Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Nature of Nurture

Chatting pleasantly with my uncle this afternoon, I am once again struck with how much he reminds me of my brother. His mannerisms, his sense of humor, his outlook on life--all very reminiscent of his own brother's son. When I once again pointed this out to him, he said, "Well, he just had a birthday too." I took this as his implying our astrological similarities at birth. Two Aquarians may have more in common than birthdates.

The question of nature versus nurture has always intrigued me. How much of my personality and thought processes are affected by innate factors, and how much is affected by the experiences I have had in my life, particularly my early years? It intrigues me even more as I watch my children grow. How much of their behaviors and reactions are due to their inborn life force, and how much can they blame on me when they are in therapy?

My siblings and I are about as different as children of the same parents can be. We look different from each other; we respond to life with varying reactions. My brother always teased me that I was adopted from a band of pygmy gypsies, and sometimes I would wonder. But I can find at least a few physical family traits in each of us that belie that fairy tale. So we are blood related, most likely. But why are we so different from one another after having grown up in the same household?

I remember when I was in therapy in my twenties (as is still vogue), I was immediately asked about my parents. I was confounded by these invasive questions, wondering what my parents had to do with my current situation. They were in a neighboring state, and my relationship with each was very good. But the line of questioning was pursued, and because I was paying this woman, I cooperated. What followed was months of childhood examination, rechewing the bitter cud of every perceived let-down, betrayal, abandonment, or other negative experience I may have had that brought me to the place I was then. Whether this helped my situation directly, or I just eventually got over things, I will never know. But two things happened for sure: I began to see my parents as more human, and the seed of "nurture causes all" was planted in my head.

I find that I am still impacted by the "nurture causes all" mentality as I parent my own children. I reproach myself for any ill behavior on their part, as I believe deep down that I am to blame for poor parenting. If I were more strict, or less strict, or more gentle, or more firm, or if they were in public school, or if we sat down to dinner more often--well, then this ill behavior would not be happening. An instance of poor behavior on their part causes anger on my part. If I were to peel back that anger, I would find fear. Fear of failing as a parent. Fear of messing up their budding personalities. Fear of lining the pocket of some future psychotherapist who will tell my child that it was all their mother's fault.

But what of nature? What about our innate personality type? Society has always pigeonholed people. I envision the pigeons each perched in their own cubby in the pigeon loft. There is something comfortable about being able to put people into our own personal cubbies. It makes us feel more in control when trying to figure people out. We even have pigeon lofts provided for us: the aforementioned astrological signs, Ayurveda doshas, Meyers-Briggs personality types, Type A-B-A/B personalities, race/nationality stereotypes, gender/age stereotypes, occupation/class/religion stereotypes, Generation X/Y/Z, and Chinese astrology, to name a few. And to visually look upon a person is to classify them in a myriad of ways that cannot be counted.

Let's see, I am a Scorpio, Vata dosha, probably INTJ on the Myer-Briggs, Type AB, white, American, female, 40's, homeschooler, middle class, Catholic, Gen X, born in the year of the Snake. If you were to look at me, you would see a tall, slender, reputedly attractive woman with mousy hair and glasses. What does that tell you about me? Even if you are the most easy-going (Type B) non-judgmental (INFP) person, you form perceptions about me. How many of these pigeonholes were the fate I was born into, and how many were affected by nurture?

This question is raised once again for me as I learn about yet one more pigeon loft, that of the homeopathic constitution. Within the philosophy of homeopathy, a person can be categorized as a particular "constitution," based on his physical appearance, his outlook on life, his behavioral reactions, his physical weak links, and various other idiosyncrasies. There are many common constitutions, but also combinations of these common constitutions which form new ones.

Basically, all constitutions can be decent and likeable people when in balance, and each have their own foibles when out of balance. The beauty of homeopathy (similar to Ayurveda) is that one can affect one's constitution in a positive way. The homeopathic constitutions map to homeopathic remedies. (Not all homeopathic remedies are constitutional--not by a long shot.) Using your own homepathic remedy helps to balance your constitution. And similar to astrological philosophies, homeopathic constitutions can have varying degrees of compatibility, depending on the combination of people.

I used to have fun with horoscopes and would read my mother's Sun Signs book when I was a teenager. I found all sorts of matches to what I perceived as my personality, or what I wanted to perceive. I wonder how much of that reading impacted who I became (nurture) instead of it reflecting who I was innately (nature). When I was younger and more of a wild card, I used to be proud of being represented as a scorpion born in the year of the snake. Now it bears little resemblance to who I am, or who I want to be. Did I change? Or did my perceptions change? If I changed, then it debunks the whole nature concept of astrology. (It matters not to me anymore, as one paragraph is all I would want to indulge on this subject anyway.)

