The journey from role identity to self identity: A study of cognitive development and personal spiritual growth among middle-aged Catholic women

Date of Completion

January 1999


Religion, General|Women's Studies|Psychology, Developmental|Psychology, Personality|Psychology, Cognitive




Women in the 20th century are changing their priorities and their lives, in turn, producing changes in their families and the culture. In this study the lives of 21 middle-aged Catholic women were examined for change, and the relationship of this change to their religious beliefs and practices, the level of cognitive/constructive development, and their personality type. ^ A methodological approach was designed to explore the integration of each woman's experiences from childhood, through young adulthood, into her middle years. Three distinct methods of data collection and analysis were used to offer a holistic assessment of their lives. The “grounded theory” method of Glaser and Strauss was used to analyze the life span interviews for insight into the history and context of the women's lives, and the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) measured personality type. Finally, Kegan's Subject-Object interview was employed to assess cognitive-developmental meaning making. The relationships between the findings of these three methods shed light on the changes in their personal lives, and how they are transforming themselves and our institutions. ^ In general, a woman's early family experience literally colored every aspect of her life. The more dysfunctional her family the more difficult it was to clear the negative emotional “messages” she introjected in childhood. Crises occurring in adulthood were found to be critical for triggering opportunities to make new meaning. Negative messages could be discarded and replaced to afford new meaning about one's self and life experience. And lifelong positive messages only needed re-evaluation in time of crisis to reinstate well-being. However, forgiveness of past hurt was found to be crucially important, and a positive support system, usually with other trusted women, was needed to insure the development and implementation of new coping skills and behaviors. ^ A new, more positive relationship to the self was always accompanied by a more positive relationship with others, while one's relationship with the Divine became more important than particular religious beliefs. The findings of this study should prove important for therapists and pastoral counselors, religion teachers, and spiritual directors, as well as women on their personal journeys. ^