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'Why Do Some People Learn And Grow After Trauma And Others Don't?'

I think this ability to be objective about your life -- this maturity -- can be seen at an early age -- even starting in the 20's. Why do some people have this ability to gain perspective, while other people always seem to be victims of their lives?
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Reader Philosophical Questioner writes,

Why do some people have maturity and perspective, while other people, with similar experiences, lack these qualities? I can think of two of my siblings, and my father and uncle. Both pairs of people have experienced regular life trauma: challenging relationships, the deaths of partners, etc. In both pairs of people, one person has gained a lot of insight about life, and regularly provides solid insight, wisdom, and advice about life. The other person has a myopic view of life, and doesn't seem to learn much from their experiences.

I think this ability to be objective about your life -- this maturity -- can be seen at an early age -- even starting in the 20's. Why do some people have this ability to gain perspective, while other people always seem to be victims of their lives?

Dear PQ,

Many people choose to be judgmental of others, as you are about your uncle and sibling, because they don't understand something really important: people are DIFFERENT. Everyone isn't the same lump of clay that has the capacity to be molded in the same way given the same experiences. The range of innate, genetic, temperamental, physical, and emotional differences between any two individuals, even those who are related, is vast. Additionally, even when siblings are raised in the same home by the same parents, they don't have the SAME upbringing (like, the oldest is treated differently than the baby, which anyone can attest to who has a sibling). In research, this is called shared and non-shared environment. Here's a research paper on why kids in the same family are so different.

In addition to differences in environment even within the same home, there are also many differences in how people are wired. Some may be Highly Sensitive, some may have ADHD, some may be wired for depression or anxiety. There are differences in IQ and in EQ (emotional intelligence). If you want an interesting read, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris discusses how, after a career spent trying to connect parenting to child behavior, the author gave up and now concludes that genetics are primarily responsible for how kids turn out. I agree that our current culture far overemphasizes the impact we can have on our kids, and personality is usually pretty set from birth.

The interaction between nature and nurture, or genetics and environment, can lead to extremely different outcomes in two people who may externally be perceived to have had similar "chances" to be happy. For example, a child who is highly sensitive and suffers invalidation and/or abuse may end up with Borderline Personality Disorder. Another child who is not as sensitive may be more resilient and not end up with any disorder, although of course he will be impacted emotionally by the upbringing. And I've seen many cases where one sibling felt a parent was abusive and the other thinks something like "Mom was just kind of harsh on us, but we're better for it."

Different disorders may also not allow children to benefit from the same positive environment the same way. A child with ADHD can be given all the academic and extracurricular opportunities in the world by parents and still be perceived as "lazy" by outsiders. Her sibling without ADHD may get straight A's, be president of the class, and get into a top college. An introverted man's wife may pass away and he may become extraordinarily depressed and isolated. An extroverted man's wife, no less loved, may pass away and the man may be happily remarried the following year.

You refer to "maturity and perspective taking," but it is way easier to do these things if you are wired to be able to take things with objectivity and to be calm in the face of disaster. For a person wired differently, who is more easily thrown into attachment panic, who was given less support (even unintentionally) by loved ones, and who may have other emotional, physical, and mental issues at play, "maturity and perspective taking" is a lot harder. It is hard to take a step back when your nervous system is going crazy, and it is just easier for some people to think about and express emotions than for others.

Check out these article on the conflict between a highly sensitive wife and her disbelieving husband, a man who works out all the time and doesn't know why his wife doesn't, and this article on why wives are so "stressed out all the time." Please, think hard about the judgment you've been piling on your uncle and sibling. They don't try to be "immature" or not to gain perspective from whatever you think they "should" gain it from. They are struggling in whatever way they are struggling, which you can't possibly fully understand unless you are inside their minds. There are infinite reasons why people are more resilient or forward-focused than others, and rather than judging, try to truly understand their perspectives, which will help your own perspective-taking ability hugely.

Thanks for writing, and till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Perspective Is, Ironically, What You Need Here.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.