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Sunday, March 23, 2008

We Are What We Are What We Are

We were recently speaking at Chez Nous about what makes up each individual personality--what is a character flaw and what is a character trait and what is a major problem that needs addressing. Can we change who we are and should we ever change who we are? I'm not talking about the things that we can categorize as an actual problem that is affecting our lives across the board, but the small parts that make up our personalities. I think we have a way of always pushing people towards happiness; thinking that we should want to be happy 100% of the time if it's a possibility. And I think we also push people towards positive character traits; thinking that we should only want the positive ones to be part of our daily make up even though the negative ones usually also hold a silver lining.

I spent a large portion of my life wishing to be my older sister and I still struggle with internal comparisons (it certainly wasn't external--this was my own doing). It is hard to wish to be someone you're not and still continue to feel comfortable in your own skin. It took a long time for me to enjoy myself as an individual who is very very different from my sister and like myself even though I'm not my sister. Does that make sense? I mean, how could I like me if I liked my sister better and wanted to be like my sister but I could never be like my sister? You see the Catch-22 in all of this and how happiness came from stepping outside and liking myself as well as liking my sister, even if I didn't have the traits that I coveted so badly in her.

I don't want my children to go through that.

And they are very different from each other.

I think it's natural to covet. Especially when you see someone rewarded or seemingly rewarded for a trait. For instance, someone is very studious and they have great concentration and can work for long periods of time and they earn an A. And someone who struggles to maintain concentration will never receive that A, perhaps. And then the question remains, is a lack of concentration a character flaw (that should be accepted, but perhaps pitied) or a character trait (it's just who the person is in the same way their hair is brown and they run quickly) or a problem that needs addressing.

The things I wish for are rarely physical (except for hair that could be feathered back in the early 80s. I really wanted hair that could be feathered, but you can't feather curls). I know that a flat stomach, smaller breasts or red hair are not within my control unless I'm willing to resort to surgery and dye. I was born with my physical traits somewhat decided by genetics. But what about my personality? How was that shaped? And if it was shaped, I should be able to keep molding it, right? Taking on the traits I see and covet. Only it isn't that simple. You can want to be funny. Either you're funny or you're not funny. And if you're not funny, it doesn't seem to be something you can just pluck out of a book and learn.

You can want to be laidback or not care so deeply or not be thin-skinned or be more circumspect--but these things seem so much harder to control and mould than physical traits. There aren't shortcuts or ways to work around them. Your personality traits--whether you are fearful or brave, a worrier or someone carefree, optimistic or pessimistic--feel a little set in stone. Yet if we aren't born one way or the other and we are shaped by our experiences, when did our experiences cease to keep changing us? When did our personalities settle?

One of our children has an element to their personality and we are unsure if it is character flaw or a character trait or a problem that needs addressing. On one hand, it creates a sweetness and on the other, it creates an impediment. And though I never worried about stirring G-d's pot when I was cooking up these babies, I find myself very tentative about impacting their personalities--something that will also be with them for life--and trying to change something without knowing the impact of what happens when you move a character trait. Do the rest tumble down after it, reforming like a kaleidescope into a different person?

I wonder what personality traits they will covet in the future. If this child will even see this part of their personality as a problem.

There are certainly ones I covet for myself right now.

I think if I could choose only one to pick out of the bag at the next Secret Santa Personality Grab Bag, it would be bravery. I wish I were more courageous--and not just about crickets and mice. I wish I didn't let fear play such a large role in the decisions I make.

Many questions rolling around in my head tonight.


Jess said...

Hope you had a good weekend, Mel.

Thinking of you. You seem plenty brave to me!

Kim said...

You seem brave to me too! My boys are so different. They were raised in the same environment and yet they are so different. I wonder sometimes if their personalities were determined at conception or were they shaped by their experiences. Is the older one shy since he was an only child for a short time? Is the middle guy more outgoing because he feels secure with an older brother? Or are they traits they were just born with? I guess I have to say I think it is a little nature and a little nurture. I cannot wait to see the youngest one's personality emerge. Right now he is such a happy and laid back baby - but that is common for most later born babies. So maybe it is birth order? Thanks for the great questions to get my wheels turnin'!

Lori said...

These are excellent musings, Mel.

What I've considered flaws at one time I've reevaluated as traits at others. I have not always been gentle with myself, but I am getting better.

