Narrative Identity Processing of Difficult Life Experiences: Pathways of Personality Development and Positive Self-Transformation in Adulthood


  • This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship and by National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH-43948. I thank Ravenna Helson and Oliver John for their mentorship, feedback, and support during every stage of this research. I also thank Dan McAdams and Jefferson Singer for the thoughtful and very helpful comments they provided on drafts of this article. Finally, I express my appreciation to my research assistants who completed the narrative coding used in this study, Amy Busch, Meg Jay, and Lucy Rimalower.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer L. Pals, Foley Center for the Study of Lives, Northwestern University, 2120 Campus Dr., Evanston, IL 60208. E-mail:


ABSTRACT Difficult life experiences in adulthood constitute a challenge to the narrative construction of identity. Individual differences in how adults respond to this challenge were conceptualized in terms of two dimensions of narrative identity processing: exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution. These dimensions, coded from narratives of difficult experiences reported by the women of the Mills Longitudinal Study (Helson, 1967) at age 52, were expected to be related to personality traits and to have implications for pathways of personality development and physical health. First, the exploratory narrative processing of difficult experiences mediated the relationship between the trait of coping openness in young adulthood (age 21) and the outcome of maturity in late midlife (age 61). Second, coherent positive resolution predicted increasing ego-resiliency between young adulthood and midlife (age 52), and this pattern of increasing ego-resiliency, in turn, mediated the relationship between coherent positive resolution and life satisfaction in late midlife. Finally, the integration of exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution predicted positive self-transformation within narratives of difficult experiences. In turn, positive self-transformation uniquely predicted optimal development (composite of maturity and life satisfaction) and physical health.