What personality traits do you inherit from your parents?
What personality traits do you inherit from your parents?
The reasons we act like our parents may not seem like a great mystery. Even setting aside our genetic connection, from the moment we open our eyes, we are absorbing our parents’ point of view and entire way of being in the world. This doesn’t doom us to a life of being boxed-up replicas of the people who raised us. However, it does mean we inherit a complex series of both apparent and invisible lessons from our parents that impact our lives in all kinds of ways we may not expect.
Many of us wrestle with the messy push and pull of navigating our parents’ traits within ourselves. Often embracing the positives and, with concerted effort, denying the negative ones. These traits are not always explicit and often come from subtle points of view we picked up. The positive traits often resonate with us, and they help guide us in our lives. The negative ones, and both our replication and resistance to these traits, can bend us out of shape and push us away from our personal goals and more authentic expressions of who we are.
Because, as children, we internalize our early environment, when we grow up, most of us are not fully differentiated selves. The degree to which we’ve failed to identify, understand, and separate from certain overlays on our personality can lead us to relive rather than live our lives. One important question that we can explore is, “to what degree are we following a prescription laid out for us by our past?”
This is not to say that our parents meant any harm or intended to influence every aspect of who we are. The point in recognizing how their traits affect our own behavior is not to blame them or get permanently entangled in our past. Rather, it is to help us free ourselves from overlays on our personality that do not reflect genuine aspects of our selves. This process helps us make sense of our actions and reactions and allows us to make sure they align with our personal goals. More likely than not, there will be a list of lessons for which we’re grateful and traits we hope to emulate from our parents. Conversely, there will be a list of lessons we’re living out that could be limiting us in everything from the way we see ourselves to the way we relate to others.
The division we all feel within ourselves between who we really are and the echoed “voices” of our history can lead us to act in ways we don’t even like or say things we don’t even mean. We’re most likely to engage in these reactive behaviors in times of stress and in situations that trigger painful and primal feelings. What we fail to realize in these moments is that much of what we’re experiencing on an emotional level is based on projections and old feelings from our childhood.
Parents are people, and people are not perfect. Because we are wired to best remember the things that frighten and upset us, unfortunately, it is often when parents are at their worst, in moments when they lose control or fail to be responsive to a need, that they have the strongest influence on their children’s negative attitudes toward themselves and others.
Because we have a tendency to take on our parent’s point of view at such an early stage in life, we can start to experience that point of view as our own. For example, we may be harsh and critical toward ourselves or suspicious or untrusting in our relationships. We may play out our parents’ anxieties, insecurities, frustrations, etc. in our own lives, particularly in our closest relationships.
There are three primary ways we do this:
The first is by directly repeating our parents’ way of being. If they were controlling, nervous, reactive, or introverted, we may very well carry these traits and express them in our own lives.
The second way we display our parents’ impact is by reacting to their traits (or rather overreacting). Maybe we saw our mother as nervous and overbearing, so we react by being reckless or extra sensitive to intrusion. Maybe we felt our father was rejecting and cold, so we react by putting pressure on ourselves to achieve at the highest level or feel like we need to actively seek people’s attention and approval.
The third way we display our parents’ influence is by recreating the emotional climate of our early environment. This is often done completely subconsciously, and therefore, can be tricky to catch on to. It’s hard to see it, but we may engage in behaviors that lead old, familiar scenarios to play out. For instance, we may provoke our partner to treat us in ways our parents did or to say things our parents used to say to us. We may even act childish with our own child, seeing them as having power over us, which may reflect how we felt as a child.
The best way to approach the process of differentiating from the traits that no longer serve us in our lives is with curiosity and compassion. So often, we are incredibly hard on ourselves for displaying traits we came by honestly. Instead, we should allow ourselves to explore where these patterns come from.
The gift of recognizing a lack of differentiation inside us is that once we’re aware of it, we can start to change the things that don’t feel like an honest reflection of who we are or what we want in life. We can recognize certain self-attacks and self-limiting attitudes as shadows of our history rather than real reflections of who we are. Finally, we can unlearn old habits and develop new ways of being that move us closer to who we want to be and the life we want to lead.
About the Author
Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.
What Is a Gene?
Genes (say: jeenz ) play an important role in determining physical traits — how we look —and lots of other stuff about us. They carry information that makes you who you are and what you look like: curly or straight hair, long or short legs, even how you might smile or laugh. Many of these things are passed from one generation to the next in a family by genes.
What Is a Gene?
Genes carry the information that determines your traits (say: trates), which are features or characteristics that are passed on to you — or inherited — from your parents. Each cell in the human body contains about 25,000 to 35,000 genes.
For example, if both of your parents have green eyes, you might inherit the trait for green eyes from them. Or if your mom has freckles, you might have freckles too because you inherited the trait for freckles. Genes aren’t just found in humans — all animals and plants have genes, too.
Where are these important genes? Well, they are so small you can’t see them. Genes are found on tiny spaghetti-like structures called chromosomes (say: KRO-moh-somes). And chromosomes are found inside cells. Your body is made of billions of cells. Cells are the very small units that make up all living things. A cell is so tiny that you can only see it using a strong microscope.
Chromosomes come in matching sets of two (or pairs) and there are hundreds — sometimes thousands — of genes in just one chromosome. The chromosomes and genes are made of DNA, which is short for deoxyribonucleic (say: dee-ox-see-ri-bo-nyoo-CLAY-ik) acid.
Most cells have one nucleus (say: NOO-clee-us). The nucleus is a small egg-shaped structure inside the cell which acts like the brain of the cell. It tells every part of the cell what to do. But, how does the nucleus know so much? It contains our chromosomes and genes. As tiny as it is, the nucleus has more information in it than the biggest dictionary you’ve ever seen.
