Personality: Does Birth Order Matter?

     For generations, family members have noted the differences that naturally arise in children raised in the same family. How is it that John, the first born and only boy, seems to have such different personality characteristics than his younger brother, raised in the same house by the same parents just two years apart?  Good question!

     Theories of personality abound. You may be familiar with some of the more popular models, often used in work or educational settings. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on the four major personality styles described by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is a favorite. The Enneagram, a model developed in religious communities and often used in spiritual direction, and other forms of personal discovery, is another.  These are models that seek to describe common types of personalities. Other models, such as the Big Five theory, attempt to describe personalities using the idea of common traits shared by human beings across the world, such as extraversion or neuroticism.
    
    Whichever way makes more sense to you to describe human beings, by types or common traits, we have a collective curiosity about how people become who they are, and how much we can or should adapt ourselves to others and our environment.

     How did I get to be the way I am? When my clients ask me this question, I answer this way:  our personality is constituted like a recipe, with three primary ingredients. The first main ingredient is our individual nature. We are born with a particular style of personality, inherited from our parents and our larger family system. It’s part of our genetic code, and forms the basis of who we become.  Our general sense of the world, our innate optimism or pessimism, our sense of humor; this basic personality is another thing we have inherited.

     The second main ingredient of our personality is formed by the way we are cared for by our parents; it’s the nurture part of the recipe. Was our mother well nourished, healthy, and ready to become pregnant? Were our parents free from addiction, major illness or injury? Was our birth relatively normal? Were we welcomed into the world with joy and cared for with love? The way our parents meet our vulnerability, suffering and growing sense of self makes up the great majority of our personality relationship style.

     If our parents or primary caregivers have enough sense of self that they can sacrifice and respond to our needs consistently, we learn to trust that others will meet our needs, and that others are trustworthy. We offer ourselves to them, and get care and love in return. In the research done on this concept of emotional attachment, about half of us get just what we need to feel secure. The rest of us learn some combination of security, anxiety and withdrawal to cope with inconsistent parenting.

     The third part of our personality is made up of all the unique, individual experience we have in life and what we do with it. It’s the fall you took in second grade from school jungle gym, the trip to the hospital, and the cast that you had to wear through the summer. How did that fall affect you? How did it shape the way you think, feel and respond to the world? What happens, and how you chose to respond, makes up a large part of your personality.

     What about birth order? I think it fits in this third “what happens to us” category of personality development. While research is still battling it out whether first born children actually are more independent than their second born siblings, therapists and other social scientists have found a common pattern in family position that seems to fit many families, at least in Western cultures. In general, first born and only children are commonly more self determined and disciplined, having been born into an adult system and most closely associated to adults, even as infants. The second born child is less connected to the adults in the family, and if followed by a third child, may feel a bit lost in their parents’ strong relationship to the first born and emotional focus on the baby of the family. The farther away from the parent system, the more independent and even rebellious that child may become (Sulloway, 1997). Additionally, the more older siblings a child has, the more accustomed they often become to letting other people lead, and can more easily go “with the flow” than those born first.

     Family therapists differ in the amount of importance they place in this theory of birth order, but most will inquire about how a client’s family is constituted, and where in the family their client “fits.” Why it matters at all is that it may help people better understand some of their unconscious preferences for friendships, marriage partners, relationship styles, and even how they may connect to or discipline their own children. It’s all just part of our individual personality recipes.

Sulloway, F. J. (1997) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York:
     Vintage.

Losing the Boundaries

I’ve been reading about blogging, and it seems that I’m not doing it right.

Those in the know about such things tell us writers, mostly in their blogs, that to blog is to create a personal online community, one which is thirsty for the writer’s words and self revelations; writing that steps toward the daily Diary or Journal, and away from more sedate Opinion or Editorial. The most successful of blogs these days – and it seems to change every day – drone on and on about the personal trials of having a newborn, or looking for a job, or recreating the work place, or reinventing the government, or the economy, or the Church. Again. These exemplars are often writing on the fly, with nary a concern for punctuation, spelling, brevity, or privacy. It’s all about capturing the reader, and capturing as many as possible.

You may have noticed that I’m not much of a rebel when it comes to the niceties of the published essay. I have spent far too many years putting words into sentences to drop punctuation or spelling for the sake of being current. In fact, I hate it when I find a mistake after I hit the Publish Post button. And having a couple of deadlines to meet (in newsprint and online) makes me very unlikely to post here too often.

But for this writer/preacher/therapist to blur the boundary between self and audience, to say more than is prudent, to share information that I’ve been asked to hold as private: that’s a scary thought. 

To have good human relationships, in part, means to know that there is a real difference between me and you. And the differences need to have breathing room, space to breathe, and respect from each of us to flourish. If I blather on and on about just myself in this space between us, there isn’t any room for you. If you trust me with personal, sensitive information and I write about it, I’ve broken your trust. Even if someone else wants to read about it for the drama of it all. Even if it seems entertaining.

So, I guess I’ll be at the back of the blogging pack on this one. I won’t write specifically about any of my clients. I won’t share anything of my family without thinking several times and then asking permission. I’m going to stay away from the most personal in order to say more about the shared. I’m going to be a blogger who posts less frequently, does more editing, and points more often beyond my little life to the world beyond.

Call me a slacker. It’s just how I roll. Or write. 🙂