Ever wonder what makes you who you are?
- Family (Genetics, conditioning in childhood and the environment it happened in)
- Life Choices
- Neuroscience (The brain science of what we do and why)
Sometimes we see self-awareness as only being aware of our existence. It’s equally important to understand how neuroscience and genetics also impact how we are aware of our ‘selves.’
Self Awareness is more than a result of meditation and introspection; knowing about neuroscience, biology & psychology helps us understand ourselves in new ways.
How we become who we are can seem like an endlessly complex rabbit hole to go down. Keeping it simple will help you cultivate Mindfulness rather than chasing endless questions. (For those who want more scientific information, that information is under the Neuroscience heading).
Generally speaking, your family has a large influence on who you become. I am referring to both genetics and the conditioning/socialization you received during your childhood. A generally positive conditioning experience tends to contribute to resilience (the ability to ‘bounce back’ from difficulty) and a healthy outlook on life; unless there is a trauma or genetic condition that needs to be dealt with–somebody raised in a supportive, consistently healthy home will be better equipped to manage either of these (genetics or trauma). Conversely, those raised in an unhealthy home will be more likely to experience depression and anger; those with resilient genetics, however, will have an easier time working to create a healthy lifestyle in spite of conditioning.
For some, the family experience simply nudges them in a particular direction, possibly career, possibly general temperament, but they clearly have their own identity. For others, the family experience is a strong, active player in how decisions are made about living life. As we were just talking about, this can be great, especially when things that are out of our direct control, like genetics, are set up in a generally healthy manner. Having a healthy home experience on top of this genetic strength would set the stage for a very successful, happy person. But remember, there are many that come from less healthy home lives, and even started life with genetic predispositions of depression or anxiety, who are able to achieve tremendous levels of happiness, even overcoming depression and anxiety.
In counseling and therapy, it is not uncommon for issues of varying intensities to arise about one’s childhood, and/or genetic history (if known). The work done in therapy helps to rewire the brain by redirecting the thought process (and thus, the neural flow of electricity) to new possibilities (biologically, new neurons or chemical reception) and interpretations of experience. Biologically, this is in part due to neuropeptides that begin to flood the brain when we make healthy choices (see Neuroscience below), as well as neural plasticity (ability of the brain to rewire neurons into new configurations) and neural genesis (creation of new neural receptor sites in parts of the brain that are repeatedly activated).
Conditioning & Socialization
This is talking about what you learn through what your parents, family, teachers, counselors, mentors, etc. teach you via how they behave. It is what is modeled for you–this helps in the programming of how you manage life later on. Biologically, we have great little tools in our brains that cause us to mimic things we see people doing; they are called mirror neurons. These mirror neurons are responsible for how we mimic vocalizations, which eventually lead us to coherent speech. It is also thought that these ‘mimic’ neurons contribute to why yawning seems ‘contagious.’ Of course, there are many other neurological reasons that we respond to modeling–read more about this in the ‘Neuroscience’ section (below) of this article.
So we learn via what important people in our lives do; how they treat us, how they treat each other, shapes how we treat people in our lives (including how we treat our parents, mentors, teachers, etc). Please remember, however, that modeled behaviors that are unhealthy/maladaptive can be overcome by using mindfulness and targeted behavior change and specific changes in how we think (when we change our internal dialogue, for example, we notice that over time, there is a shift in how we think about things). Clearly, this ties into the ‘Choices We Make’ (see the next section).
The actual biology of gene selection, dominant vs recessive traits, etc. is beyond the scope of this article, but I will give a VERY brief example of how it works. Let’s look at eye color for this example: if you have blue eyes, then it is because you have 2 recessive traits for eye color . . . the only way that a recessive trait can be expressed (as blue eyes, for example) is if both genes (from mom, and from dad) that are passed to you are recessive. Here’s the layout of it: If your dad has a 1 dominant brown eye trait (B) and one recessive blue eye trait (b), then his eye color traits are Bb, which the dominant will be expressed (Brown). If your mother brings the same genes (Bb), then we have several possibilities for eye color: BB = brown eyes, Bb = brown eyes, bB = brown eyes, and only bb = blue eyes (because 2 recessive traits have no option for the dominant to be present.
That’s as far as I’ll go on the nuts and bolts of genetics. Now, for what this means in terms of mental health and/or your emotional predispositions, it is a little more complex because these involve more than just the muscle color of the eyes. Neurological conditions strongly influenced by genetics are depression, anxiety, addiction, schizophrenia, borderline, etc. In fact, most of the more common disorders have a genetic component to them. But again, remember, that by itself, this does not mean that you are doomed to depression if it runs in your family. You can use other genetic traits to help you overcome the negative impact of depression; as mentioned above if you have a predisposition for depression, but you are also left-brain dominant, then your left-brain dominance can help you to be more proactive and optimistic about overcoming depression. Also, by being willing to engage in counseling or therapy, you will learn new ways of thinking and behaving which, with consistent repetition (practice), can help you to override a genetic predisposition of feeling depressed . . . you may still struggle with it from time to time, but not nearly as much as if you had done nothing and just given up hope, leaving yourself to wallow in misery and negative thinking. You can see, however, that if your family upbringing was very negative, depressive, dramatic, etc., that those ‘mirror neurons’ can kick in and have the effect of teaching you depression, even if you don’t have the genetics for it. Here again, counseling and therapy can help you to relearn what was taught to you early on. You CAN get a 2nd chance, no matter what the socialization and genetics are.
Choices we make
Some have a hard time with this one because it means taking responsibility. When we choose healthy behavior in spite of an urge towards an unhealthy behavior, we begin to retrain the brain to expect different outcomes from new behaviors and related thoughts. Over time, with repetition, these thoughts become more ingrained and become beliefs (biologically, these neurons are wired together more permanently, but are still susceptible to neural plasticity; with more time and repeated associations of outcomes and behaviors/thoughts, the belief may become knowledge, which is a very solid connection between neurons).
Taking responsibility means choosing to recognize what is not working in your choices, and what is working just fine. Using what works to help learn new things to replace what does not work, is taking responsibility.
Learn more about Mindfulness-based Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.