Your personality, your mood and your reactions to the ups and downs of life have biological, psychological and social roots. You are a product of the interaction between your biology and the environment you grew up in.
Researchers are busy studying the multiple dimensions of personality. They have found that personality traits are fairly consistent over a lifetime, which probably means that the genetic and biological factors are strong. On the other hand, the environment also has a significant impact on who you become and what you do.
One way to understand the interaction between biology and environment is to look at the celebrated work of the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby. He found that comfort and support are keys to human development. Through his research, he demonstrated that the need to depend on others for affection or guidance is balanced by an equally important impulse to be independent and adventurous. There is no single right or wrong way to be.
The normal range for this trait is very broad. At one end of the spectrum, a developing child may strongly prefer the comforts of home. At the opposite end, a child may constantly seek the exhilaration of novel experiences. Most young people strike a comfortable balance between the two (or oscillate between them). Adults can help children grow up by providing a combination of comfort plus encouragement to explore the world. Every child needs a different combination. A parent’s tough job is to make choices that fit each child’s needs. And just like there is no single right or wrong way to be, no parent makes just the right choices for the children.
However, for some children, environmental conditions are particularly harsh or hostile. Parents may be abusive and demeaning or overly anxious and controlling. This can make it more difficult for a child to adapt to life’s opportunities and stresses. Depression is one possible consequence.
The interactions you had with the people who cared for you during your childhood are equal in importance to the talents and temperament you inherited. The way you deal with other people is not only a personal trait, it is a feature of your relationships over time. By adulthood, you have arrived at a consistent way of relating. It is automatic and — for the most part — outside of your awareness. These patterns appear during your early years and have a constant influence on how you think, feel and behave.
In adulthood, it’s not easy to change your manner of relating to others. But adults can and do continue to grow and develop into the later years. There are always opportunities to modify your style enough to cope better with adversity and to reduce your risk of depression.
These changes can be brought about through important relationships. (Not just through psychotherapy, but also through other key relationships, such as with a spouse or life partner, a close friend, a mentor or a member of the clergy. Medication can sometimes help by reducing the intensity of painful symptoms or by softening painful emotions. Once you feel better, you may be able to take more control over how you relate to others. You may also regain the energy to manage your responsibilities and engage in activities that make your life pleasurable.