Sunday, December 14, 2008

Genetic Influences

I’m not a particularly big proponent of promoting either the nurture or nature theory exclusively in human development. I think most of us are a combination of both our genetic makeup and the environment we were raised in.

Recently however, I have become more aware of the powerful influence our genetic code plays in our personal development. One rather humorous example of this is the similarities between my biological father and myself. I first met him when I was 24 years old, a fully developed adult human being. Besides looking alike and standing with the same posture, our wives delight in the fact that we also have a predisposition for the same clothing, foods, and sleeping style. Even our personal hygiene habits are eerily similar. Clearly, as I was never influenced by him as a child, these idiosyncrasies are the result of genetic coding that somehow determines my unconscious behavior, choices, and preferences in life.

But I have noticed even more destructive types of behaviors attributed to some form of genetic imprint. Most of us are aware of the generational cycles (or sins) that occur in families and are passed down from generation to generation. Oftentimes these occur from modeled behaviors but I’m convinced many are also derived (or at least influenced) from our genetic makeup. Modeled behaviors, especially from primary caretakers, are a hugely powerful indicator in our own behavioral outcomes. Because of modeled behaviors we often see generations of families where alcoholism, abandonment, or abusive behavior that was modeled by parents is emulated and passed down from one generation to the next. However, genetics also appears to play a significant role in our outcomes, especially if we are unaware of their influence.

I have observed this in many people we work with. For example, virtually every female in every generation of one young woman’s family—for as far back as anyone can remember—has been an unwed, teenage mother. Knowing this predilection, her mother and father were determined to break this “cycle” with their daughter. However, despite raising her in a relatively healthy two-parent environment, being aware of the challenges they faced, and talking with her about those challenges; it took all of their mightiest efforts to keep that genetic legacy from coming to fruition. It was almost as if she was predisposed to make choices and decisions that forced her to accomplish the genetic coding in her DNA. She was prone to make self-destructive decisions and choices (and have attitudes) that reflected those of the women in her heritage, despite not being exposed to that behavior modeled in her family of origin. Thankfully she is now 20 years old so will never be a teenage mother, and hopefully will never be an unwed mother either. But the challenges were and still are formidable in helping her break the cycle that was engrained in her DNA throughout generations of her lineage. This phenomenon is also observed in children that have been adopted who act out in behaviors similar to their birth parents even though never having met them.

Perhaps more often than we recognize we are pre-programmed to make choices that result in outcomes that have a basis in our generational heritage. Being conscious of these historical “tendencies” allows us to make intentional choices to break those generational influences instead of inadvertently falling into a preordained future.

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