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: