For some time now, I have been interested in the stability of personality across the lifespan. The question I have been specifically asking is whether we are much the same in middle age as we were as young adults. Do we change significantly as a result of so-called normative life events, and if so, is this real, measurable change? Or is it merely a strengthening or weakening of pre-existing traits?
The questions have been prompted, not surprisingly, by substantial changes in my own life. Many of my family and friends say how much I have changed in the last few years, and I am not always certain whether they see the changes as negative or positive. And I keep wondering: is this true? Have I really changed that much? And how have I changed? To me, I seem much the same. I do not think that my basic personality has changed, but I know that my behaviour has. And do these behavioural changes reflect my existing personality? Or do I now have a "new" personality? Or is it the real "me", the core self, that has emerged from beneath the proverbial mask?
Now in middle age, I have passed through many life events, and I certainly feel that all of them have left a lasting impact. There has been personal growth through pain and conflict, almost always involving loss of some kind. I have emerged from each episode both shaken and shaky: the former as a result of a fracturing--sometimes a complete destruction--of a carefully preserved myth or expectation; the latter as I approach yet another new stage of life, my wings still a little damp and unfurled.
To try and answer some of the questions, and in an attempt to narrow the topic down, I have focused on the period of middle adulthood defined as falling roughly between the mid thirties and mid fifties. I have used Erikson's stage theory of personality as a beginning place, and specifically the mid-life stage he called the crisis of Generativity versus Stagnation. I have then looked at research dealing with women and mid-life changes, and especially longitudinal studies of personality stability. I have also looked at phenomenological studies amassed as a result of narrative self-reports, concerning the significance of life events such as marriage, parenthood, divorce, and changing roles. I have tried to bring in perspectives of other personality theorists where it seemed appropriate, and where they have made some comment on mid-life personality.
Erikson's epigenetic stage theory of personality, and the emergence of specific ego strengths as each stage of crisis is resolved, covers the entire lifespan from infancy through old age. Erikson (1980) saw middle age as a time of Generativity versus Stagnation, with "care" being the ego strength that emerges once the conflict is resolved. He talked of generativity as being "a link between the generations...as indispensable for the renewal of the adult generation's own life as it is for the next generation" (p.215). At middle age, Erikson felt individuals began to shift their perspective away from themselves, and their earlier ego crises of individual development, to caring about the generation coming along behind them, especially their own children's future.
To do this, it would seem essential to have become more confident about one's own place in life, and to have achieved a level of emotional stability and maturity. Monte (1991) suggests "stagnation results from being bored and unfulfilled", but that it is still possible to have "an adequate but unsatisfying life" (p.218). It seems axiomatic that a bored and unfulfilled individual is going to have scant energy, or motivation, to devote to caring about the next generation. Gilligan (1993) considered that for Erikson, generativity was "the central stage of adult development" (p.153), and that the crisis brought about at this time "demonstrates how a heightened vulnerability signals the emergence of a potential strength" (p.108).
This strength is needed: mid-life for women is, indeed, a time of transition, whether married or single, with children or without. Children leaving home; re-evaluating relationships with spouses or significant others; perhaps assuming responsibility for aging parents; menopause--all these require adjustment to some kind of change or new role. Also in the '90s, there is a tendency for adult children to "boomerang" back into the family home through job loss or relationship breakdown. Not for nothing do they call mid-life adults the "sandwich" generation, one that is often caught between the demands of aging parents and adult children in crisis.
There is also a realisation that life is not infinite. Waskel and Coleman (1991) considered that "one of the major midlife tasks to be completed is to accept death as a reality" (p.1188). It would follow then, if Erikson and others are correct in their assumption that middle-adulthood is a major time of reflection, that facing the reality of mortality would add some urgency to the quality of one's remaining life. There may indeed be a wish to leave the world a better place for those who follow, and the concomitant realisation that there are not that many years left to do it in. Erikson (1976) eloquently described this wish as "the birth cry emanating from the hearse" (p.53).
There have been many cross-sectional studies on the stability of personality traits, but few longitudinal studies. One of the most extensive longitudinal studies was carried out by Conley (1985). In this study, 300 engaged couples were used as a beginning place for a multivariate study of stability of personality traits over a 50 year time span. Conley used factor analysis of self ratings, marriage/partner ratings, and acquaintance ratings, measured over dimensions of neuroticism, social extraversion, impulse control and agreeableness. The results "strongly indicate that there is a set of personality traits that are generalizable across methods of assessment and are stable throughout adulthood" (p.1275). Conley also suggested from these results, that the personality structure in young adulthood remains stable at least into late middle age. The only dimension that changed was the one of agreeableness, or likeability, which appeared to be variable. He attributed this to the fact that rating "agreeableness" is highly subjective.
Erdwins and Mellinger (1984) carried out a cross-sectional study of 160 mid-life women, aged 29 to 55, using multivariate analyses of personality dimensions such as self-esteem, autonomy and responsibility. They found no differences based solely on age and family life stage, but significant variation when women took on different life roles. As the study suggests, it would be interesting to have followed these women longitudinally to see whether existing personality traits predisposed them to certain life roles, or whether they changed as a result of them.
There have been very few longitudinal studies concentrating exclusively on women. Ravenna Helson, in conjunction with other researchers, has done several studies on personality change in one particular group of women. Helson and Moane (1987) carried out a longitudinal study of 140 women, from college to midlife, and looked at whether changes in personality were demonstrable across different life paths. They concluded that personality "changes from youth to middle age in consistent and often predictable ways" (p.184). They supported Erikson's concept of generativity in middle age through the findings of "nurturant concern and productivity" predominating (p.184).
Helson and Wink (1992) carried out a longitudinal study of personality change in 100 of the women in the same sample at age 43 and age 52. They arbitrarily chose three normative life events: empty nest; menopause; and increasing responsibility for aging parents (daughter role). Demographics, personality inventories and questionnaires on feelings about life were the instruments used to measure changes. Their major finding was that "development of assurance, intellectuality and orientation to values...was conspicuous" (p.54), and concluded that "personality changes across middle age in normative ways" (p.46), and was not influenced by life events.
In 1994, Helson and Roberts further reviewed 90 women from this same sample in a study of ego development and personality change. They assessed them at age 21, 43 and 52, and concluded that "life paths that included new ways of thinking and sustained adaptational effort" (p.918) resulted in higher levels of ego development. They also found, that in the 43 to 52 age group, women reported feelings of "introspectiveness, interest in others...and more attention to generativity and mutuality of autonomy" (p.918). This appears once again, to fit well with Erikson's mid-life theory.
Helson and her fellow researchers readily admit that the sample came from only one college class, and the sample and cohort may not be truly representative of the population. But, the studies appear to support both personal growth through normative changes, and the strengthening of personality traits at mid-life. Although the researchers did not find that personality was affected by life events, I would suggest that they sampled a very narrow range of such events, and did not address such significant issues as loss of relationships, loss of health, or loss of expectations.
There has been a proliferation of material on the physiological and psychological effects of menopause, due, it would seem, to the "baby boomers" just beginning to enter this phase of their lives. Many different opinions are offered in both the popular press and in serious offerings from feminist authors. A recent scientific study by Busch, Zonderman and Costa (1994) concluded that psychological distress was not related to menopause, and that if it appeared to be so, then the emotional instability or neuroticism was likely already to have manifested itself earlier in life. The study was both cross-sectional and longitudinal, and the sample consisted of 3049 women, aged from 40-60. The researchers used measures of depression, general well-being and insomnia, and concluded that lack of sleep due to such symptoms as "hot flushes", could well account for incidences of depression and the reported lack of feelings of well-being. Busch et al. do acknowledge that the study would have been helped by a longitudinal study of personality traits from young adulthood onwards.
Piaget is not often considered a personality theorist, but he has also addressed adaptation in personality as a result of assimilation and accommodation. Gilligan (1993) suggested that Piaget identified conflict "as the harbinger of growth" (p.108). Block (1982), in a revisionist study of Piagetian theory, speculated that "personality development represents a constructive achievement by the individual" (p.289), and that this comes about through striving for equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation. The disequilibrium acts as a signal for change, which may not always happen. Individuals may be more comfortable assimilating, or incorporating change into their existing schematta, than the harder, perhaps more threatening task of accommodation and adaptation to new schema.
Krueger and Heckhausen's (1993) study of 90 men and 90 women, compared subjective conceptions of development with cross-sectional data on general personality ratings. For each gender group, there were 30 young (20-35 yrs), 30 middle aged (40-55 yrs) and 30 older adults (65-80 yrs) were constructed. They were measured on the Big Five factors of personality: Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Emotional stability, and Intellect. The findings indicated differences which suggest that cross-sectional data alone do not necessarily reflect a true picture. The cross-sectional studies showed stability of personality traits across the timespan covered, whereas the subjective conceptions indicated growth during the early and middle years, and decline in old age. They suggested that "psychometric and phenomenological approaches [give] divergent perspectives on personality development" (p.106), and that a combination of both methods may more accurately reflect the nature of personality stability.
Waters (1991), undertook a phenomenological study of self-transformation, using the narratives of 40 subjects, seven male and 33 female. Respondents were asked to describe an event that they felt was self-transforming. Waters found that loss, and usually loss of a relationship, led to substantial struggle at the time, but typically resulted in some positive after-effects. She concluded that it may not be a bad thing to experience, in full, the pain and conflict that accompany the passage of life events for the (usually) positive personal growth it brings. As Waters suggests, a longitudinal study of this type might help our understanding of how the self is created.
