Temperament: A Factor of Nature or Nurture?

How Therapists Can Help Us Accept and Break Free from Our Dispositions

Marian Sandmaier

One afternoon not long ago, my body mocked my pretensions, toppled my carefully constructed persona, and forced me to rethink who I am.

I was lounging at the dining room table late on a Sunday afternoon, perusing the local newspaper and wearing my favorite home-alone attire---faded linen capris, a baggy yellow T-shirt, and ancient bedroom slippers, when I heard slapping footsteps on the stairs leading up to our front porch. The screen door whined open. Voices. Muffled laughter. Youthful. Female. More than one.

The next thing I knew, I was on the second floor of our house, breathless, half-crouching in the hall. I had no sense of "going upstairs." I knew only that in one moment, I was loafing in the dining room and in the next I was on another floor, panting.

From my guard post at the top of the steps, I heard my daughter, Darrah, then 22, enter our front hall in the company of two other young women, their speed-of-light discourse punctuated by raucous laughter.

I'd just charged up the steps at lightning speed to escape my daughter's friends.

I had some partial glimmer of what was going on. Even as I fled the dining room, some part of me flashed on a tight huddle of preteen girls on a playground, giggling under the hard sunlight of noon recess. I saw myself approaching, heard the talk dissolve into whispers and then amp up into hooting laughter, whereupon, at some invisible signal, the girls turned and dashed away. It went on like this for four years---my persistent, helpless courting, their predictable, gleeful rejection. Now, decades later, I sprinted up the steps of my house and felt terror and grief rise up in my throat.

Confronting Temperament

Until my recent sprint to the second floor, I didn't think much about temperament, which is generally understood as a set of behavioral and emotional propensities that's inherited and enduring. Predispositions were all well and good, I believed, but they seemed to me mere background data, not nearly as influential or interesting as the drama of my childhood or my considerable efforts to remake myself since.

But now, I'm reconsidering. My experience on that Sunday afternoon has prompted me to look anew at temperament, especially the ways it may invisibly pilot our adult lives. Until recently, it's been largely the province of child psychologists, who've used the concept to help worried parents understand their implacably stormy, timid, or "wild" child. But new investigations are beginning to shed new light on a question that's hounded psychotherapy for more than a century: what's the relationship between nature and nurture, and what does it mean for the human project of change? As we come to understand more about the complex process of temperament development, therapists may be able to better help clients master one of life's trickiest balancing acts---making peace with one's inborn nature while knocking against its boundaries, in search of a larger self.

Life: A Danger Zone

There are situations in which it can be enormously useful to be able to behave with élan no matter how miserably downtrodden one may feel---at a job interview, for example, or a first date with someone you actually like. My second thought is that, in the wrong hands, a persona can be a dangerous thing. For some of us, the development of social graces (or some other wished for behavior) may tempt us to imagine that we can shed our bothersome temperaments altogether and sail forth to realize a peculiarly American dream---"personal transformation."

With all my heart, I bought into this transformation fantasy. Granted, not all of it was fantasy: I was growing and changing, too. After spending one too many afternoons weeping into my bedspread over rejection by The Girls, some tiny ember of determination and self-regard began to flutter to life. I turned my energies toward gymnastics, which hurled me forward into a new experience of body confidence. At home, my mother listened to my sorrows and made me feel, in her presence, as though I were a genuinely interesting and entertaining person. By early adolescence, I'd gained enough savvy and common sense to make other friends and get to know some cool boys. I cared a little less about The Girls, who responded by discovering---surprise!---that they really liked me.

Of Science and Soul

In his efforts to show the biochemical roots of temperament, famed researcher Jerome Kagan is no longer a voice in the wilderness. In the last decade alone, behavioral DNA researchers have identified genes that boost the likelihood of being shy, optimistic, attracted to risk, gregarious, distraction-prone, and several other temperamental biases. Predictably, these investigations have been overblown by the media, with headlines touting the discovery of a "shyness gene," a "happiness gene," and various other slices of DNA that purportedly bless or doom one to a particular behavioral or emotional fate. Many people, both in and out of the therapy field, have responded with instinctive distrust, wondering whether this outpouring of behavioral genetics news heralds a return to biological determinism.

This scenario seems unlikely. Many genetic researchers have taken pains to explain that no gene causes a behavior or emotional state, but merely renders one more vulnerable to it. Furthermore, no single gene appears to boost susceptibility by much.

Holding Both

As individuals thrash about in their own temperamental thickets, therapists can serve as wilderness guides, following rough-cleared paths and pointing out elements of nature that are usually hidden from view. It's possible, of course, to make too much of inborn proclivities, and to shortchange other realms of self that develop in the push and pull of growing up. The crucible of daily living may, in time, spur the extrovert to listen more deeply, the risk-taker to take better care of herself, and the shy person to pick up social skills---or even to discover an unforeseen pleasure in conviviality. In my own experience, once I've passed through the warm-up phase of friendship, I find it surprisingly easy to relax with others, share goofy stories, dance with abandon, and, on occasion, even get up and entertain.

Now that I know that I'm temperamentally inclined to solitude tipping toward isolation, I try to be more awake to how I actually conduct my social life. I surprise myself, still, by how much I savor the communal silliness and serious talk that bounces around a shared table. Yet, I know in my soul that no amount of rewarding, even vital, human connection will ever silence the siren song of my temperament. Solitude, it beckons. Calm, warmth, square of light. Inside me still lives the 2-year-old who sits contentedly alone in the light-bathed backyard, her Peter Rabbit book open in her hands. That's why, even now, when the phone rings and I'm deep in a novel, I may not even look up. The persistent jangle seems far off, like street noise. What feels real right now is the velvety warmth of this old couch, the tea breathing steam at my elbow, and a story that absorbs and transports. In these moments, I have everything I need.

This blog is excerpted from "Who Do You Think You Are?" Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Anxiety/Depression | Grief

Tags: adolescence | Anxiety | boundaries | child psychologists | depression | girls | parents | psychologists | psychotherapy | rejection | science | therapist | therapists | therapy | transformation | networker

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