The Story of You: Individuation and Archetypes

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” The famous wit may have intended an irreverent quip, but this sentiment holds truth. The two are inextricably intertwined. From the first oral traditions that passed learned information down through the generations, storytelling cuts through life. It binds groups, transmits experiences, and guides understanding. But does storytelling also have a place within the individual, helping them broadcast and understand their own experiences as narratives?

Identity formation is a central challenge in child development, and the process continues throughout the lifespan. Particularly during adolescence, a person “tries on” personality traits and attributes in the quest to define themselves. Individuation, as originally conceived by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961), is grounded in the perceptions and experiences of the self interwoven with social cues reflecting the perceptions of others.

Identity development is a complex process that distills down to the synthesis of three distinct strands of influence. A stable identity must effectively resolve the discrepancies between the inner, authentic self; the social self including its group memberships; and the resulting summative evaluation. Some theories suggest that increased complexity begets greater rigidity, potentially resulting in problematic information being altered or discarded. This danger is particularly salient within identity formation, as evidenced by the self-serving bias in memory and recall. How memories are recalled and recounted can influence identity development as a personal narrative fits (or misfits) one’s actions and motivations. 

One of the fantastic things about the human brain is that it doesn’t have a clear division between imagination and external reality. Imagined experiences carry nearly the same mental weight as those actively experienced in external reality. Indeed, even external realities are transduced into internal representations and imagined consequences, actions, intentions, and beliefs. Consequently, engaging with a narrative creates similar neural pathways and memories as lived experience.

This is one of the reasons stories are so psychologically powerful. Stories activate an emotional response and create an authentic experience, cementing memory consolidation. First-person narratives and statements are especially salient as the additional impact of personal affirmations through the repetition of “I am” within the inner monologue adds agency and contributes to identity. The result is that lessons learned within them are more easily and thoroughly remembered. Stories grant the capacity to explore and expand without necessitating direct experience.

During adolescence, when identity formation is dramatically shaped, stories grant worldliness, increasing wisdom without risk. Stories help to understand the self. As within identity formation, narratives facilitate the ability to “try out” personas and behaviors without consequence. It is one of the hypothesized evolutionary benefits to play in juvenile animals. Within the human animal, this is taken to a greater extreme, as individuals continue engaging in play behaviors well into adulthood. Intellectual curiosity and the academic pastime of “playing with ideas” are hallmarks of humanity.

Stories are central to human communication, but what is a story? What defines a narrative? A story narrative often takes shape from the perspective of the Main Character. The main character is the persona the reader adopts, the audience’s acting stand-in. The protagonist is the character tasked with moving the plot forward. When these two roles in the story combine into a single personage, a hero is born. Foundational to storytelling, the Hero archetype is related to the efficacy with which it reflects the lived experience of the dual roles of ‘main character’ and ‘protagonist’. But what happens if the main character is not the protagonist or their actions are far from heroic?

The concept of the archetype was pioneered by Jung, who attributed the roots of his conceptualization to the Platonic view of Forms, termed ‘eidos’ and variously translated as ideas or essences. Archetypes refer to constructs and characterizations repeated throughout the human experience or an original pattern or template that shapes and defines the subsequent iterations of a thing. The specific definition of archetype shifts when approaching the idea from either the lens of literature or psychology. Within the realm of literature, an archetype defines the structure and purpose of a specific character within the plot. Psychology emphasizes an archetype as a collection of traits and characteristics that form a personality type template. 

Generations of personality psychologists expanded upon the Jungian archetype, yet modern detail on the Jungian archetypes is concentrated within marketing and branding toolsets. The marketing community embraced archetypes because they are intuitive, repetitive, and universal. These same characteristics lie at the core of why archetypes are integral to the art of storytelling.

Stories, and the archetypes upon which they rely, may be almost as old as humanity itself, but the body of research connecting psychology, storytelling, and neuroscience is still germinal. Whereas developmental neuroscience has tackled the concept of the self and identity formation processes, there remains a gap in relevant research about stories. The language used to describe psychological concepts of self can be meaningfully expanded in profound new directions by intertwining literature and integrating its definitions for stories, narratives, archetypes, and protagonists. Stories offer a powerful way to connect and communicate with others and ourselves. They viscerally connect language, experience, and emotion within the participants.

An individual’s experiences are usually centered firmly within their perspective. However, stories allow the audience to enter the narrative. Engagement with the story encourages participation and invites the audience to the direct experience. In a positive context, this can increase empathy by expanding the worldview and illustrating the complex backdrop of another person’s motivation and identity. Reflexively, crafting a story requires the storyteller to refine and validate the interplay of language and emotion to best express their proffered truth. Communication requires both transmitter and receiver to work in tandem. The complementary parts of the storyteller and audience merge into a social experience. The natural checks and balances imposed mandate how the truth is presented and perceived.

Alterations to the personal narrative and self-talk are an integral part of many talk therapy modalities. Social psychologists are beginning to recognize the impact that rewriting the story can have, both immediately and over time. Cognitive reframing has earned validation among practitioners and researchers. These variations of more traditional therapeutic modalities focus on altering the personal narrative toward a more positive outcome.

Narrative therapy has been successfully used to address mental health challenges. For example, treatment of trauma can include the construction and repetition of a narrative of traumatic events, serving two primary therapeutic purposes. First, creating a narrative helps the patient make conscious sense of an event not easily assimilated into the flow of daily reality. Despite the name, a person’s life story is rarely a coherent narrative arc. Coherence, and meaning, are applied retrospectively. The story becomes the truth.

Second, repetition of the narrative desensitizes through exposure. Shifting the language of self-talk reduces the immediacy and emotional intensity of one’s narrative by adjusting the conscious presence of the self. Though adverse experiences carry an emotional burden, the impact lessens when it is shared with others and when it becomes external. Phrasing a narrative using “you’ statements or names instead of “I” statements allows for greater emotional distance and reduces feelings of threat, granting a level of wisdom typically reserved for others’ social problems.

Stories do more than describe; they shape and define, especially in adolescence when the individual is actively exploring, expanding, and testing new social and cognitive constructions. Given the emotional impact and personal nature of stories, they have a unique ability to seep into the central framework used to analyze and understand the world, affecting how they see themselves and others. Adolescent identity formation includes the process of crafting the self. Labels, characters, and concepts are carefully selected, tested, and modified to create a reality - an identity - a story that is uniquely - completely - true. Life might not be a coherent narrative, but the result is always perfectly “The Story of You,” and through it… A hero is born.


Gem Kennison is a fierce protagonist: a redheaded poet with delusions of logic and reason. Gem earned undergraduate degrees with honors in both psychology and philosophy before getting her masters in public health. At home in the library or the lab, she occasionally ventures out to interact with humans. Her story began when she embarked on the road less traveled, choosing to befriend the dead and downtrodden while screaming into the Void.

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