Nature versus Nurture (The corrected version)

Googling ‘Therapy Nature Nurture”, one gets about 7,150,000(!) results in one-fifth of a second!  This would suggest there’s a lot to say on this.

English: Depiction of heredity.

In this debate I am biased toward Nature, and tend to minimize Nurture, thus creating the most significant struggle in my work.  After all, a therapist must believe change is possible despite one’s innate nature.

In my youth I held a firm belief that – with awareness, effort and perseverance we could change our nature/character.  Later, being a mother and surrounded by children and parents, I slowly and firmly changed, and my belief in the power of nature intensified.

My vision of my work had to change, and thus my expectations.

How can I believe in change if I adhere to the belief that nature is more powerful?

Fortunately, I had many an occasion that proved me wrong.

Nowadays, I train future therapists.  Their most repeated question is, “How many sessions should I wait before I tell this patient what he needs to do?”

No patience.

Well, being an impatient person myself, I can definitely identify with the “quick fix” desire. After all, wouldn’t this be great:  “Yes, take two aspirins and you’ll be guilt-free in the morning.”?

But my profession is the one that taught me more about patience than anything else in the world. It also taught me that there is almost always a possibility for change.

The novice therapist isn’t aware of the fact that their lack of patience is transmittable energetically, despite their attempts to mask it. In their rush to fix, they are creating incongruity in the session, all the while believing they are good enough actors to hide it.

Therapists can be good or bad, but they are definitely second-rate actors!

For the Nurture component to work effectively the therapist must be devout – devout to the belief that change will come with enough acceptance of ‘what is’, and a loving, holding environment.

And yet change can be small, but, sometimes small change can impact one’s life remarkably – quite similar to transferring a struggling plant to a sunny location … it’s about paying attention to the missing ingredient and being committed to supplying it without a timetable.

Some may say that therapy takes too long and it’s too expensive – and some may be right. I say that I believe in the healing process of believing that change is possible.

I’d like to end this very early morning reflection by retelling a story about a famous Rabbi, who knew about man’s internal conflicts before Freud:

Rabbi Israel Salanter

One night, as he walked past the home of
a shoemaker, Rabbi Salanter noticed that despite the late hour, the man was
still working by the light of a dying candle. “Why are you still working,” he
asked. “It is very late and soon that candle will go out.” The shoemaker
replied, “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to
accomplish and to mend.” Salanter spent that entire night excitedly pacing his
room and repeating to himself: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is
still possible to accomplish and to mend.”


About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in Nature vs. Nurture, Therapy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Nature versus Nurture (The corrected version)

  1. Maurice Labi says:

    As a professional, maybe you can tell us of twins who were separated at birth, the ideal experiment candidates. Did they pursue similar lives, career choices and partners? (nature)/ Or were they totally different? (nurture)

  2. Cameron Ashby says:

    It’s a very old controversy this nature vs nurture boggle, and most often tilted in the direction of who or what did what to whom… However, in 1997 Eric Kandel, an American neuropsychiatrist and Nobel Laureate finally settled the controversy. Yay! It appears though that his elegant solution has taken quite awhile to be disseminated, although he won the Nobel in 2000. And you’re so right, the solution has profound implications for therapy of any ilk, and from novice to seasoned veteran… It’s also what I’ve been writing about from a clinical perspective in terms of privation-deprivation that generates anxiety, splitting and further appears as a primary factor in guilt.

  3. Your concluding quotation reminds me of the Spanish proverb “Más vale prender una vela que maldecir la oscuridad,” meaning “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

  4. Jim Palmer Palmer says:

    Very interesting and conversional subject Rachel….. I have always been an advocate of Nature over Nature, the debate nearly always degenerates into eugenics..I am also a strong advocate of eugenics, the debate usually ends when they call you a “Nazi”, Not knowing that the first eugenics laws came from Indiana…… I do not see a persons objection to building a better human.
    I believe that we have had a mild eugenic program going on here for decades. They have been taking blood samples from newborns all over the USA and storing them in warehouses in Minnesota, This was top secret, and only became known 2 years ago when a women sued in federal court to determine what happened to her babies blood sample…..she won, and now Minnesota is under court order to destroy the samples unless the parents give consent. I believe they were tracking these people through life to see what quality of life they had or will have.

    Just last week I read an article that stated that 80% a persons IQ was inherited ,That would leave 20% to develop personality traits,

    All of the above does not consider severe emotional trauma. PTSD for instance, In my opinion PTSD is caused when a person does not live up to their own expectations…..

  5. lylekrahn says:

    I enjoyed the post and the ending story was perfect. So what you’re really saying is that if therapists were better actors they would have better results:)

  6. Judy Koven Ringdahl says:

    First of all I often read your blogs and am always impressed. This of course is another good one, and has pulled a response from me.

