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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971


What influences, external & internal, determine our interactions with other people?


Michael O’Sullivan FNCP


The following is an assignment that I completed a number of years ago as part of my Psychotherapy training – the title of the article being the question posed…


An appropriate point to start would be by examining the nature of the influences we will be discussing before going on to analyse which of them has the greater influence on our interpersonal behaviour. For this reason I have divided this assignment into 2 main parts.


When we say influences, external and internal we are in fact discussing the sum total of the affects of the various environments in which we have found ourselves in the past, and that which we are now experiencing and the manner in which we were nurtured. In other words we are discussing nature versus nurture. We will look at nurture first because of its importance in determining how we later go on to deal with our environment (nature).


1a. Nurture equates to how we were treated and to the care that we received as small children. In short, the way that we are treated as small children ‘moulds’ us in certain ways and directions. If we know a lot about how a child was raised we can probably predict many things about them as adults with a great deal of accuracy. Hence the expression “Show me the child and I’ll show you the man”.


As children, although environment (nature) has its role to play, the new-born and very young child is generally unaware of it, and is only aware (the word aware is used in the loosest possible sense) of, or concerned with, the parts of the environment that impinge directly upon them.


This would include their parents/responsible adults, siblings and their attitude towards them and the way they are treated by them. The way in which a first born is taken care of usually differs from the next born in that the new parents will have learned from the mistakes etc. made with the firstborn. This is known as the parental learning curve. In affect, in our earliest moments we are the centre of our own universe.


1b.       Nature equates to our environment; where we were raised, have lived and now live, and the various influences brought to bear on us as a result of this. Nature would include such things as the house we lived in, the people around us, the area we lived in, the country, and religious, political and social considerations, educational levels, position of self or family in society, levels of violence, depravation and so on. It is likely that the list of environmental factors that influence an individual throughout their lifetime would be too many to successfully catalogue. It is certain though that some are more important than others in determining/influencing such things as personality and perception. This in turn will affect how we interact with others.


There are many other factors that influence our interactions with others. These include our emotional responses/levels, beliefs, outlook, perceptions, expectations and so on. The combination of internal and external factors that we are discussing combine to predetermine to a very large extent the range and scope of these factors.


2a.       A discussion of nurture would not be complete without a reminder that a new-born is not a blank page ready to be filled and shaped by its surroundings. It will be under the influence of earlier genetic programming and the new-born baby will have its own unique temperament.


This temperament will underpin personality and development and will act as a ‘filter’ through which all other influences must pass before taking definitive shape. Geneticists speak in terms of influence on individuals when they discuss genetic predisposition, rather than absolutes. There is no doubt however that we could all trace certain parts of our make up to certain of our ancestors.


In order to truly appreciate the importance of nurture drawing a contrast between our culture and another may prove useful. In traditional Eskimo society a new-born baby is never laid down by its mother during the first 12 to 18 months of its development. It is constantly attended to, fed on demand and bodily excretions taken care of immediately.


In short the young Eskimo baby is very unlikely to experience frustrations or even momentary neglect during the most important stages of its development. The kind of anxieties and psychological dysfunction common in our society are absent in theirs.


Such instances of psychological dysfunction that they do have are a product of their attitude towards their female partners, who are viewed as property and can be discarded and cast out of a shelter on a whim. Not surprisingly this affects only the female population.


As a demonstration of nature (environmental) induced psychological distress this example is certainly very striking. Incidents of this kind tend to affect the way in which females in traditional Eskimo society are treated, so it could be looked upon as subconscious manipulation, a way of affecting social interaction as a survival strategy.


Anthropologists say with conviction that child-rearing practices are very important and many have successfully ‘predicted’ the kind of societies that would result when given information on such practices as child care and geographical location only (i.e. jungle, desert, industrial, urban etc).


From a therapists point of view, a child that has been well nurtured, generally well cared for, was wanted, encouraged and appreciated is not going to grow up to become one of their clients. It is likely that a child raised in this way will be well adjusted, emotionally stable, adaptable and will have certain clear advantages in their dealings (interactions) with other people.


Although there are many levels of behaviour, I will be discussing extreme examples below in order to illustrate clearly my points.


