Power Brokers of Personality

Personality is a curious thing. Where do we get our personalities anyway? Are we merely homogenous mixtures of our parents; does our DNA play a role? Or, are we simply carbon sponges – borrowing influential bits and pieces of identity from everyone and everything around us as we go?

If personality is strictly a family DNA affair, why aren’t we reading about Charles Manson’s parents instead of just crazy ole has-been serial-killer Charlie? If we’re simply selective sponges, how would you explain the occasional similarities between the personalities of parents and children – even when some of the characteristics aren’t necessarily favorable? Personality, no doubt, is a complicated and fascinating subject.

Intelligence, just like personality, is also a quite difficult matter to put your finger on. Some books lean more toward nature (predisposition) and others to that of nurture (learned). It’s a pretty well-settled argument that a person’s intellect is a product of both of these things but to what extent? My parents could have supplied me with the most fantastic, bestest ever DNA on the planet but if those supposed great genes were never nurtured and cultivated with kindness, personality, education and experience, I’d just end up being one of those socially awkward and useless brainiac; a big-brain-no-game type. Certainly not the pinnacle of expressiveness I’ve become, right?

Take myself for instance, I love words. I’ve always loved words. As a child, I would regularly read the dictionary and thesaurus just to learn new words and to see how those words interacted with or held similarities with other words. I have no idea where that interest comes from as no one else in my instant family has the same level of curiosity with words and writing. Not that my siblings aren’t artistic and intelligent in their own right, they certainly are those things.

But my very favorite things in life are words and old maps and perhaps mac-n-cheese. My Achilles heel, however, is numbers. Numbers and mathematical equations have never been friends of mine. My mom is super smart. I’ve been told she has an IQ of 160. But mama is one of those types who loves numbers and formulas and good scotch. She might love words too, I don’t know, but she certainly doesn’t outwardly exhibit signs of being a word lover.

My dad, as far as I know, was neither a fan of numbers or words. He had a love for drawing, maps, fried green tomatoes, cigarettes, and oyster stew. Unfortunately, one of those things killed him at much too young an age. I never really got to know much else about him as I never knew him as an adult. He died during the most selfish period of my life, teen-dom.  

Between the three of us, we’d probably struggle to formulate a decent dinner menu, but there are distinct similarities that have been promulgated within me as a result of my embryotic journey. Some of which, I’m delighted to have gotten for free. Other not so pretty chromosomes, I’d love to set free. Free to a good home, slightly used chromosomes.

My personality more closely resembles that of my mothers’, but I clearly see little parts of my dad peeking back at me in the mirror from time to time. Plus, I do love old maps and fried green tomatoes. The curly hair? Well, that was my grandmothers’ gift or curse, depending on what day it is. All that hot wind just to say that I am definitely not a carbon copy of anyone.

What about siblings you say? I was just about to mention that. Yes, I have three and we’re all very different. I’d love to go into more detail about my family peeps but this here blog is about me, right? So, lets expose them one at a time as they do weird things I might want to write about. Or instead make a pact not to reveal each other’s adolescent misadventures over a glass of our mother’s scotch.  I think I’d prefer what’s behind door number 2.

What about our parental responsibilities in the development of our children’s personalities, work ethic, citizenship, responsibility, honesty, etc.? I mean, I’ve been down the road of parenthood myself and somehow survived. How effective can our lessons really be, and did our influences change the outcome of their personality? I think so. If a good portion of our personality and intelligence comes from nurturing, then of course each experience a child encounters will contribute to the child’s overall world view, as well as the decisions he or she makes when its their turn to make choices.

I don’t believe that anyone can be the parent they truly aspire to be. That is, if you aspire to be great at it. We may come close; you may even achieve a certain level of trust with your child that looms enormously large in their minds. And if that’s the case, good on you, but there’s a big responsibility that comes from having adult children who idolize an imperfect parent. You can rarely live up to those sorts of ideals and eventually their world will come crashing down when they realize you’re just as confused as they are.

We often see identity as an immutable object, a thing that we possess, and a force that we are possessed by. But as we go through life, the roles that we fill – dutiful child, rebellious teen, doting parent – are more than just clothes that we can put on and take off at will, but facets of who we always were, facets that lay hidden only until we need them to surface. I mean, who would have known that I would be expected to love Hockey?

Well, those latent skills still lie latent somewhere deep in my psyche, never having found the right potion to wake them up. But when you suck, just be a good actor. And, much like actors, we may seek out certain parts, but all too often, the parts we end up playing are given to us as much by circumstance as by our own decisions, so that the Introvert is suddenly thrust into the spotlight while the Extravert is left moving scenery backstage.

I’ve learned through the experience of writing this that around 40% of our personality is stemmed from our inherited genes. This according to Dr. David Funder, Psy Prof, U of Cal – Riverside. This leaves lots of room for considerable amounts of influence from environmental factors (i.e., where you live, cultural influences, life experiences and exposures). If you happen to carry a certain gene that affects serotonin, you may have a higher risk of depression and anti-social behavior, but perhaps only if your childhood is marked by severe stress or maltreatment.

