Lost Possible Selves and Personality Development

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_17

17. Lost Possible Selves and Personality Development

Laura A. King  and Gerald L. Mitchell 

Department of Psychology, University of Missouri, McAlester Hall, 65211 Columbia, MO, USA



Laura A. King (Corresponding author)


Gerald L. Mitchell

AccommodationEgo developmentPossible selvesPosttraumatic growthPsychological well-beingStress-related growth


“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question that is frequently posed to children. With age, our answers to the question of “what we want to be” may be far removed from childhood dreams of becoming a firefighter, an astronaut, an artist, or a garbage collector. And certainly, we are less likely to be asked what we want to be when we grow up when we are, after all, grown-ups. Yet, in a sense, adults answer this question every day as we seek our life goals, striving to become the persons we hoped to be.

Personal goals are a key aspect of psychological well-being (e.g., Emmons, 1986, Sheldon & Hoon, 2007) . Having, valuing, and making progress on personal goals are associated with psychological well-being (King, 2008a) . Goals are the way we experience a sense of purpose, a key aspect of the experience of meaning in life (Heintzelman & King, 2013) . Personal goals play an important role in a larger framework of self-regulation providing life with organizing principles, with beginnings, middles, and ends, so that experiences make sense (King, 2008b) . Goals lend coherence to affective experience: We feel good or bad depending on how we are progressing in our valued motivational pursuits (Carver & Scheier, 2008) . Striving toward personal goals attaches us to larger motivational concerns, allowing us to enact the behaviors that will meet our broader needs (Sheldon & Kasser, 2001) . Goal pursuit might also play a role in personality development. An unreliable teenager might set a goal to become a more conscientious young adult. An adult who is hostile might set a goal to become more compassionate. Success at these goals would seem to imply that a person has matured: That the pursuit of a personal goal has contributed to development (see Hudson & Fraley, in press) .

Nevertheless, for all its beneficial associations, goal pursuit is not without its downsides (King & Burton, 2003) . There are numerous places where such pursuit can go awry. The selection of a goal may be poorly suited to one’s abilities, skills, and opportunities. Beliefs about what future experiences will bring fulfillment can be inaccurate (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005) . In addition, most of the time, people pursue multiple goals (Vancouver, Weinhardt, & Schmidt, 2010) and this multiplicity can engender conflict and stress (Boudreaux & Ozer, 2013; Emmons & King, 1988) . Devoting resources to a particular goal may mean neglecting others. This prioritizing can be based on inaccurate perceptions of one’s abilities, leading to poorer performance outcomes (Vancouver, Gullekson, Morse, & Warren, 2014) . Furthermore, caring about a goal means monitoring progress and potentially experiencing negative emotions, when progress is lower than anticipated, and disappointment, in the face of failure (Pomerantz, Saxon, & Oishi, 2000) . Pursuing a long-term life dream can involve delaying gratification, putting off immediate pleasures, to regulate behavior toward a distal desired end. Although such capacities are a hallmark of effective self-regulation (King & Trent, 2012) , if those distal futures are never realized, sacrifices (or sunken costs) may be a source of considerable distress. Finally, not all goal-relevant outcomes are in the control of the person pursuing a goal. Life events may render goals unavailable, no matter our efforts. Traumatic life experiences can not only simply disrupt the pursuit of valued goals but also draw the very value of those goals into question, destroying a person’s sense of meaning (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1999; Janoff-Bulman, 1992) . Having a life dream rendered impossible by life events leaves a person open to the experience of regret: Facing the awful truth that one’s considerable efforts have been wasted time (King & Hicks, 2007) . Mentally extrapolating our lives into future means attaching ourselves to a potentially precarious fiction: When we set a goal, we place a bet on the future and invest our present lives in the pursuit of that future. That investment, in turn, defines a degree of vulnerability if a goal cannot be attained.

Disengaging from cherished goals can be challenging and people seem more likely to redouble their efforts in the face of failure, rather than moving on (Brunstein & Gollwitzer, 1996; Emmons, Colby, & Kaiser, 1998) . The capacity to disengage from unavailable goals predicts subsequent well-being (Wrosch, Amir, & Miller, 2011) and a well-regulated system would seem to be one that responds to failures by flexibly divesting from lost causes (Wrosch, Bauer, & Scheier, 2005) and investing in new goals that promise fulfillment. This optimal process speaks to remarkable human strengths, including the capacity to acknowledge failure and to courageously invest once again in the future, even when the risks of such investment have been borne out by experience. Contemplating this optimal process conjures images of the person, phoenix-like, rising up from the ashes of dashed life dreams to reinstate a sense of purpose.