Your post is a blessing as I clarify my role as mother to my children. Problem, flaw or trait? What needs fixing, what needs molding, and what needs channeling?

luna said...

love your musings... I agree with the others. you seem plenty brave to me.

I think it was mark twain who said that courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it. besides, sometime a healthy dose of fear is a good thing. but I agree, I don't want to be guided or limited by fear either. ~luna

Stacie said...

Bravery. That is a good one to wish for, although I do believe we are all braver (including you) than we give ourselves credit for in life. You are brave, in my opinion, just because of the way you see the world and want the world to be. You try to change things and help people. You put yourself out there for others. That is brave. That isn't done by many people.

I think the problem is that we perceive ourselves so differently than others see us. In your case, others see how brave you are. You don't feel that way (does anyone?), so you wish for that trait.

You do raise an interesting topic--a great thing to think about really. I have spent plenty of time lately wishing about things, knowing all the time that the wishes are just that. I suppose if I turned this questions toward myself, I wish I was the kind of person who could take each day as it comes and celebrate that day to its fullest. Instead, I worry and fret about the what if's and what could be's, which are always so much scarier than the what are's. Try as I might, I just return to the worry. Is it learned? I don't know. Is it just an ingrained part of my personality that I will struggle with for the rest of my life? Most certainly. All I know is that it is there, and I hate it about myself.


Anyway, hugs to you. I hope you had a wonderful weekend.

Heidi said...

You seem very brave to me. Maybe it isn't so much how we see or feel ourselves to be, maybe we need to learn to accept how others see us.

For example my hair. I hate it. Can't stand it. But everyone else says it is beautiful. Aren't we are own worst critic?

I don't think our personalities ever stop changing. I used to be a very patient person, now I can flip out without notice and have zero patience for anything! And I know that is shaped by this fertility journey. It has eaten at my patience and I cannot find a way to make that stop.

That doesn't really answer any of your questions, but it's what you've got me thinking about now!! :)

Carrie said...

I often read your posts and they give me real food for thought.
I can't imagine your children to be anything other than well balanced, confident and caring, if they are brought up to look at the world as refreshingly as you do.

niobe said...

This will sound self-pitying, but it's really expressed more in the spirit of detached curiosity and scientific inquiry.

I have two much-younger half-sisters, my parents' children from subsequent marriages. While I've never envied any particular traits or accomplishments of my half-sisters, I've always been jealous of the way that my parents adore them -- completely and effortlessly, without any overlay of anger or bitterness.

I think about how Isaac loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob and wonder if certain children are -- for certain parents, anyway -- just easier to love than others.

Jen said...

Ah, wishing for stuff that other people have...

I spent months lusting after another blogger's perfect hair. Then she posted about how she wished she had hair like mine.

For my personality trait, I think I would like to be able to stand up to people more.

LJ said...

Of the words that I would use to describe you, brave is certainly one. However, wrt the question about when do our personalities settle? I think they settle when we settle for our personalities.

There are aspects of myself that I have worked very hard to change, and I have, because I chose to work at it. There are other things about myself that I know I may never change, but I work around them to cope.

Who we are is an amalgam of our life experiences and the genes we were given with which to handle them.

And the jealousy of a sibling - I TOTALLY get that. My brother is so much more laid back than I am.

annacyclopedia said...

Ahh, your genius of saying just what I need to hear continues...

This whole question of what is a personality trait and what is a flaw is something I struggle with so much. I really agree that it is our human nature to always be trying to move toward happiness and perfecting our character. At the very least, that is my nature. And accepting that there are hard times where happiness is rare or non-existent, or that we are imperfect - it is just so difficult. I find myself getting frustrated with both my imperfection, and my inability to accept my imperfection.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? It is so easy to see how wonderful other people are, and so difficult to see that in ourselves.

PaleMother said...

You really made me think ... I am not sure that this applies to what you are working on ... but this is what I came up with:

Tactical issues and pratical lessons (surival skills, socialization, attitude) of childhood aside ...

I think character is mostly elemental and trying to alter other people on that level is usually just damaging. So when it comes to my kids' personality traits, I am leary of the line between moulding and tampering. I try to address behavior more than personality, although that is sometimes a very fine line to tread. Its also very hard to calculate the (good or bad) influence of parent/child chemistry.

