Is Your Emotional Sensitivity Nature or Nurture?

emotional sensitivity, nature or nurture?A recent article in National Geographic got me thinking about what traits are inborn and which personality characteristics are learned from our environment.

In the article, wild foxes were bred over several generations to be as human-friendly as dogs.

Are humans like foxes?  With the right combination of genes over a period of generation are we capable of drastic changes in our behavior and nature?  Is it genetics that cause some to struggle with addiction or engage in self-harming behavior? 

The nature vs. nurture debate has been an important and longstanding debate in psychology.  Nature is viewed as those qualities that are genetic, while nurture are those traits learned from past experiences.  One theory poses that we are born as blank slates, our personalities shaped entirely by our life experiences.  Others debate that personality it heritable, at least to a certain extent.

The treatment strategies and skills training used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy are based on a biosocial theory of personality functioning.  The central idea is that people with difficulties with controlling emotions, depression and self-destructiveness, aggression, attention, dual diagnosis, and other impulse behaviors often have problems with their emotion regulation system.  These emotional problems are a result of both biological makeup and past experiences.

Like the foxes, some of whom were born with a genetic predisposition to be friendly, humans are also born with certain genetic predispositions.  Some people are born with a predisposition to be more emotional than others.  These people are more likely to have an emotional reaction to a small event, to have intense emotional reactions and to have long lasting emotional reactions.

In DBT, the early environment (nurture) is considered to interact with a child’s inborn personality.  Children learn about themselves through parental attention to changes in their behavior and correct labeling of what the behavior represents.

For example, irritability can be caused by many things, such as fatigue or hunger.  Correct identification and labeling of behavior and its causes increases a child’s ability to identify and report on their own internal state.  Incorrect labeling or no labeling at all leaves a child without a basic understanding of his or her own internal emotional states.

When a child’s emotional pain is incorrectly attributed to lack of motivation, lack of discipline or not trying hard enough, exacerbates the child becomes more emotionally vulnerable and dysregulated.

What do you believe?  If you are emotionally vulnerable, is it inborn, learned from your environment or a combination of the two?  Use the comments section below.

Photo by Steve and Shanon Lawson, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

7 Replies to “Is Your Emotional Sensitivity Nature or Nurture?”

  1. I believe that most of what we are…..is inborn. Although I was brought up in poverty and abuse (and then 31 years of abusive “marriage”), I am an etremely sensitive, empathic person.

  2. I would have to agree with both concepts. I had a terrible childhood, but these sort of behaviours and emotions have been traced back by four generations on both my parents sides.
    So I do think it can be genetic, but I do believe that the nurturing effect has a larger impact by my own experience.

  3. I do not think it is inborn, though the brain is highly plastic. Children who have suffered abuse and or neglect experience brain changes, that affects NT release and hormone levels, and thus emotional regulation.

    I do not see a universal pattern in emotional regulation, the variability and ability to learn emotional regulation or to attenuate it leads me to think it is more nurture than nature.

  4. Definitely a combination. I was a highly sensitive child and I developed my first phobia at the ripe age of two. It was followed by a whole flock of others… My mother’s family ALL have at least one highly-developed phobia each. Later life experiences enhanced my anxiety, but it was always there for as long as I can remember… Looking back I can see that my brain is hardwired to shove anything ‘scary/threatening’ straight into the ‘panic’ box. And then it takes years of hard work on my part to get them out again. I also followed my father down the depression path without ever being told about his early history.

  5. Very interesting. As a parent of two thirty-something children, I tried to focus on explaining to them when they were young when they did something wrong that I was correcting their actions not them as a person.

    Correctly labeling an action helps one understand and differentiate the emotion that is associated with that action. Just as you used the term emotional sensitivity, I will begin to think how I label my own emotions and try to be forgiving of my behaviors and separate the two into distinct entities.

  6. I have become much less sensitive as time has gone on (in a bad way, less intense emotions leading to a less rich, less visceral life experience). I was average when it came to sensitivity when I was a boy, so I wasn’t one of those people who suffered from strong emotions overwhelmingly, but could still relish and enjoy my emotions, and now I am barely aware of any of feelings anymore, except negative ones like twisting knots of anxiety. So unfortunately it’s like the worst of both worlds.

    This may have been my body’s response to relational crises when I was younger, messing up my emotional system and dulling sensitivity. So I do think they can change (though I almost suspect that in my case it was some kind of brain damage).

  7. I have recently read a book which was written by an Indian Author (Hursh Kumar). The Book Says and I agrees to it that most of the behavior patterns which form personality are due to nature. The author says what how we react to different situations is more related to our nature not nurture. He says 60 to 70 percent of our personality is formed around our nature. Nurturing do has effect on our personality but not more than 30 to 40 percent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *