Ah, parents. Possibly the most complicated relationship you will ever have in your life. Whether you do or don’t believe that you have a wonderful bond with your parents, I’ve seldom met anyone who has no complaints against them. Parents are like mirrors of our possible futures, both from a physical aspect as well as an emotional one. It isn’t hard to tell where you got your nose from, or your eye colour, or why your hair reacts to humidity the way it does. But what about our personalities? Can we inherit personality traits from those who are closest to us? How much of a role do genetics play?
It is undeniable that childhood relationships with parents are very formative. However, after a dive into the great World Wide Web, it was eye-opening to see the statistics that back up the idea that there are, indeed, personality traits that you can inherit. The article in VeryWell Mind by Kendra Cherry, essentially explains that between 30-60% of personality traits can be inherited. There are five main categories that you can group personality traits under: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These are also known as OCEAN. If you really think about that statistic, it doesn’t sound unrealistic at all! I’m sure anyone who struggles with a mental health disorder can remember the first question asked by the GP: “Is there any history of such and such in your family?”. The focus tends to be on the negative, such as extreme introversion or neuroticism, as these are the traits which can greatly impact a person, yet this can just as equally influence the more positive aspects of one’s personality. Some of these could be openness and conscientiousness which we would perhaps commonly refer to as ‘kindness’ and ‘selflessness’, or perhaps agreeableness which could affect the way you interact with others and fit into society and communities! However, it is crucial to point out that, as we are considering genetics, these traits can also reflect the personality of your other DNA sharers such as your grandparents. The most fascinating part about the article is the 2018 study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry which concluded that interactions between more than 700 genes had a greater influence on certain personality traits than cultural and environmental influences. Such a huge amount of your genetics really epitomises who you are as a person, something which looks deeper than your height and that annoying lactose intolerance you keep denying.
So we can turn into our parents thanks to genetics, environmental, and cultural influences. That’s it, right, I’m screwed? Before you jump to that conclusion, let me add another couple of points. Whilst cultural and environmental factors can alter this over the course of time, the statistic essentially demonstrates a foundation of genetics, something that you can start to evolve from.
The article goes on to explain the idea of nature versus nurture. This is the idea that, whilst your genetic makeup can and will be a contributing factor to your personality, the bond you have with your parents can be just as influential. It’s a tale as old as time, children that have been adopted, or that have lived with guardians that are not necessarily their biological parents, have grown up to mirror, not the genetics coursing through their blood, but the day-to-day behaviours of the people surrounding them. The bond you create with your parent or guardian is what really defines who you are as a person and how you handle relationships in your life. This is something we can see from the earliest of ages. A statistic in the National Library of Medicine shows that up to 41% of mothers and infants have not been able to bond properly in the early stages which has resulted in post-partum depression for the mothers as well as anxiety and general distress from the babies. With the idea of early stage bonding I mean the opportunity to spend time together immediately after the birth (as soon as it is safe to do so, as in some births the check-ups on the baby can take longer), this could be done in the act of breast-feeding or skin-on-skin contact. Whilst I do not feel that I am able to delve into postpartum depression, as I lack the personal and medical experience to do so, I can add that distress in babies can result in issues with physical developments leading to severe consequences in such a physically formative stage.
Genetics and scientific reasoning behind the reasons why we are as we are and why we may see that as a reflection or copy of what our parents are like, be that a positive thing that ended up shaping the way we act as adults or perhaps a negative one that you are striving to move away from. However, I feel the need to add that it is crucial to remember that the bonds I have discussed are not only in your formative years. Sometimes it is easy to forget that parents are humans just like us and that they too make mistakes. We turn to them for support, solutions, and sensitivity, but at times they do not follow through. On occasion, that can result in a relationship drifting: the child learns to rely less on the parent and the adult gets stuck in their ways. Other times it transforms into a learning opportunity for both parties, something that can evolve over time. I think it is crucial to distinguish that whilst bonds may start forming from the minute you are born, they are an ever-growing concept and must be nurtured throughout your life. It is not the sort of thing that you can ‘complete’ or ‘achieve’, it will keep changing alongside the person you view as a parent or guardian.
Finally, we can conclude that, no, the concept of turning into your parents is not a myth, but the process as a whole is certainly not one that can be simply explained. You are your own person with free will, a brain, and the ability to change and evolve. That is what makes you human. You have the ability to look at yourself and to change what you want to. Sometimes it can be something you have, indeed, absorbed from those sponge-like years where children retain certain behaviours and attitudes that surround them, or it can be a consequence of your upbringing. But other times it can be things you want to become: perhaps you want to be more optimistic or be able to trust and open up more. Change does not necessarily have to be “I want to get rid of xyz bad thing”, it can be “I want abc to be a bigger part of my life”.
The amazing comedian, Taylor Tomlinson, once said in her brilliant comedy act “Look at you”, (available on Netflix) that when you are in your 20s you have time to “fish out” all the issues from your little pond before this freezes over in your 30s. Whilst the younger you are the easier it may be to break certain bad habits, I also believe that there are certain life experiences you must live before you can truly change into the person you want to be. Sometimes, it may also be – and let us be honest, we all did it as teenagers – that we run so far away from what our parents were like, that in later life we had to return to things that were, in fact, good for us.
Ultimately, you have that choice, which is why using the excuse that “oh, that is just how I was raised”, cannot and will never work as an excuse for the negative impact your personality may have on others. The moment you decide that it is just “too hard” to change and become a better person, is the moment that “pond” has really frozen over and those who you love may suffer because of it. Furthermore, if people never change, we wouldn’t see the personal growth that happens every time someone looks at themselves and decides to change for the better. One day, someone younger than you will force you to change and evolve – perhaps when you think you are too old and wrinkly to do so. Just like older generations have had to adapt to the ever-increasing use of technology or learn how to be more accepting towards concepts that in their time would have been frowned upon. That is what ensures that you are contributing to humanity and slowly learning and adapting. One day perhaps we will be able to look in the Mirror of Erised too and only see ourselves exactly as we are: the best versions, inside and out.