Although such strengths are often (and justifiably) celebrated when they are demonstrated, we suggest that there may be value in attending to not only “the rising up” but “the ashes”: That there may be value in digging into those dying embers to acknowledge and contemplate the hopes and dreams one once pursued. When life circumstances prevent the person from seeing their life goals to fruition, those lost futures are not merely a source of regret. Even as they can be thought of as implying a crisis, experiences that disrupt goal pursuit may also be opportunities to develop. The stance that a person takes toward lost motivational pursuits, the people they wished to be but no longer can, can serve both as an indicator of psychological maturity and as a portent of the maturational process (King & Hicks, 2007) . Placing unattainable goals in a developmental context provides a window to the processes by which traumatic experiences can spur personality development.

In this chapter, we explore the ways that goals, life dreams, or possible selves that are disrupted by life experiences might play a role in personality development. To begin, we first step away from the context of goals to review, briefly, the concepts of posttraumatic growth (PTG) and personality development (from a trait perspective). We suggest although both of these approaches capture something about how life experiences can influence development, they each fall short in terms of uncovering the process of that development. Then, we describe an alternative approach to personality development, ego development , that is well suited to revealing that process. We show how narrative features suggesting accommodation provide a means of tracking active personality development. Then, we return to the potential place of goals in personality development, considering specifically how accommodation is demonstrated in narrative descriptions of lost goals or lost possible selves. Finally, we draw links from this research on rather dramatic life changes to everyday life and the types of goal changes that are required, perhaps, of all adults as they consider and reconsider what they want to be when they grow up.

PTG and Personality Development

Can negative life experiences be sources of personality development? The potential for stressful experiences to lead to positive changes has long been recognized. This idea is perhaps best reflected in accumulated evidence for stress-related or PTG. However, research on this intuitively appealing idea has limits which are largely absent from research on personality development from the trait approach. These two approaches to the potential for life events to contribute to adult personality development, though different, offer complementary approaches to the process by which having experienced a negative or traumatic experience a person is, in fact, better for it. Here, we review each of these literatures, highlighting their strengths and limitations. We then review an alternative approach to personality development in adulthood that allows for an examination of the role of the active developer in his or her development through challenging life experiences.

Posttraumatic Growth

Tedeschi and McNally (2011) defined PTG as positive personal change as a result of struggling with a trauma. Research demonstrates that individuals who have experienced a range of different negative life experiences report having grown as a result of these (e.g., Karanci & Acarturk, 2005; Klosky, et al., 2014; Lowe, Manove, & Rhodes, 2013; Morris, Shakespeare-Finsh, Reick, & Newberry, 2005) . PTG is typically measured using self-report scales on which individuals rate the extent to which a traumatic events has led to positive changes in various domains. For instance, individuals might rate the extent to which a traumatic experience has led them to deeper relationships with others, a greater appreciation for each day, a better sense of life priorities, or a stronger sense of their own capacities to handle life difficulties (e.g., Park, Chmielewski & Blank, 2010; Park, Cohen, & Murch, 1996; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) . Research using such self-reports suggests that PTG is not uncommon, with between 30 and 70 % of survivors of various traumatic experiences reporting PTG (Joseph, Murphy & Regel, 2012) . Reports of PTG following traumatic experiences are strongly related to psychological, social, and spiritual well-being (though not typically physical health; e.g., Joseph et al., 2012; Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006; Park et al., 1996, 2010; Triplett, Tedeschi, Cann, Calhoun, & Reeve, 2012) .

Interestingly, PTG is not simply associated with a kind of Pollyannaish, naive thinking style. Self-reported PTG is related to appraisals of events as more severe, threatening, and stressful as well as heightened intrusive thoughts about the trauma (Helgeson et al., 2006). The relationship of intrusive thoughts on well-being is moderated by the perception of PTG: In a sample of younger adult cancer survivors, those who report high levels of PTG, intrusive thoughts were associated with higher well-being (Park et al., 2010) . These results suggest that the subjective sense of PTG may transform even negative experiences into ones that support well-being. Thus, self-reported PTG captures quite well the subjective feeling that one has been changed for the better by a traumatic experience. Moreover, this subjective feeling is linked to subsequent adjustment in a way that suggests it is important to functioning.

Importantly, however, it is far from clear that individuals who report growing from traumatic life experiences have actually changed in an objective way. Conclusions about subjective reports of PTG may always be open to a variety of alternative explanations, including social desirability, positive illusions, and cognitive dissonance (Coyne & Tennen, 2010; Tennen & Affleck 2009; Bonanno, 2004) . Certainly, feeling like one has grown through life events is a strong predictor of subsequent well-being. We might think of PTG as involving a healthy coping style (i.e., positive reappraisal or benefit-finding) but it is not clear that reports of PTG reflect the “actual” change (King & Trent, 2012) . Claims about developing through life experiences require longitudinal research that tracks variables beyond the subjective feeling of having been changed for the better by experience. Researchers in personality psychology have begun to address this issue using the trait approach.