FWIW, I think my mother's *negativity* crippled me far more in the long run than the *traits* that she perceived as failings or as problematic. It's an odd contradiction: Parents are so powerful ... and yet there are real limits to their influence. Sometimes it will take something beyond a parent's scope -- years of experiences and consequences and then real hard-won perspective -- to transform what is most difficult in a personality. And if that's what it comes down to, then what kids need most is our confidence in them.



Kami said...

I think much of our personality is as programmed by our genetics as our physical traits. I do think we can modify both.

I have recently been contemplating this very subject as I had a person withdraw from my IRL support group. She said (in essence) that my personality didn't work with hers. I see her point, but wonder if this particular personality trait is a flaw or a feature. I suspect in some arenas it is a feature and others it is a flaw.

Now, can I learn to modify it when needed? I don't know . . . the funny thing is that I thought I already had.

Rachel said...

These are all interesting questions, and while trying to have children using someone else's genetics, they come up a lot. I honestly think that personality traits are largely genetic, but can be cultivated in different ways depending on the way these traits are nurtured. I have come to believe this by observing my nieces and nephew (one of whom is adopted) and from when I was a teacher and meeting the kids and their parents. When I was younger, I really believed in nurture, but as I get older and see the world and see myself and my brothers as we've become adults (and middle aged), I really believe in nature.

And sometimes, that's what scares me. But the again, sometimes it seems appealing. Like anything else, we make do with what we are given and we try to make the best of it. Even when it's really, really difficult.

JamieDH said...

Thanks for my first comment! I love your blog and I love the sense of community and caring you have created here.

I often think of what traits our children might receive from us. I am a very timid person and that is the number one thing I would change if I could. My husband, on the other hand, is very outgoing and makes friends where ever he goes and I hope our children get that from him.

I wish there were some magic mirror where I could see what other people see when they look at me. We can definitely be our own worst critic.

Vacant Uterus said...

I just typed a huge comment and I lost it. I am so mad. I think the basic gist was:

Be kind to yourself as a parent. Of course there is the potential for mistakes, there always is. But how you treat yourself will affect your children just as much as how you train them to become adults. Later on they may look at this specific personality trait/problem and ask themselves "Is this okay?" Whether it is okay or not, that's the point that you want him/her to be kind to his/herself in dealing with that issue. And that they can only learn from the way you treat yourself.

You are beautiful and thoughtful and despite what you think, brave, Mel. And I know that you are doing a fantastic job as a parent. None of us here want your sister--we only want you. The genuine article.


Dianne/Flutter said...

Sorry Mel, I read this post and didn't realize that you are struggling so deeply.

But, my grandmother used to say to me, "I had seven children, and no two are the same - just like my fingers."

About a character trait that maybe a problem - I guess how do you know it is a problem? Maybe like you said, it may not be. And only time will tell.

(If the issue is concentration - I know many people with that problem, but it is usually because they are too smart and get bored easily.)

I truly hope it turns out to be a mole hill.

B said...

HI Mel

As a special ed teacher I struggle with this question each day with the kids in my class. I'm employed to "modify".

There is a difference between what is hard wired and behaviour although they are connected. With what is hard wired or "traits" the best thing we can do is accept that bit of a kid without judgement or desiring to change it. It is who they are. BUT. Behaviour is not hard wired, it is learnt. While a trait might make someone inclined to a particular behaviour, it does not mean that that behaviour is inevitable. The behaviour is generally something that, in the world of the child, achieves the best results for themselves with the minimum effort.

Eg. Let's take a propensity to get angry easily. This is a very useful trait. It is connected to justice. It is a means of self protection etc. It is the way that this anger is manifested that can be a problem (eg. hitting, screaming etc) or, it is the shortness of the fuse, or it is the length of time it takes to come back to a happy place after an episode of anger. These are the things that are the problem, not the anger itself. The good news is that the behaviour can be given edges and shaped by environment. We can work to build resiliance, or self calming skills, or more appropriate means to express anger then hitting someone. The behaviour can be chaged with plenty of thought, trial and error, and a bit of patience.

This is harder for less obvious or less disruptive traits like passivity.

In the end, if it is not harming to themselves or someone else, and is not interfering with learning, I (as a teacher) don't interfere. I know it might be different as a parent.

I've been thinking this over for the last few days..... my thoughts with you as you wrestle with this.