Personality: Nature or nurture? Fixed or fluid?
It’s a complex question. But a good one. Studies are increasingly showing that our brain and our personality is generally fluid and largely shaped by nurture and experience.
At birth we may be born with different energy levels, and perhaps different fundamental characteristics that are biological or genetic, a temperament that we tend toward perhaps — but so much of how we are and how we tend to react is influenced by our environment. And we start experiencing and reacting to our environment as soon as we are born. Epigenetics shows that even our genetics are changed by our environment.
“Experience shapes the brain”
— Dr Van Der Kolk
Either way, at some point in your life you’ve probably taken at least a minute to look at yourself and think “Yes, I do tend to be introverted/extroverted/uptight/laidback/optimistic/pessimistic” (delete as appropriate…).
Over the years several “tests” have been developed to help give us some insight into our personalities. The famous Myers Briggs personality test is one of them. This link gives a simplified version of the test. Although we should be wary of labelling ourselves too rigidly, particularly as doing so suggests that as people we are fixed, the Myers Briggs analysis can be a gateway to understanding your current preferred — or habitual — ways of behaving and relating.
Similarly the Big Five personality test, a more modern method, can give us some clues. It can help us see ourselves more clearly, and anything that holds up a mirror can be a great tool — when interpreted with moderation and without swallowing the results whole.
For we are complex creatures. Influenced by our genes and our biology yes, but — crucially — made up of all the ways of behaving, thinking and feeling that we learnt or copied from all the things we’ve witnessed, heard and felt throughout our entire experience to date. You only have to watch different toddlers interacting to see they have learnt different ways of behaving.
This means there are thousands of ingrained and unconscious rules and habits that we live by every day. We learnt them as children as a way of getting by and being accepted in the world. Some are helpful (saying please) and some aren’t (sulking). As social beings, we understood being accepted to be crucial, and learnt the the only way we could to ensure that we were.
Those that go back the furthest are the deepest. Many behaviours we learnt from our parents — from the ways they thought, acted or felt — which in turn they inherited from their parents… and so on. It’s an intricate — and powerful — cycle but one that, if we are aware of it, can be changed.
Our minds are made up of a rich, deep, medley of all our learnings.
They all interact to create our current personality — and current is the right word. For we are different in different situations. We evolve as we get older, and we learn to manage ourselves differently (or we can do).
As humans we are more fluid than we might think.
The brain is plastic.
That said, empirical observation and research has shown that there tends to be a pattern in how our personality is expressed – decades of modern psychotherapy has found that there are different elements to us — a “parent” part, a “child” part and the adult part.
The parent part of us is the part that we copied from our parents. The thoughts, feelings and behaviours we learnt from them.
It’s the “Good boys don’t cry” part, the “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again” part. It’s the ‘Isn’t he like his father” part. It’s the part of us that harbours stereotypes, fixed attitudes, mottos and prejudice – and can hold our morals.
It’s also the emotions that we witnessed in our parents and internalised as our own.
The child in us thinks, feels and behaves in the ways we did as a child. It is the place of fantasy and fairy tale and of demons and monsters. It’s the part that makes us retreat or attack when we’re scared. That is triggered in stress and extreme situations. It is also the part that holds creativity and play.
Our “Parent” part and our “Child” part are both positive and negative. But if we never examine or question these various aspects of our behaviour, they can hold us hostage and stop us developing to fulfil our potential in life.
The adult part of us is the true grown-up. Out mature aware mind living in the here and now, taking responsibility for our actions and emotions and exercising our reason in response to the current reality we are experiencing.
It’s the part of us that reasons with those parental “truths” and says in reply “I’m a man and I’m sad and I feel like crying” or “If at first I don’t succeed, I’m going to try a different route”.
All three of these aspects of our personality sit within us, probably for life. So it’s helpful to recognise when each is at play. That can be hard work. But it’s worth it. For then we can start to observe ourselves and recognise when and how these different aspects of our self is at the forefront. It gives us more options – and perhaps we can begin to interact in a way that is more authentic – and more free.
And perhaps not worry so much about what those tests say.
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