Adult Personality Development: The Trait Approach

When we think of the characteristics that make a person “mature,” we might think of personality descriptors like stable, responsible, or compassionate. Trait psychologists have examined how personality traits (typically focusing on the Big 5: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) change over the course of life, and this research largely lends empirical support to intuitive ideas about what it means to be mature. Meta-analyses of longitudinal studies show normative age-related changes in personality traits that look very much like maturation. Specifically, research shows that, particularly from adolescence through young adulthood, people are likely to become less neurotic, more conscientious, and more agreeable (e.g., Roberts, Walton, & Veichtbauer, 2006; Specht, Egloff, & Schmakle, 2011; Vaidya, Gray, Haig, Mroczek, & Watson, 2008) . Such changes seem to indicate something like development, a movement toward a more “mature” (i.e., more emotionally regulated, more responsible, and more kind) level of personality functioning. The mechanisms of these changes (in keeping with their timing) have been suggested to be the additional demands and social roles that require young adults to cultivate conscientiousness and agreeableness (Lodi-Smith & Roberts, 2007) . That these changes occur, at all, is notable. Traits might be the least likely aspects of a person to change through life, given that by definition traits are thought to represent enduring and stable behavioral tendencies (e.g., Allemand, Steiger, & Hill, 2013) .

These trait changes are understood as loosely age related in a broad way and comparatively little research has examined whether specific life experiences are associated with personality development. A small but growing number of large longitudinal studies have allowed for an examination of the ways traits relate to life events over time. These studies identify two types of processes. First, they examine whether personality traits predict specific life events (a process called selection). Generally speaking they do, with studies showing, for instance, that extroverts are more likely to experience positive life events, while neuroticism is associated with experiencing more negative life events (Magnus, Diener, Fujita, & Pavot, 1993) .

A second process, one that is more relevant to our purposes, refers to how events shape personality traits and predict trait change (a process called socialization). Some research supports the idea that experiences can influence later changes in personality. For example, the type of training college-aged students receive can predict personality changes over time (e.g., increases in conscientiousness; Lüdtke, Roberts, Trautwein, & Nagy, 2011) . In addition, longitudinal research shows that success in the domains of career and romantic relationships can predict increases in extraversion and decreases in neuroticism over time (Scollon & Diener, 2006) . More recently, one study showed that, compared to a control group, individuals who experienced military training failed to show the normative increase in agreeableness that was found in a control sample across 8 years (Jackson, Thoemmes, Jonkmann, Lüdtke, & Trautwein, 2012) . Other research suggests that the experience of negative events predicts higher levels of neuroticism, and the experience of positive events predicts increases in extraversion and conscientiousness (Sutin, Costa, Wethington, & Eaton, 2010) . Such patterns indicate that negative events, per se, might not be particularly likely to lead to personality development.

A strength of the trait approach is that it features the kind of longitudinal assessments required to make claims about “actual” change. Further, this research does not rely on subjective reports of change. Nevertheless, in comparison to research on PTG, what is missing from the trait approach to development is a strong sense of the active developer and the process of change itself. That is, this approach does not seem to fully capture the importance of who the person is and his or her perceptions of experiences as playing an important role in the developmental trait change. A few studies do implicate the active developer and these perceptions. For example, in a study on a sample of the general population of Germany, individuals with higher life satisfaction showed more positive change in emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness during major life role transitions (Specht, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2013). These results suggest that coming from a position of psychological strength can spur developmental changes during potentially difficult times.

In addition, one longitudinal study examined how subjective feelings about a stressful life event in the trajectory of trait change over time (Sutin et al., 2010) . In this study, longitudinal trait measurements were buttressed with an interview in which participants were asked to describe a stressful life event. Appraisals of these events as involving “learning a lesson” were measured in the interviews. The results showed that appraising stressful events as providing lessons predicted trait change (including increases in extraversion and conscientiousness and lowered neuroticism) over time (Sutin et al., 2010). This research suggests that how people think about stressful experiences can influence whether an event is associated with subsequent indications of higher (or lower) levels of maturity.

