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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Nature Vs. Nurture

I heard an advertisement recently for a company that tests your DNA to report on your ancestry. They said, “You can’t know yourself if you don’t know where you came from.”

My initial response to that was almost angrily to say, “Bullshit.” For me, the idea that my identity is determined by anything outside myself is a threat to my autonomy. The idea that my clients are somehow bound to their families of origin or their genetics seemed to trivialize the work they do to grow and change. The message I give people every day is, “You are more than where you came from.”

But that’s not really the whole picture, is it? Many mental health disorders have a strong biological component and can run in families. The Colorado Adoption Project has a lot of data that suggests that adopted children have more cognitive similarities with their biological parents than their adoptive parents, despite never having had contact with their biological parents. Our biological heritage can have a big impact on how we function as adults.

Many psychological theories deal with what’s known as “the repetition compulsion,” a tendency for someone to repeat the same painful patterns and relationships learned early in childhood throughout their lives. If we come from a family that often solves problems through shouting matches, we’re likely to start a shouting match when we experience a problem. Our earliest experiences with our families can have a profound impact on how we navigate stresses and relationships as adults.

The culture we come from can greatly impact our mental health. The Office of the Surgeon General’s Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (2001) indicates that culture has a large impact on mental health, affecting the meaning we assign to our symptoms and experiences, how willing we are to seek out care, and even the prevalence of some mental illnesses. Our culture can have a profound impact on how we experience the world, our feelings, and thus our mental health.

Given the strong impact of those things, maybe I was too quick to dismiss the impact of biological history on knowing yourself. We know that most mental health problems are the result of the interaction of biological predisposition paired with lived experiences and the environment. They arise from the interaction of the two, but both are important factors.

If we don’t know where we came from, then we are missing some information. The majority of adopted children express some curiosity about their birth parents, and many put a lot of effort into locating and meeting their biological parents, regardless of how good their relationship to their adoptive parents is. It’s almost enough to make me think that we are, on some level, inherently driven to understand our parents. As if we somehow feel we cannot fully know ourselves without on some level knowing them.

But I would argue that putting too much weight on that information is a mistake. We want to keep the importance we put on that information in the right proportion. Knowledge about our families, our past, our biology, is just that: knowledge. It isn’t destiny. It may explain something about us, or influence how we respond to a challenge, but it doesn’t control us.

As I write this, I become increasingly aware that my take on this is almost certainly influenced by my culture and background. I come from a very self-deterministic line of would-be rugged individualists. Other cultures feel like the impact of family or community on the self holds greater significance, and would suggest that perhaps the ONLY way to truly know yourself is to know yourself through understanding history and community. And that’s fair enough–there are many ways of knowing, and my way is not the only one or even the best one.

The message I’d end on is this: We are biological creatures, so knowing our biological history and make up is important. We are social creatures, so understanding our relationships is important. We are complex creatures, so understanding the many ways we connect to history and society is important. We are creatures of continuity, so understanding the legacy that led up to our existence is important.

But the most important part of that, for me, is the knowledge that we have the ability to interpret that knowledge. We can filter it through our experiences, our values, our goals, and make decisions about what to do with the information. We get to decide what it means, and whether we honor the past or leave it behind is entirely up to us.


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