Do you have to be a product of your environment?
A friend recently ranted at me … with me … about how our fate depends on our circumstances as a child. Her frustration being that children born to parents with a university degree have a higher likelihood of excelling academically. It is true and it is difficult to accept. Especially if you try your hardest to create an environment in which your children can reach their full potential but not university educated yourself. Interestingly this friend is not a product of her environment. She has excelled at life despite early challenges and appears to have truly broken the chain of destruction that directed her early life.
Research shows that childhood experiences and the environment you grow up in affects who you become as an adult. However you do not have to be a product of your environment. As a severe example it is interesting to know that many sexual abusers do not have a childhood history of maltreatment and most victims of sexual abuse do not go on to abuse. You do not have to be a product of your environment and your childhood experiences do not need to define you.
Your Experiences Need Not Define You
The experiences imposed on you as a child is not who you are. Separating yourself from your experiences and environment is easier to do when you take time to explore yourself. You explore your experiences and take note of different environments and experiences. Many of us grow up believing the way we live is normal and accept our experience as normal regardless of how it feels. When you place your experiences outside of who you are and explore yourself as a person in your own right you take control of you.
Studies into genetics and environment show that the relevance of genetic influences depends on environmental contexts. As an example; a study following twins in Finland found that in less stable neighbourhoods there was greater evidence of genetic influence on alcohol use. Whilst in more supervised and restricted environments there was less opportunity to express genetic predispositions to alcohol use and great influence of environmental effects. Low levels of parental monitoring and increased contact with substance using peers increases the relevance of genetic influences on drug use.
This suggests that, whilst there is a relevance to your genetic makeup, the environment you put yourself in is as important. This is out of the control of most children. Different environments are not accessible to many teens. However once you reach adulthood there is an option to explore new environments. Your brain seeks the familiar rather than the beneficial so you might find stepping outside of your normal challenging. Here are some tips to help you find who you are rather than allowing yourself to become a product of your environment.
When you focus your attention on your bodily sensations you recognise the changes in your emotions and increase your control over them. Use meditation to find yourself by opening yourself to your inner experience. As you pay attention to your physical sensations start to label them. For example, “when I feel anxious, I feel…”. Observe how the sensation changes as you take in a deep breath or cross your arms over each other and stroke your own arms. This process gives you time to explore yourself. Learn who you are and provide yourself with tools to take control of emotions that may rise because of previous experiences.
Writing a journal helps you to explore your feelings and reactions in a similar way to how you would with a counsellor or therapist. I am familiar with feeling as though I wake up on Monday morning and breathe again on Friday evening. Life is fast paced and many of us forget to stop and reflect. When life feels easy you can choose to write a solution focused journal entry, such as expressing gratitude and goal setting. When you feel overwhelmed use your journal to dissect your feelings. The more you self-reflect the more you understand yourself.
In my blog post Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 – Nature I delve into the importance of reconnecting with the natural world that surrounds you. I dislike the separation between us and it. After all, you are as natural as the tree outside your window. The current western lifestyle, dominated by technology creates an ever-expanding gap between humans and the rest of the natural world. When you step back into it and immerse yourself in the natural world you will realign your mind and body. Try to make time in nature the norm rather than a recovery tool.
The above three tips will help you understand who you really are. Not who you are due to the environment you come from or spend time in. If you have a traumatic past, time with a therapist will help you work through your experience/s. Meditation, journaling and spending time in nature are practices that will help everyone navigate life but asking for help is important too.
Agrawal, A., Verweij, K., Gillespie, N. et al. The genetics of addiction—a translational perspective. Transl Psychiatry 2, e140 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2012.54