In humans, a cell nucleus contains 46 individual chromosomes or 23 pairs of chromosomes (chromosomes come in pairs, remember? 23 x 2 = 46). Half of these chromosomes come from one parent and half come from the other parent.
Under the microscope, we can see that chromosomes come in different lengths and striping patterns. When they are lined up by size and similar striping pattern, the first twenty two of the pairs these are called autosomes; the final pair of chromosomes are called sex chromosomes, X and Y. The sex chromosomes determine whether you’re a boy or a girl: females have two X chromosomes while males have one X and one Y.
But not every living thing has 46 chromosomes inside of its cells. For instance, a fruit fly cell only has four chromosomes!
How Do Genes Work?
Each gene has a special job to do. The DNA in a gene spells out specific instructions—much like in a cookbook recipe — for making proteins (say: PRO-teens) in the cell. Proteins are the building blocks for everything in your body. Bones and teeth, hair and earlobes, muscles and blood, are all made up of proteins. Those proteins help our bodies grow, work properly, and stay healthy. Scientists today estimate that each gene in the body may make as many as 10 different proteins. That’s more than 300,000 proteins!
Like chromosomes, genes also come in pairs. Each of your parents has two copies of each of their genes, and each parent passes along just one copy to make up the genes you have. Genes that are passed on to you determine many of your traits, such as your hair color and skin color.
Maybe Emma’s mother has one gene for brown hair and one for red hair, and she passed the red hair gene on to Emma. If her father has two genes for red hair, that could explain her red hair. Emma ended up with two genes for red hair, one from each of her parents.
You also can see genes at work if you think about all the many different breeds of dogs. They all have the genes that make them dogs instead of cats, fish, or people. But those same genes that make a dog a dog also make different dog traits. So some breeds are small and others are big. Some have long fur and others have short fur. Dalmatians have genes for white fur and black spots, and toy poodles have genes that make them small with curly fur. You get the idea!
When There Are Problems With Genes
Scientists are very busy studying genes. They want to know which proteins each gene makes and what those proteins do. They also want to know what illnesses are caused by genes that don’t work right. Genes that have been changed are called mutations. Researchers think that mutations may be partly to blame for lung problems, cancer, and many other illnesses. Other illnesses and health problems happen when there are missing genes or extra parts of genes or chromosomes.
Some of these gene problems can be inherited from a parent. For example, take the gene that helps the body make hemoglobin (say: HEE-muh-glow-bin). Hemoglobin is an important protein needed for red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. If parents pass on altered hemoglobin genes to their child, the child might only be able to make a type of hemoglobin that doesn’t work properly. This can cause a condition known as anemia (say: uh-NEE-mee-uh), a condition in which a person has fewer healthy red blood cells. Sickle cell anemia is one kind of anemia that is passed on through genes from parents to children.
Cystic fibrosis (say: SIS-tick fi-BRO-sus), or CF, is another illness that some kids inherit. Parents with a changed CF gene can pass it on to their kids. People who have CF often have trouble breathing because their bodies make a lot of mucus (say: MYOO-kus) — the slimy stuff that comes out of your nose when you’re sick — that gets stuck in the lungs. People with CF need treatment throughout their lives to keep their lungs as healthy as possible.
What Is Gene Therapy?
Gene therapy is a new kind of medicine — so new that scientists are still doing experiments to see if it works. It uses the technology of genetic engineering to treat a disease caused by a gene that has changed in some way. One method being tested is replacing sick genes with healthy ones. Gene therapy trials — where the research is tested on people — and other research may lead to new ways to treat or even prevent many diseases.
Dr. Universe: How do we get our personality? — Jamie, 11
Everyone is different. Maybe you are adventurous, shy, outgoing, funny, or kind. Before you were even born, your unique personality was beginning to take shape.
Part of the answer to your question is that some of your personality comes from your parents. Just as parents pass down physical traits like hair and eye color to their offspring, they can also give them different personality traits. They’re in your genes, the information passed throughout generations.
But your personality isn’t set in stone from the beginning. There are a few other things that go into it.
That’s what I found out from my friend Chris Barry, a psychologist at Washington State University. He studies personality in young people, including how people express themselves on social media. He was really excited to hear about your question.
Even as little babies, people start to express their own personalities, he said. Maybe you were a really fussy infant. Maybe you laughed or smiled a lot. As you grew up and learned how to communicate, your personality started to grow, too.
You’ve had a lot of different life experiences and those play into your personality, too. Barry reminded me that humans are social animals. He explained that as the brain develops, you become much more aware of the world around you.
For example, when you were little, you could run around with spaghetti all over your face and no one would think much about it. But now that you are an 11-year-old, running around with spaghetti on your face could be a little embarrassing.
Perhaps your family and friends would suggest you find a napkin. Barry explained that as you get older you are not only more aware of different social situations, but also your own personality.
Humans are often looking for information from other humans to figure out how to navigate the world. Meanwhile, an almond-shaped brain structure called the amygdala is especially helpful as you figure out these new situations and emotions.
You may notice that your family, friends, or others may react to the way you behave. You might learn to change your behavior depending on their reactions. While everyone has their own personality, in a way, other people are helping shape it, too.
Humans have all kinds of words to describe each other’s personality traits. In fact, some researchers have come up with a list of more than 600 characteristics.
Barry explained that we still have a lot of unanswered questions to explore when it comes to understanding personality. He said that while your personality develops a lot as you grow from a baby into a kid, it probably won’t change too much once you become a grown-up.
Based on your question, it appears that you are very curious. That can be a great personality trait. Have you ever thought about become a scientist or researcher one day? Keep asking great questions and you’ll be well on your way.