I occasionally wonder why we only seem to gain emotional maturity, and personal growth, through pain and loss. And I am not at all sure that this is adaptation in the true evolutionary sense. On the other hand, if we do not experience pain, we may not have such a great appreciation of joy; but I have yet to meet anyone whose "peak experience" has markedly transformed her or his life.
No review of personality theory could be complete without reference to Freud, who also had his theories about women. He postulated that "a woman of [30-plus] frequently staggers us by her psychological rigidity and unchangeability" and went on to say that "there are no paths open to her for further development" (1990, p.362). It is equally staggering to think that women were seen in such a negative light, even given that Freud was much influenced by the Zeitgeist and his own cultural background. His comments can at least remind us how far we have come.
In my own life, I can clearly see patterns of change as a result of life events. In retrospect, leaving my dysfunctional family at 19 was one of the most significant choices I made, followed by emigration to Canada two years later. I married when I was 24, and had two children. In a joint decision, typical of the times, I stayed home to raise the children, and for the next 16 years or so (which included a move to my husband's native New Zealand for nearly nine years), was fulltime wife, mother--and volunteer whenever time permitted.
So far then, there are four so-called normative, transitional life-events: leaving home; emigration (twice); marriage and parenthood--all of which (I suspect) I assimilated rather than accommodated to these events, (using the Piagetian terms). The first real indication that not all was well with my emotional life came with the usual teenage rebellions and upheavals of both children. My son in particular, brought to a head many unacknowledged and underlying problems in our marriage. I entered therapy in an attempt to learn what I was really feeling about my life, and to clarify, for the first time ever, what my goals were for the future.
I decided to go back to school and major in psychology, with a view to a counselling career. And it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that many middle-age women embark on some kind of career in the helping professions. This, to me, epitomizes Erikson's generativity and care: the wanting to give to the next generation; to show compassion unreservedly; to be non-judgemental wherever possible. At mid-life, we no longer have to prove ourselves, which is wonderfully freeing in terms of being able to genuinely care about others.
More life events were to follow: my parents divorced after 46 years of marriage; my father died quite suddenly of cancer three years later; my daughter went to live in England, and married there; my son continued to have brushes with the law, and to remain unfocused in his life. I chose to separate from my husband of 26 years just two years ago, and am still coming to terms with the many losses that this entails; including, for a long time, the almost total alienation of my daughter and my mother--and surprisingly, of two of my closest, long-term (20 or more years) friends.
So now there are more life-events and changes to be added: teenage rebellions; empty nest; returning to school; the death of my father; therapy and the subsequent introspection and increase in self-awareness; the separation after a long-term marriage; and the loss of, or change in, important relationships. There will be more soon: my mother is now 76 and not in the best of health; and I am sure menopause is not far away for me.
I am struck by how all these life-events have involved loss of some kind, and how I never really took the time to step back and experience them for what they actually meant. Many of the transformative losses took place from my mid-40s to early 50s, and for me, the emotional upheaval that led to psychotherapy, was a major turning point in what might well have been an "unexamined life". I believe that stagnation, in the Eriksonian sense, was indeed beginning to set in; that I was feeling unfulfilled. It is only now that I feel new strengths emerge, and a deep sense of caring about my children's future, and the world that I will leave behind. I do not know what lies ahead, but I feel more confident, more assertive than before.
The research appears to support my feeling that my basic personality has been there all along, and where it has seemingly changed, I feel it is more a strengthening of existing traits. I am sure my personality has not always been allowed full expression [as the publication of such personal insights]; it has taken a combination of experience, maturity and personal growth, to have the confidence to just be "me", and to change my behaviour accordingly. I do know that some see me as not being as "agreeable" as before - and even that fits with research. Women as care-givers are used to being compliant and nurturing, and trying to please, and it comes as a shock to others when we first learn to say "no" to them--and mean it.
Alwin (1994) is one of the most recent researchers to challenge the long-held assumption of personality stability across the entire life-span. He concluded, as a result of his extensive literature review, that mid-life appears to be the time of greatest stability, and that both young adulthood and old age are periods of greater vulnerability to change. This contradicts most previous findings, and may have implications for future research. But for now, this is one more confirmation that for now, at mid-life, my personality is stable. Perhaps, as Alwin suggests, as I enter old age there will be new and different challenges which will require, or cause, changes to be made.
In an address to the 31st International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1979, Erik Erikson compared life to a weaving: "you can clearly follow the threads as they continue up the years and add their character to the entire life pattern" (1980, p.214, emphasis added). This seems to me a confirmation of my own thoughts. These threads are there from the beginning, threads that originate through a combination of biology and socialisation. Sometimes they weave vertically in a simple straight line; at other times, they undulate across the fabric. And sometimes they unravel and fray. But they are still there, and enough remains that the cloth is not irrevocably weakened. Experience and maturity add their own weft to the warp, until at last, the weaving is complete. And perhaps fragments of this tapestry of personality, this life, exist in future generations, passed down from one to the other in much the same way as a family heirloom.
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