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How We Learn To Be – Nature vs. Nurture

Ways We Learn To Be

Before you can make changes in your life, you must first take a close look at yourself. You need to understand how you learned to be who you are. This is an extremely important facet of life coaching, as well as making changes in your life moving forward.

Remember what Shakespeare wrote so many years ago. In Hamlet, he gave us one of the key questions of all time: “To be or not to be, that is the question . . .” Now, let’s take a look at the ways we learn to be—and not to be.

We learn to be certain ways because of the experiences we have in life. In fact, we’re all a function of everything we’ve experienced in life up until this point, including every person we’ve met and every interaction we’ve ever had. They help make us who we are.

For children, it is the critically important primary caretakers—parents, guardians and other caregivers—who have the biggest role in determining how we learn to be or not to be.

Also important to consider is the next level of relationships for children—school and social environments—that are important from early years into high school years. We are molded by the people, the environment, the drama, and trauma – everything we’ve been exposed to and every experience that we’ve had.

I often think of this concept in terms of an equation. On the left side of the equal sign is everything that contributed to forming us, and on the right side is who we are today. No matter what age we are, we’re all a combination of our biology, chemistry, and genetics…plus all the things that have happened to us–including the environment, nutrition, drama or trauma in our formative years–from birth through age eighteen or so. How we act and react—who we are in the world—is the sum total of all of those elements.

Nature Versus Nurture

Considering this idea brings up the philosophical argument of nature versus nurture. In Psychology, the nature versus nurture debate involves the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either inherited (i.e., genetic) or acquired (i.e., learned) influences. Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception – e.g., the product of exposure, life experiences and learning on an individual basis.

You can see that I included elements of both schools of thought in my description of what contributes to forming us. In my coaching practice, I am more focused on the influences of our experiences and environment (the nurture category) on our behavior, but biology (the nature category) is part of who we are as well.

Which is more significant?

There really is no clear answer to that question, but it’s my sense that they are both hugely significant. It is a combination of nature and nurture together that results in the

ways of being that we learn to be or not to be. We can be sure, however, that for either category—nature or nurture—in our early lives, very little of our environment is a matter of choice.

How much of your early life was a matter of choice?

Pull the camera back a little bit and look at your life from a wider perspective. You didn’t choose the parents you were born to, or the primary caregivers you ended up with. You didn’t choose the environment that you were raised in. You didn’t choose the wealth of your parents or the status that you were born to. You didn’t choose the race that you were born into or your ethnicity or culture. You didn’t choose your sex at birth. You didn’t choose any of those environmental factors at all. That’s the happenstance of birth and life.

This leads us to an important question: If you agree, as I do, that all of these factors make us who we are, do we actually have any choices at all? If it’s all a happenstance or accident of birth and circumstance, what about Free Will? If it’s true that we are the sum of everything and everyone we’ve ever experienced, not much of that involved Free Will, did it?

Do we, in fact, have Free Will?

This is a philosophical argument that keeps freshmen and sophomores up in all-night talk sessions. It’s my contention that we do have Free Will, but many of us don’t exercise it. You cannot use Free Will until you understand the circumstances that led you to who you are today. Why is that? Your patterns of behavior have been established by the circumstances that led you to this moment. They become automatic/default responses that have been programmed by coping mechanisms adapting to your surroundings and born-to circumstances. Making purposeful choices can only be possible when you understand your tendencies and the reasons for them. Once you take a good look at yourself and understand how you got where you are, that’s when Free Will can finally kick in.

Traits We Give Up – Learning to Make Choices

Coaching can help with this personal growth journey. When you can take a look at your life and see all of your early experiences and understand what has led to the ways that you’ve learned to be and not be, you can start on the road to genuine freedom. You can make behavioral choices instead of automatically reacting to situations by default. In addition, when you identify what you have lost in your nature along the way, you can take back some control, harness your Free Will, and say: Okay, I gave up certain parts of my natural way of being as a

child in order to navigate certain circumstances and challenges. Now as an adult, if I see that, I can choose to add those traits back into my life.

For example, in my personal life, I gave up my spontaneity and my openness with my emotions due to a repeating drama in my family. I learned to adopt a certain way of being, and also learned certain ways not to be. Once I understood that, I could look at my life and choose to alter my patterns of behavior. I could say to myself: Here is something I want to change. I want to be more open. I want to be more expressive of my feelings, my wants, and my needs. I want to reclaim my need for connection and closeness.

I could then practice and work toward being more open and spontaneous. That’s where Free Will comes in. That’s why it’s so important to understand how we learned to be certain ways and how we learned not to be other ways.

Here is a more detailed example: Imagine a young boy who was raised by an alcoholic parent. In a home with a parent or both parents that abuse alcohol–which falls into my definition of a traumatic situation–there were likely some erratic emotional ups and downs for this child. That young boy would learn to be extremely aware of his surroundings, and incredibly intuitive so as to see explosive behavior before it even manifested, to learn how to navigate and work around it.

A child like that would likely learn to be mature beyond his years, because he would have to learn to take care of situations in the family that a parent would normally take on. This little boy would learn to be responsible. He would likely become an excellent problem-solver after handling those ups and downs and erratic behaviors. He would also learn to be extremely careful. He might learn to be very private, to keep all of that hurtful, negative behavior inside, so that other people—neighbors and family members outside of the immediate family—wouldn’t see.

Those are all ways of learning how to be and not to be. The little boy’s experiences would teach him how to navigate through a very difficult situation of trauma. We all learn to navigate our young lives in this way, and some of us learn to survive serious traumas by adopting protective behavior.

By identifying and assessing how your ways of being developed, you can gain a good understanding of yourself and your current behavior patterns. You can identify those patterns of navigation and survival that are your Strong Suits and see that they’re important to hold onto. They have helped you become the person that you are right now. Strong Suits are like muscles – we develop them to help us survive difficulty, and we need to celebrate them.

Once you have the choice to act with free will, you will certainly want to keep your Strong Suits, but there may be other qualities or patterns you will want to change. In addition, as we’ve discussed, you will want to identify qualities you lost along the way and want to reclaim.

The little boy in our example had to learn to give up certain things; it is likely he became guarded, and lost the ability to trust and connect to others because of his immediate environment. Once he is able to see these things as an adult, he can decide to work on regaining some lost traits. He can work on becoming more trusting and more connected to others. This is a true use of insight and free will.

It is only after identifying our unique patterns of behavior and the forces that created them that we can freely choose our own paths. So, the answer for the ancient argument of Nurture vs.

Nature is really Both / And. They are both extremely impactful on individuals. It is through looking deeply within your experiences and seeing the impact and intersections of Nature and Nurture that we can arrive at understanding of self. Then, with understanding, we can better decide how we want To Be and Not Be moving forward.

Exercise: How Did You Learn To Be?

Write the ways you learned to be. As you write, consider these questions:

• How did you learn to be this way?

• Who taught and what circumstances led you to be this way?

• When did you learn to be this way?


"Coach Pete"
Peter Heymann


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