Generally speaking they will be tolerant, less likely to take things too personally and to read into situations and comments things that are not there to be read. They can be expected to be self-confident, thus inspiring confidence in others, and self-sufficient, thus gaining the respect of others.


They can be expected to be independent, thus less likely to depend on others for approval, their self image can be expected to be strong and thus less likely to be adversely affected by other peoples negative or limiting influences on them. At a guess this person should turn out to be an introvert, at peace with himself and those around him, having accepted to a large extend socialisation and their place in society. He is likely to be an objective thinker, keeping things in prospective and not being derailed by emotional overload. He is likely to interact well with others when under pressure.


In general his personal relationships will be good as can be expected to attract others who share many of his characteristics to him. He should be a healthy influence on less stable acquaintances, and a source of irritation to life’s extroverts who are likely to be jealous of the way he is. They are among the least likely to suffer from stress to dangerous levels.


How they turn out eventually is of course dependent on many factors, however based on the presuppositions set out above the predictions relating to how they might interact with other people are expected to be reasonably accurate.


Evidently even the most well adjusted person subjected to an assault by a member, for example, of an ethnic minority or a supporter of a different football team might go on to develop a certain prejudice towards that ethnic or supporters group in future, but this is a product of nature and not nurture and can be considered the result of a one-off learning experience!


People on the other hand who have not been well nurtured, were not generally well cared for, were not planned for or wanted, were put up with rather than encouraged, were not appreciated etc., are likely to have certain clear disadvantages in their dealings with other people.


Generally speaking they can be expected to be lacking in self-confidence, constantly seeking approval and thus leaving themselves open to be influenced by other ‘stronger’ (not necessarily better) characters, and to indulge in compensatory behaviour frequently to make up for their inadequacies and deficiencies. They are often viewed as overpowering as their need to prove themselves better than others, a reflection of their basic insecurity, manifests itself.


They are life’s workaholics, constantly striving to do too much, because they seek approval through effort, if they do too little people will not value them. In reality this has the opposite affect, they will be constantly too tired, irritable, stressed out and eventually become dysfunctional as the major contributory elements generated by their upbringing, anxiety and confusion combine to adversely affect their world view.


They are likely to have many prejudices, both overt and covert and some fixed and inflexible views and may find it hard or impossible to see things from another persons point of view. Another factor contributing to bad interaction is the fact that they are never still or pay attention for long enough to interact well. They do not seem to have developed past the childhood stage where they are still the centre of the universe and resent other people having interests other than them and not wanting to discuss or do the things other than that they want to discuss/do.


They become subjective thinkers, reacting emotionally and gaining an inaccurate view of their world and the people in it. These are the ones most likely to blow little things up out of all proportion and focus on the negative. It is likely that they will attract to them people with whom their relationships will be based on self-perpetuating negativity, and we can expect to see higher levels of divorce and relationship breakdowns etc. among this group. They are unlikely to interact well with others when under pressure. This is the group most likely to blow its top when the pressure mounts.


2b.       Nature: this is what begins to influence us when we start to become aware that we are suddenly no longer the center of the universe. We become aware of our surroundings, where we are living, the people around us, the general ambience, and the various influences brought to bear on us as a result of this.


·       The house we live in, is it comfortable, wet, cold and damp? Do we share a room or have plenty of privacy? Do we keep healthy or are we always down with something? Even the best looked after infant is going to be susceptible to frequent bouts of illness in an unsuitable dwelling. This predisposition toward sickliness can follow into adulthood, especially in the case of the poorly nurtured, and can in turn lead to being labelled a malingerer with all of the work and social problems that this can give rise to. Even regular bouts of frequent genuine illness causes many people to feel uncomfortable and may cloud people attitudes towards the sufferer. The person predisposed in this way may have discovered that illness as a child earned him extra attention and special treatment and may be confused and bitter that it has the opposite effect as an adult.


·       The people around us, are they healthy living, do they get on with each other, are they drunks and always fighting? Do they smoke heavily? We learn a lot from example. Despite nurture there is a strong urge towards conformity in all of us. Heavy drinkers and smokers are less likely to attract good company than their cleaner living peers. Heavy drinkers will find themselves associating in the kinds of places where heavy drinking is condoned, and in the company of the kind of people who condone it. The inevitable affects of alcohol on cognition will have a strong negative affect on their relationships with others.