Comparing PTG and research on personality development from the trait perspective reveals a bit of a disconnect. PTG would seem to do a very good job of capturing the person’s subjective feelings of change and some of PTG may be reflected in trait change. For instance, feeling that one has become more compassionate as a result of a traumatic experience might be reflected in higher levels of agreeableness. Learning to “not sweat the small stuff” might be reflected in decreases in neuroticism. Yet, other aspects of PTG may be irrelevant to traits, such as the sense that one has gained an appreciation of everyday life. Consider that a neurotic person might remain neurotic through challenging life experiences and an extravert might remain highly extraverted, but each of these individuals might change in a different way or on a different level: They might have come to experience themselves and the world in a way that is transformed by experience, qualitatively if not quantitatively. A person can show a great deal of stability at the trait level and yet feel that they have grown in ways that are missed by a trait approach. At the same time, there is no question that a person’s subjective report of “growing” requires less subjective verification. Moreover, neither PTG nor the trait approach to development allow for a sense of how development occurs, the underlying process of change itself. We turn next to a different perspective on personality development that addresses these missing pieces.

An Alternative Approach: Ego Development

Although the trait approach is the dominant approach in contemporary personality psychology, it is not the only way to understand the person. Jane Loevinger (1976) used the term ego to refer to an individual’s frame of reference in approaching the self and world. For Loevinger, the ego is “the striving to master, to integrate, and make sense of experience” (Loevinger, 1976, p. 59). The developmental level of the ego then would dictate what a person sees in the world and the sense the person makes of what he or she sees.

Ego development refers to the level of complexity with which one experiences oneself and the world (King & Hicks, 2007; Loevinger, 1976) . At its lowest levels, the ego is dominated by impulses and thinking is simplistic. With development, the ego comes to see the world from an increasingly complex frame of reference, recognizing conflicts, the contextual nature of experience, and the relativity that characterizes many human decisions. High levels of ego development imply greater tolerance for ambivalence and a preoccupation with issues of identity and respect for the subjectivity of others (Pfaffenberger, Marko, & Combs, 2011) .

Unlike PTG and traits, ego development is not proposed to be available to self-report. Rather, the complexity and sophistication of one’s frame of reference is measured using the Sentence Completion Test (SCT; Hy & Loevinger, 1996) . On this measure, participants are asked to complete sentence stems (e.g., “What gets me into trouble is…”) and responses are scored by raters trained using standard guidelines. Low-level responses generally involve impulses, conventions, and rules. High-level responses include taking multiple perspectives, considering various possibilities, and conditional relationships. Although time-consuming, this measure has been shown to track changes in personality and cognitive complexity over time (e.g., Helson & Roberts, 1994) .

Ego development (as measured by the SCT) relates to openness to experience increased compassion, intellectuality, tolerance (Helson & Roberts, 1994; Helson & Wink, 1987) as well as empathy and the capacity for interpersonal connectedness (Carlozzi, Gaa, & Liberman, 1983; Pals & John, 1998) . Interestingly, ego development is not related to self-reports of personal growth through difficult experiences, and it is generally independent of psychological well-being (King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000) . Ego development is not about feeling like one has grown. Rather, it appears to tap into a way of interpreting the world, about how one is rather than how one feels (King, 2011) .

Ego development, though a rather unusual and somewhat difficult construct, is especially useful for tracking the process of personality development through difficult life experiences because Loevinger explicitly acknowledged that ego development relies on such experiences. Ego development is not normative age-related change. It has no such inevitability. Rather, Loevinger (1976) stated that only when the environment fails to meet the person’s expectations can development occur. She described pacers as experiences that facilitate development by challenging a person to ever more sophisticated ways of experiencing the self and world. Loevinger (1976) conceived the ego as a buffer that determines how we experience the world around us. Experiences come through that buffer, perhaps beveling it in different ways, honing its relationship to the world and the self. This idea resonates very well with the notion that in adulthood personality development is driven by the need to accommodate life changes, as we now consider.

Process: Accommodation in Adulthood

Drawing on Piaget’s concepts of developmental processes, Block (1982) proposed that life experiences can play a role in adult personality development through assimilation and accommodation . As described by Piaget, assimilation involves using existing schemas to make sense out of the current environment. When these existing frames of reference are not up to the challenge of making sense of new experience, schemas are changed, revised, or invented. This is the process of accommodation . In adulthood, stressful or traumatic life experiences may call for accommodative change, revising one’s sources of meaning, one’s values, or philosophy of life.

Accommodation is the presumed mechanism underlying changes in ego development over time. Research has shown that experiencing a broad range of life events predicts ego development cross-sectionally and longitudinally (e.g., Helson, 1992; Helson & Roberts, 1994) . This research suggests that the experience of difficult times (i.e., pacers) is associated with enhanced ego development. Studies linking difficult times to ego development, however, only assume accommodation has occurred in response to those life difficulties. Is there a way to measure the process of accommodation, making explicit the revising of meaning structures that is thought to precipitate these changes? One way researchers have sought to do this is by examining the stories people tell about difficult life experiences. These stories have been used as a window into the action of accommodation.

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Lost Possible Selves and Personality Development
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