It’s kinda crazy to think that even the most level and sane among us may carry a gene or even sets of genes that could have made them bat-shit-crazy; but, because they might have had good parents, the bat-shit-crazy part never surfaced, and the town-hero part was cultivated instead. Somewhere are a bunch of cats rescued from a tree by a fireman all knowing that the same fireman could have just as easily been one of those cat killing types…except that his dad told him he loved him and, of course, those important words fixed everything.

Even identical twins have different personalities. Twins will share 50% of several different personality traits. Fraternal twins will share 30% of several different traits, and non-twin siblings also share around 30%. More interesting to me, however, is that non-biologically related children raised by the same parents share around 7 %, which demonstrates just how powerful influences, home, neighborhood, opportunities, friends, and social status can affect someone’s personality.

Scientists haven’t isolated the genes that might carry markers for all personality traits quite yet. But we do know that genes work together with other genes to influence their expression. It could take several different genetic combinations for a child to develop a certain personality trait. Genes can switch on and off again, due to several different factors – sometimes because of genetic influences. Genes can also affect chemical messengers such as serotonin and dopamine, which both have a profound effect on the brain and can influence personality traits such as anxiety or shyness.

It’s just unimaginable to me that one could ever truly master the science of genetics, especially as it relates to personality and intelligence. As hard as my tiny little brain tries to wrap itself around every kernel and crumb of personality science, life experiences will do a cannon ball in the gene pool and change the genetic recipe all over again. All this uncertainty makes me think I should have picked a less complicated subject to write about, perhaps next time we will talk about cheese.

All I’m thinking right now is, my poor, poor parents. What a complicated game of “Taking a Turn in the Cabbage Patch” these two novices were playing and didn’t even know better. They might have been safer playing Russian Roulette. I mean, let’s get real; these tiny little helpless creatures we’re producing are complicated as hell.

I mean, you pay too little attention to your children or the opposite, become overly protective – not realizing how each path you take can impact the grown-up people our children become in totally different ways. While mothers are the ones who most often get blamed for the insecurities and character flaws of children, it’s actually the fathers who play a bigger role in a child’s personality.

According to the latest research, children are likely to pay more attention to the parent in their lives which they perceive as having the higher interpersonal power or prestige. In a good number of families, not in all cases, the parent who most often fits that bill is the father.

My experience was just the opposite. My father was a hard worker and a supervisor at his mostly blue-collar profession. But my mom, a white-collar professional with accolades, accomplishments, and power, was the one I looked up to most. My mother is incredibly smart but somewhat aloof. She’s not a nurturing sole, she’s a pragmatic and sensible spirit with a high dose of I-don’t-give-a-rats-ass.

My father, however, was from a more modest background, was extremely well-liked and gregarious with his friends while my mother was from a slightly more sophisticated social circle and a bit more urban. My mom worked early in their marriage but like most mothers of the 1960’s, she stopped working when she started having kids.

That went on for quite a while because she was having kids for quite a while. She didn’t work a job again until I was about five years old. When she decided to do so, she hit the ground running and was a rockstar among females in the corporate world, breaking barriers and glass ceilings way before people referred to them as glass ceilings.

I think she got so much attention that it scared my father to death. He really struggled with my mother’s successes in sales so there was some serious pressure from within the marriage for my mom to change professional directions. She eventually left the career she loved and moved into a position in finance. Something she was also great at, but, of course, a job she didn’t really enjoy.

 Even after that move, she was still a rockstar. About a decade before her retirement, she was a corporate controller for a fairly large office furniture company in Nashville. The company she worked for was purchased by a Canadian company and announced it was moving to Quebec. She was asked/invited to move to Quebec in order to secure her position. My mother refused to move with the company, choosing to stay at home in Tennessee. So, instead, the company offered to pay for her to travel from Nashville to Quebec every week.

My mom traveled like that until the day she retired, at least a dozen years or so later. She was clearly an integral and important figure in that large corporate environment. So, while it’s easy to write nice things about a parent or tell folks how smart they are, it’s not always easy to find an example, such as I just did. My mom is a difficult person to get to know. But despite her general aloofness, she has always been a rock star to me.

So contrary to the experts, it was actually my mother whom I perceived as having the higher interpersonal power and prestige – not my father. So, of course, my mother is to blame for all my character flaws…uhm, just kidding mom. Well, maybe some but certainly not all.

Another thing the “experts” say is that simply spending time with your parents can help an individual develop better social skills and higher levels of confidence. You hear that Jon? Let me say it again in case you glossed over the previous sentence. The “experts” say that simply spending time with your parents can help an individual develop better social skills and higher levels of confidence.

This positive effect on our kids is deemed especially strong in studies when time is spent with the father. It sounds like the experts are working for dad, huh? However, it is also said that too much praise and attention is linked to the development of narcissistic personalities. Apparently, we should never tell our children that they are better or more special than other children. It’s far better to simply encourage positive behavior and acknowledge that they’re capable of high achievement – just like so and so.

So, just like most of my blogs, we don’t really learn as much about others as we learn about ourselves. I mean, when you think about it, what can we do to change or affect how other people interact with us? We can’t! So, I think its more important that we take what we learn about life and cultivate a better self with it. In the end, all we have is who we were. But, just maybe my son will want to take advantage of the newest opportunities science has to offer…spending time with dear old dad.

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