preclude the pursuit of previously cherished goals but that serve as cat
alysts for goal change. Indeed, a lifetime may be experienced as a process of dis-
covering “true” goals. Life experiences may catch people as “wake-up calls” to
reprioritize and rethink their values. A heart attack may lead to a reprioritization
of the importance of work-related goals. Although these goals may still be attain-
able, their value may become lessened, whereas other goals (e.g., reconnecting
with family members) may become more important. These revisions in one’s best
possible future may be less painful than those reviewed here, but they may im-
pinge on identity in important ways nevertheless.
Second Chances: The Motivational Layers of Maturity
A motivationally informed discussion of personality development, then, suggests
that the goals a person seeks may be viewed as existing on layers (and layers) of
previously cherished hopes and dreams. The metaphorical archeological dig
through the ruins of one’s previous goals is a sign and portent of personality de
velopment. From our perspective, to understand people standing at the threshold
of a new life, we must take into account what they have left behind—those first
chances that serve as reminders of who they might have been, who they thought
they were, and that lay the groundwork for who they are hoping to become. Even
forsaken goals serve as markers of values and beliefs about the self and world.
The mature person reveals the capacity to recognize and even celebrate those rel
ics of an earlier self—a more naVve self, to be sure, but one who might neverthe
less be lauded for her or his optimism, enthusiasm, and innocence.
Importantly, motivation may play a role in development even beyond giving
one a tool through which to gauge such self-examination. Although we have ex
amined ED and happiness as two aspects of maturity, individuals may vary in the
KING AND HICKS
degree to which they personally value these outcomes. It may be that a person’s
idiosyncratic view of maturity may inform the direction of development itself.
Thus, if an individual views peace of mind or contentment as the end result of de
velopment, the potentially painful introspection required for ED may be viewed
as a pointless exercise. If, however, the person views maturity as characterized by
wisdom, self-understanding, or compassion, then the goals that inform develop
ment may lead to greater levels of ED. A full understanding of the role of second
chances in human life requires an acknowledgment of the range of motives for
taking those chances.
Because of their central role in the experience of meaning, goals are the domain
where central aspects of self-change are played out. Lost and found possible
selves provide important indicators of two aspects of maturity—happiness and
complexity. Clearly, much remains to be done in terms of clarifying and further
delineating the role of motivational units in adulthood, life change, and develop-
ment. We have suggested that motivational variables provide a useful framework
for studying life transitions. Focusing on these units allows for a rich understand-
ing of the developmental implications of our answers to the questions, “Who was
I?,” “Who am I?,” and “Who do I want to be?” We propose that the mature person
is able to look on his or her multiple possible selves with characteristic fearless-
ness, to acknowledge life’s second (and third, and fourth . . .) chances as part of
the unfolding of a rich and valuable human life.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
This research was presented in a symposium entitled “Second Chances: Sympo
sium in Life: Transformative Stories of Self and Society,” Dan McAdams, Chair,
Foley Center for the Study of Lives, Northwestern University. Preparation of this
article and the research described therein were supported by a grant from NIMH,
R01MH54142. We thank Barbara Woike for her insights during early conversa
tions about this article.
NARRATING AND IMPLICATIONS FOR MATURITY 135
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