Psychologists refer to the process of telling stories about one’s own life as “life reminiscence”. Research can tell us a number of things about this process.
People tell personal stories for a number of reasons. In particular, we tell stories in order to find meaning in life. We seek coherence and continuity in our life story. We bear witness to the time in which we lived and the values and lessons it taught us. We seek to reconcile conflicts, to cement our legacy, and in some cases, even to anticipate judgment at the end of life. At the root of all of these reasons is the desire to be known, both to the self and to others, for who one truly is.
Many of the stories we tell feature ourselves at their centre – sometimes as actor, sometimes as observer. A disproportionate number of life reminiscences emerge from the second or third decades – a time when many firsts took place, and when the adult identity was being formed. Reminiscences typically privilege the present over the past, making the present self look good at the expense of the past self. We can be critical of the past self, showing what we have learned, and how we are better now as a result of our experience.
Story telling does not exist in a vacuum; rather it is part of a relationship. It exists in the context of a sender and a receiver. The sender has his reasons for telling a story to a particular person, for highlighting certain details, and for glossing over potential difficulties. At the same time, the receiver has her filters – things that she reacts to, mutually remembers or simply can’t hear. The ten stories that are told by a husband to his wife will be different from those told by a mother to her son. Furthermore, they will be different for each child, each sibling, each friend.