    I am on the nurture side of this debate, but my cat (I have no children) has been instructive on the the importance of nature. My cat is a nervous, scared animal that doesn’t like to be picked up.
    It’s been years and she has become less nervous and scared but she still won’t allow anyone to pick her up — it doesn’t matter how well meaning you are. Some part of her clearly feels like a feral descendent (nature). However, the fact that she is less nervous and scared may indicate that nurture (our acceptance of her along with lots of time) has worked to some degree.

    Re: nurture another telling example: Some years ago my closest friend had a child who was a very squirmy baby. One day we were driving somewhere and she asked me to hold this very squirmy child. It was OK for a time, but at some point I couldn’t stand it and imputed bad motives to the child and wanted to immediately put him down. She on the other hand, barely noticed his squirmyness. She was uniformly accepting of him, and when he squirmed in her arms she had no reaction physically or emotionally. This says to me that he may be squirmy (nature) but it depends on the caretaker how this is perceived and handled (i.e. nurtured.) (One could argue that I wasn’t the mother or the caretaker so my reaction didn’t count, but I think her attitude is the more telling piece of this example.)

    Perhaps most important is that on nature vs. nurture some blend is the most useful assumption.

  7. rachel bar says:

    Thanks for your comment Judy. It really doesn’t sound like we’re saying different things. To me it sounds like we are agreeing.

  8. kristinepa says:

    thank you for this writing…  My thoughts also were revolving around subject of change and i was erring towards that “we don’t change” as we can’t change who we are, but awareness is the first tiny step towards it…   Have a good day and here’s to possibility of acceptance and emotional permutations to peaceful state…



    • rachel bar says:

      Just like the story about Rabbi Salanter and the shoemaker, whenever I get frustrated with the difficulties inherent in change, comes a story that proves me wrong. Slowly and patiently.

  9. Stephanie Kirschner says:

    All my life I believed it was nurture that was stronger until the first day I brought my son Yarden to the children’s house on the Kibbutz. There I saw eight babies, all born within weeks of each other, each with it’s own very distinct personality and way of being in the world. One was a screamer, one apathetic, one was the sensitive one (he was mine)… I could go on. It was so clear from the minute they were born that they came into the world totally themselves. Now we know that early experience changes the brain, and can have a huge impact on future development – disruption of attunement and early trauma changes stress responses in the brain. But regulation and healing can come from the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic alliance changes people. Empathy – that’s nurture. Maybe it’s a tie.

  10. rachel bar says:

    Yes, Stephanie, we see eye to eye on all except that for me it’s not a tie. Staying true to our nature, good or bad is not an effort. Changing our character structure is an effort.

  11. Great post.. As always..I would like to think that change come quickly and without pain, but I’ve learned in my line of work..That this truly is flawed thinking (more like fantasy)…unless you are dealing with children, whose minds are constantly changing…Now whether the change is due to nature or nurture?….I don’t know..But I do know that I want to be a change agent for those I work with..So like the shoemake I will burn the candle as long as I can…because allowing change to occur is slow work

  12. aFrankAngle says:

    When I think nature vs. nurture, movies are the the first thing. Trading Places and its classic $1 bet. We also laugh about a actor (who eventually became president) staring with a chimp in a story about nature vs. nurture.

    I also think about the thousands of students I taught. Seeing parents with one child that was a bit different from the others, but they were raised the same way. Yes, nature is powerful, but nurture also plays a role. To me, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both … but the question is what is the percentage of each? Then again, that probably differs with everyone.

  13. Rob says:

    Interesting piece: thanks for sharing. May I ask: do you believe “free will” exists?

  14. I was in therapy for quite some time, with a very good therapist. I would have to agree, that one’s nature is pretty well set by genetics. Any change I’ve managed has been at great effort and tends to shift if I’m not paying attention. I suppose, however, that who we are is an accretion of life events laid over our innate nature and this is where therapy can really help; some layers can be peeled back or even simply mirrored, and then healing can begin. Also, most of my big “aha” moments have come years after therapy. The seeds of understanding were planted, and in due course I “got it”. These moments have helped me have growth spurts for which I am very grateful!

  15. ksbeth says:

    i love the rabbi’s story, it really puts things into perspective doesn’t it? thanks for reading my musings as well, as i travel through life trying to make some sense of it all )

  16. maryrite says:

    If you plant an acorn in a small plant pot it will never live out its potential…
    About how unaware people are I know someone who complained of lack of love from her mother.Then she had a son who to us seems bordering on autistic.Her mother said to me that she was like that as a child and could not receive love!She learned a sociable front but cannot.for example,receive a gift easily nor love anyone except her two children,grand daughter and her brother.She had many affairs but hates sex… likes to be admired and courted.It’s a strange world but now if someone tells me their mother gave them no love I realize they can’t always accept it and that may be their nature unfortunately.

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