Homepathic constitutions have more in common with Meyers-Briggs, in that they do not involve pagan fables and the alignment of the stars at the time of birth. They do however, claim an innate nature, particularly in that homeopaths are often able to type even a baby. I was fortunate to recently have my constitution pigeonholed by a talented homeopath, while I was interviewed as an example to our class.

Without going into it too deeply, I am considered an Argentum Nitricum, or Argent Nit for short. For those of you with a chemistry background, you may recognize the remedy as silver nitrate. This constitution is a combination of two others, one of which is perfectionist, detailed, and punctual, and when out of balance can be fear-based, anxious, and OCD. The other constitution is friendly, easy-going, and deep thinking, and when out of balance can be fear-based, worrying, and a people pleaser. I immediately noticed that these two constitutions seem so opposite. Interestingly, I have always thought of myself as a woman of extremes, or as one who sees both sides, or as one who can have a completely opposite reaction depending on my mood.

Reading up on my constitution was not a situation of trying to make the black glove fit. It just fits. One trademark idiosyncrasy involves trembling. Argent Nit tremble. I tend towards whole body shivering when I am highly emotional, whether for good or bad. On my dates with boys in college, we would be sitting there overlooking the city lights. In anticipation of our first kiss, I would be trembling like crazy. When asked if I were cold, I would always respond yes in a desperate attempt to not appear too excitable. The poor guy would never be able to offer the chivalrous jacket off his back, because it was 87 degrees in Tucson in the late evening. Yet there I sat shivering.

My poor son was terrified one time when we were alone in our hotel room in Julian. I had eaten something bad, and was terribly sick. I lay on the bed shivering uncontrollably off and on, and it scared my boy so. I kept trying to tell him to not worry; Mommy just trembles. I don't think I had him convinced.

I started to take this homeopathic theory seriously when I began to take my constitutional remedy daily. The first week, it was like I kept looking over my shoulder to see who took over my body. I was under-reacting constantly. I was underwhelmed. I was calm. I was even PMS'ing and I was calm. I was letting go. The anxiety that was always just under the surface was gone. My corners were rounded.

That was a few months ago, and I feel changed. I still scream and yell and carry on sometimes, and my husband asks, "How's that constitutional working for you?" The fact is I don't take it daily anymore, just when I remember. I am having a withdrawal reaction from not being the perfectionist, the purist, and the hardliner that I used to be. I feel a part of myself disappearing. I know it is just my ego not wanting to let go. Balancing my constitution is upsetting the status quo, so I fight it. It's an ongoing process.

I find it an interesting exercise attempting to pigeonhole those around me. I am by no means an expert, but some people are easy. My children are the only ones that I plan to intervene and force feed their constitutional remedies. But I cannot express the emotions that I felt when I figured out and read about my son. Right there, in black and white, someone had written about my sweet, social, naive, gentle, goofy, irresponsible boy. He was no longer a product of a failing mother who was ruining him with "nurture causes all" parenting. He is who he is, and now that I know that, I can parent him without the fear-based anger that it is all my fault. I can even choose to parent him differently to better respond to his nature (as well as force feed him lactose pellets).

Of course, we cannot brush aside the effects of nurture. Our experiences and relationships constantly shape and change us. We store trauma in our very cells which can either be cleared or can fester within us. We can inspire those around us, or stifle their creativity. We can allow nurture to impact us deeply, or rise above it to stand firm regardless. It is the nurture that allows us to reach the potential that nature has provided for us.

I come out of all of this recent instruction with a more balanced viewpoint in the nature versus nurture debate. In fact, it is no longer a debate to me. As one prominent psychologist puts it when asked about nature versus nurture, "Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?" So with the debate put to rest, I find myself with less guilt, more tolerance, and complete forgiveness of my past. I can take what I have to work with in both myself and my children, and make the best of it as I nurture each of us.

One of my favorite cartoon characters as a child was Popeye. I can still see him zipping open that spinach can, cascading the green contents into his mouth. This childhood experience nurtured me well when it taught, "I yam what I yam."


Anonymous said...

Interesting introspective piece. A little deep for my feeble brain, but overall very insightful. Good for you in breaking the family tradition of not revealing themselves (especially in print). You have wonderful writing skills. Keep it up.
BTW-remember when you are citing differences there are also likenesses.

Anonymous said...

Your talent and introspective writing leaves me speechless in awe.