·       The area we live in, is it safe, a bit on the rough side or pretty dodgy? This may well be the deciding factor on whether or not we are trusting, too trusting or suspicious of our fellow man. We have all heard people say things like “That kind of thing never happened when I was growing up” etc.  Being too defensive or security orientated can adversely affect quality of life if taken to extreme’s.


·       The country we live in, is it rich poor, occupied or free, at war or peace? Well-nurtured people from poor countries tend to do well in richer countries when they move there. Idem for such people escaping from occupied countries to freedom. This is because their confidence in themselves, combined with the confidence inspired in them as children afforded them the belief that they can do better. In a country at war nurturing can be seriously affected with one or both parents being forced into periods of absence, thus disrupting the normal routine, leading to all of the disadvantages outlined above.


·       What about the kind of religion and political indoctrination are we exposed to? Again a product of nature. Religious views might prejudice the way we treat other people, we might preach to people instead of entering conversation etc. Our social circles might be severely curtailed to include only those people who share our beliefs. Even people who leave their religion behind are still likely to abide by some of the principles inherent in that religion and these attitudes can overshadow how they interact with others.


·       How are we placed socially, are we receiving a good education? The question here is are we made to feel inferior to others due to their perceived social standing and wealth, or superior to others because of their perceived social standing. Good education increases our range of tools for dealing with our environment and this will often affect the levels at which we are able to interact with others.


·       Are we tied to a caste system where we are expected to know our place? Children raised under such a system could be expected to have low self-esteem etc. Those I have met in the UK do not. If anything they feel sorry for the ‘touchable’s’ who lord over such a system. Their experiences have taught them to be tolerant of others and to be kind to other people. They also come across very well when placed next to supporters of the caste system. In cases like this their self-confidence can only have come from the good start given them by their parents, despite their own particular environment. Badly nurtured children from the same environment can turn out bitter and twisted by hate. The influence this has on their interaction with others is entirely negative.


There are many other environmental influences that could be mentioned. In general we can accept that we are the sum total of all of our experiences, but that those experiences are likely to have been better, and more constructively perceived, provided we were given a good start in life to begin with. In general the better our start in life the better we will get on with other people later in life.


In this day and age, when we are surrounded by and exposed to so much negativity, TV, news media, change in working and social patterns etc, and when our psychological buttons are being pushed at an alarming rate by advertisers (important when you consider the amount of advertising that we are exposed to) it is no surprise to discover that the emotionally sound, personally secure individual is better able to withstand and cope with the associated pressures than his less emotionally sound and secure colleague.


If we take to the trouble to understand more about where we have come from, how we were raised, we can begin to see how it affects the way that we interact with our fellow man. I would make a strong case for arguing that we can to some extent reverse the worst affects of poor nurturing. The most difficult part of this might not be arriving at the Mind State necessary to achieve this, but rather in maintaining it.


Negative reinforcing statements (beliefs) such as ‘I don’t get on with people’, ‘I prefer being alone’, ‘I get nervous when I go out’ etc, uttered by people suffering from any form of dysfunction, are probably giving you their diagnosis. Obviously, to me, people in this case are telling you about how they were raised (nurtured), their subsequent experiences (nature) and the kind of expectations that they developed as a result. They are also to some extent telling you what they need to do to a large extent in order to return balance to their lives.


I have not included a direct mention of the hierarchy of needs in this response because I had trouble fitting it into the rest of the text. For this reason I saved a mention of it to include as a PostScript.


We all have basic needs, from a purely practical viewpoint without air, water and food all other considerations become academic. I work with a native of a Caribbean Island whose idea of happiness is being able to provide 3 square meals a day for his wife and children. He was well cared for and looked after as a child by all accounts, but being from a very poor family frequently went hungry.


As long as this man can see his family sheltered and fed he is likely to go through life with very few psychological problems. As well as practicalities we also need to be loved and to feel wanted and that we ‘belong’. I feel that any lack in the latter will have the most serious psychological consequences, together with social consequences, as ability to interact on an equal footing with others becomes impaired. The lesson I have learnt from this section, is look at nurture first, nature second.

End note:  The author does not necessarily hold the same views today.  It is hoped that this material will be useful to the many psychotherapy students who contact us for guidance regarding examination material etc.


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