Towards understanding our own stories

Dr Maureen Gaffney’s new book is about understanding what drives us and how, as we age, we need to take time to reflect on who we are, what our combined experiences mean and how they shape our lives.


How much time do you have for self reflection and to consider how far you have come and where you want to go in the next phase of your life? 

In her recent book Your One Wild and Precious Life, clinical psychologist Dr Maureen Gaffney takes a developmental approach to what shapes us as individuals. She argues that our main drivers throughout our lives are the drive for closeness, the drive for autonomy  to be “an active agent” in our life as much as possible given our circumstances – and the drive for competence. For Dr Gaffney autonomy is often misunderstood, with its opposite being thought to be dependence. In fact, she says, its opposite is feeling controlled and there are many situations – particularly work situations – where lack of control is a big issue and affects our mental well being.

The book states that life is always a mix of stability and change, but that there are certain points of transition – adolescence, parenthood, midlife, old age and so forth –  where “the opportunity opens up again to find a new balance, a better resolution of an old developmental task”. The key point, says Dr Gaffney, is that “at any stage, you are never fully formed. The story is never over. The story is always of a life in progress.” She adds: “Your life is a series of transitions that you must negotiate in order to grow and develop.”

She admits, however, that life in the 21st century is more complex and faster than in the past, with any time from our late 20s to our early 60s being ‘the rush hour of life’, with more choice and freedom and greater expectations, but also greater cognitive overload and responsibility. Dr Gaffney says we need a psychological road map to navigate it. That is what her book provides – a loose framework of what is going on at all the different stages. She writes: “This book is designed to help you interrogate your past in order to understand who you are now, why you made the choices you made, and how you may be, or want to be, in the future.”

Middle age

While the book deals with all the life stages, Dr Gaffney argues that “middle age is particularly important” because halfway through a project is a good time for a “natural pause”. Moreover, certain pressures, such as looking after children, can lift as we get further into middle age. Middle age, she says, is one of three crucial turning points in life in terms of our sense of identity, the other two being our second year and adolescence.

The book tracks all the life stages from early childhood to young adulthood [defined as from early 30s to late 40s] – to death, with the earlier sections being also useful for parents of children and a reminder, for instance, of the need to let adolescents have some sense of autonomy and close friendships and the importance of a secure sense of self for self esteem. While that sense of security takes a while – even a lifetime – to develop, it is a basic foundation of happiness, says Dr Gaffney.

However, as soon as we emerge from adolescence, we are hit by the rush hour of emerging and young adulthood – a time where, when we have children, everything goes at hyper speed and we can only exist in the moment. Modern living, the demands of work and its centrality to people’s identity and the importance of multitasking mean that these years can be very demanding, although usually the joys of raising kids outweigh the sense of a life on overdrive, says Dr Gaffney. She recognises, however, the pressure put on people not just by the demands, but the distractions and constant interruptions of modern life and has advice for parents on how to manage these.

When it comes to work, she returns to the three main human drivers – competence, closeness and autonomy, which equates to feeling we are making progress at work, gaining skills, that we are part of a team or a shared endeavour [unless our work is very much about being a loner] and our ability to have some sense of control over our work, including how and when we work.

Developing our narrative

As we age, it is a good idea, says Dr Gaffney, to take stock of where we are and what we want, to avoid stagnation, and to feel we are still ‘a work in progress’. That means taking time to tackle not just the urgent things at the top of the list, but the things lying near the bottom, to look at our lives in its broadest sense and to try and integrate all our accumulated life experiences. Women, she says, tend to have a more developed capacity for narrative, including their own, but that doesn’t mean that men don’t also have it.

Being open to change and to opportunities, such as volunteering, can bring a new lease of life, she argues. As we get older there is an even stronger drive ‘to pull together the different strands of our life and find meaning in them’ and ‘to rejoice in what went well, to come to terms with the disappointments’, to focus on what we have control over and to stay curious.

Dr Gaffney asks: “At the end of your life, how will you judge if it has been successful in the way you wanted it to be.” Being aware of who we are and what we want helps us to answer that question at every stage and to be brave. She writes: “If you approach your life with bravery, then when your life is coming to its end you will be able to say: This is the life I was given, and this is how I lived it. And all in all, despite the setbacks I encountered, I rose to each challenge as best I could, and with a modicum of courage.”

*Your One Wild and Precious Life by Dr Maureen Gaffney is published by Penguin, price 14.99.


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