Saturday, February 06, 2010

What Makes Us Who We Are, Anyway?

Psychologists and sociologists have been studying that question for generations. Many scientists have their pet theory about degrees of nature vs. nurture, where, how, and by whom we were raised, which all makes for interesting reading and speculation. Thus far, however, none have discovered a recipe—or even a universally agreed upon definition—for what makes a person emotionally healthy, and how that translates into healthy relating skills.

Professionals in the world of the mind agree that human behavior goes well beyond following only our “animal nature.” But what aspects of our world have the largest effects on who we become? Read on to see a few of the theories…

Parent/child bond or Attachment Theory – John Bowlby, Mary Main, and many others believe that success in life (as based on a number of various criteria) relies heavily on the quality of parenting we receive, especially between the ages of six months and two years. Attachment Theorists put great emphasis on the security of the parent/child bond, providing a secure base from which the child can explore the world. Much of this research also looks at the difference between male and female caregiver behaviors. Interestingly, they draw conclusions about the need for “Man and Woman Power devoted to the production of happy, healthy, and self-reliant children.”

You may have heard of Harry F. Harlow’s experiments in the late 1950’s to early 60’s conducted on rhesus monkeys. Infant monkeys were separated from their mothers and then given the choice of either a wire “mother” or a terrycloth-covered “mother.” Without fail, the babies chose the terrycloth mother—whether she contained a nursing bottle or not—and returned to her under stressful situations. (These experiments, by the way, were some of the first to inspire the animal rights movement.) Clearly, “warm and fuzzy” even if just in the physical sense, helps babies develop into healthier adults, and not receiving that emotional security (“nurture”) during the crucial childhood phase, made it nearly impossible for babies to compensate for the early psychological wounding.

Birth Order Theory. Beginning with Alfred Alder in 1918, this theory stresses the importance of when you were born into your family of siblings. The belief was that birth order has a strong determining effect on how you relate to others throughout your life. In general, the categories are that eldest children are steady and overachievers, middle children are neglected or overlooked, the babies are spoiled and bossy, and only-children are the center of attention and feel pressured. The theory seems to have evolved to the point of disproving Alder’s original stereotypes and now places more emphasis on people’s self-perception of their position in the birth order.

Bullying. Over the past few years, many studies have been conducted on bullying—both in schools and in the workplace—and its effect on healthy development. Bullies and their victims can both be harmed by the behavior. Perhaps the precursor to the horrifying prevalence of abusive relationships and our society’s need for women’s shelters begins in the schoolyard.

Astrology. Astrologers believe that the placement of the sun, moon, and planets in relation to the location and moment of your birth determines your basic personality and how you relate to others. While many people scoff at this study of humanity, over the years I have found far too many uncanny “coincidences” to discount this theory completely. We are, after all, composed of up to 60% water—our brains are 70% water—and we all know that the moon’s cycles determine the tides. Perhaps the pulls that the planets and stars have on each other, keeping their orbits and rhythms relatively constant also have effects on us as individuals.

There are hundreds of other theories, from religion to hard science that seek to explain human behavior. Personally, with the complexity and unique qualities of the human mind, I do not believe a single answer will ever be found.

From my perspective, as a spoiled Sagittarian, somewhat bullied, baby of an over-protective, very secure family, I find myself overly-sensitive to violence, believe that most people are truly doing their best, and see the world most days through my chosen rose-colored glasses. How about you? Can you see how any of these theories helped shape who you are?

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