December 11, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

Every psychology student is familiar with the nature-nurture debate. That is, how do we explain why people are the way they are?

One way to answer that question is to attribute our make-ups to genetics and biology (nature). Like sharing the physical attributes of a mom or dad, people’s personality traits are largely inherited. If you came from a family of extraverts, the theory holds, you’ll likely be one, too.

The other way to answer the question is to attribute our traits to early upbringing experiences (nurture). Your introverted personality is best explained by the fact that every time you tried to express yourself, you were talked over or told to shut up by family members. So, you learned that being socially withdrawn was the best way to get through life.

Some theorists hold that we are best understood to be products of inborn, inherited factors and can make a good case for that view. Other theorists hold that we are the products of the environments in which we were raised. They make a good case as well.

But other theorists hold to something called the bio-psycho-social theory of causation. Simply stated, it’s an all-of-the-above theory. What can’t be accounted for by nature can be attributed to nurture. And vice versa. Or to some combination of the two. Most things in life are not mono-causational—that is, having only one explanation—and explaining the human personality is no different.

It’s all complicated, I understand, but I think the all-of-the-above view has the most merit.

But there’s a third factor that often gets less attention in the nature-nurture debates than it deserves: choices. This has to do with what one does with the nature or nurture hands they’ve been dealt. Some individuals make choices that perpetuate the influence of their pre-determining factors. Others choose to go against the flow and become people who, by all rights, they should not become.

I’ll briefly mention one example.

A client of mine named Debbie (not her real name) was raised by a family of coocoo birds (not the actual clinical nomenclature). Her mother, her father, her siblings, and most members of her extended family were like offerings on a junk food smorgasbord. To put it more technically, they were all bat guano crazy.

What’s more, the people in the town where they lived were blind enablers of the craziness. Most everyone thought hers was a wonderful family and she was so privileged to be raised in such a happy clan.

In fairness, Debbie should have been crazy herself, having inherited the genes (nature) and having been raised in the loony bin (nurture). And yet, and yet. Somehow, she always had this gnawing sense that something was amiss. She saw the discrepancies between what the public perceived and the private realities and was bothered by the incongruence. She couldn’t put it into words because she had no language to describe such things. She just knew something was off.

Now, perhaps there was something in her genetic coding not possessed by her relatives—a nature factor. Perhaps her unwillingness to buy into it all stemmed from her relationship with the only two family members who were islands of saneness in a sea of insanity—a nurture factor. Who knows?

But whatever the cause, when the asylum doors swung open after college, she packed up her stuff and moved several states away—a choice factor. Moreover,

  • She pursued advanced degrees.
  • She developed her talents.
  • She advanced in her career.
  • She became financially independent from her family.
  • She formed healthy connections with non-crazy people.
  • She formed relational boundaries with people who, at first appeared be normal, but turned out to be not so normal after all.
  • She sought the services of a therapist who helped her unpack the long-term effects of having been raised by wolves.

Again, all choice factors.

The bad news is that Debbie likely inherited some very bad traits, and she was raised in an environment that provided bat guano fertilizer for those traits to grow like Kudzu, also known as “the vine that ate the South.”

The good news is that she made a series of ongoing choices that disabled those nature and nurture vines from choking out her personhood.

“It is our choices,” said Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, “that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Till next week.

4 replies
  1. Chris O'Rear
    Chris O'Rear says:

    I appreciate all of this. I would also suspect that as “Debbie” got more healthy, etc., her family started trying to convince her that she was actually the crazy one or the one with the problem. At least that has been my experience. It is an ongoing challenge. Thanks for your regular emails. I share them with others regularly. I hope you are doing well. Chris

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks so much, Chris. Good to hear from you. Indeed, Debbie was and is considered the crazy one and the challenges continue. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

  2. Adele
    Adele says:

    Excellent post. People need to hear that so thank you for writing it. I agree, it is complicated, it is all of the above, and clearly speaks to the issue of why some may survive such craziness (and not without much difficulty) while others get defeated. People have to find someone who will listen and believe that their crazy environment is real.

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