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Opening Up to Someone Whose Style Is Very Different

A Personal Perspective: We are the same, but very, very different.

Key points

  • Developmental psychologists suggest that like a three-legged stool, the foundation of our being has three components.
  • DNA accounts for about a third of the traits that make up who we are. The second influence is what we learn in our family of origin.
  • A synergy might come from opening ourselves up to someone who has views and life experiences that are quite disparate.
Photo by Andrew S. on Unsplash
Cat and dog together
Source: Photo by Andrew S. on Unsplash

As a psychologist, I spent my career trying to understand people and the needs and challenges they presented to me. With them, I explored their early and current life to shed light on the connections between their histories, relationships, choices, consequences and the ways that together we could repair or create new and healthy outcomes. It wasn’t until I retired that I noticed that my inquisitiveness was still in play. I remain curious about what makes people who they are. I began to think about a long-time professional colleague and friend. I thought about how we are alike in so many ways but also very different.

She is bright and colorful in her style and dress, expansive and charming, warm and embracing. A hug from her makes you feel safe and snug. By contrast, I am mostly monochromatic with just a pop of color, generally underplaying my appearance. Cool in my approach to most things, I’m not the hugging type and prefer to fly under the radar, to not be noticed—except maybe after one-too-many drinks.

Color has too much emotion for me, not for her, my close and intimate friend with whom I have so much, and so little in common. We are of the same generation, with similar roots culturally, geographically, and politically. We are both seasoned psychologists with decades of work history and experience. We are both creative, she of the visual arts and myself a writer. Strong advocates of social justice, we both invest ourselves deeply in causes consistent with our beliefs, which are mostly shared. But we approach the world quite differently.

She is very reliant on the visual, emotional, spontaneous, and following non-linear ways of experiencing the world, not consciously of course. I am almost exclusively logical, analytical, and orderly in my approach to everything. I experience things without really seeing them, depending on my senses of sound and touch, along with analytical thinking. She makes sense of the world through how she sees or envisions it—sometimes as completed ideas or pictures with little conscious dependence or awareness of the steps that got her there.

As I mentioned, we are both psychologists each with careers that have spanned academia and private practice. We have both taught, written articles, and seen clients for counseling and therapy. Yet our styles are very different. I approach everything with a style that begins with trying to understand the many pieces and interconnections, then outlining my thoughts to create a cohesive plan. Her approach is more fully formed from the outset with a big-picture appreciation of a subject planned in the way an artist paints—it just happens and then might be fine-tuned.

When something bad happens, I tend to be resolved and grateful it wasn’t worse. This stance comes from my philosophy and expectation that bad things inevitably happen. And when they do happen, I actually feel relieved because I can conjure up a way that it could have been worse. It would take a lot to discourage me and I tend to do my best when the odds are against me. My friend, on the other hand, is likely to be sad and feel the pain deeply. Perhaps our upbringings help to explain our very different orientations and understanding of life.

My friend was born into privilege with a highly educated father who married a beautiful woman. If this looks like a fairy-tale lifestyle, it wasn’t. Her parents were never home. She cried for their attention and did not feel loved by them. She was left in the care of her nanny, whom she loved deeply, from whom she received what her parents never offered. Finding, keeping, and bestowing love are central themes in her life. She has the heat of a candle and draws people to her warmth.

I also had absentee parents but in a different way resulting in a very different outcome. I was born into a working-class family with little education and the distractions that come from financial worries coupled with struggles in the outer world along with internal crises—mental health problems. My parents did their best, I’ve always maintained, but it did manifest in what mental health professionals call benign neglect. If I didn’t break the rules too severely, or get caught doing so, I was left alone to manage my life.

My way was stealth. On the outside, somewhat compliant and typical for girls of that generation, I went along with expectations on the surface while I had an inner life of the warrior. I did not want to become my mother or any other woman in my limited world. I wanted the freedom of boys and the power of men I had observed but didn’t want to be a different gender. I plotted my escape from lower-middle-class expectations; I wouldn’t be a secretary (my father’s hope for me) nor a teacher if I was fortunate enough to get an education—which my parents didn’t feel was important for a girl.

I was like a feral cat, growing myself up with little interference or adult supervision. I had a plan for success which while unformed as to its outcome, required me to invent myself and find a way to manifest each step along the way. Benign neglect allowed me to pursue my escape from an unhappy family life and the struggles of the working class one step at a time. Often that meant entering life opportunities through any back door that I could find and push myself through. No one knew my plans or tried to keep me from pursuing them. I had not a clue where life would take me beyond escape. Street smarts guided me and served as a great teacher. There were no other mentors. If this sounds vague and amorphous, it was.

Developmental psychologists suggest that like a three-legged stool, the foundation of our being has three components. DNA, the first prong, provides inherited traits about which we can do little. These are the genes that come down over the ages modified by the alliances of our ancestors. DNA accounts for about a third of the traits that make up who we are. The second influence is what we learn in our family of origin in the first five years. Considered foundational, our parents, siblings, other adults, community, friends, and schools help round out this segment of development determining who we are and will become. The third leg of our substance is a unique personality, separate from our inherited characteristics and the ways in which our growing-up years molded us. This third also includes the ways in which as individuals we are shaped, and were shaped, by our relationships, education, work histories, and other choices throughout adulthood.

My dear friend and colleague benefitted from the love of a nanny throughout her growing up years which made attachment to others with warmth and tenderness a key in her life. She has friendships that have lasted for many decades and her network is large and filled with people who adore her and whom she adores. You can see this in her art, writing, and professional work. She exudes her warm style in all aspects of her life, including her career as a psychologist.

Though likely as successful in my professional and personal life, I am more of a lone wolf, having grown up being my own counsel and forming my own perceptions of the world. My network is relatively small and other than the family I created, I’ve maintained few relationships over the decades. Neither is my style as colorful and expansive. In fact, while my friend is a collector of art objects, I am a minimalist—paring down life to the truly loved basics. My days have an orderliness and rhythm that suits me well and allows me to live my life peacefully and contentedly.

My friend and I have mutual admiration and respect, appreciating what we share in common, even though our styles are so different. Perhaps because of our differences, we complement each other and blend our ideas and perceptions together like a harmonious duet.

When building relationships, we often choose those with whom we are most comfortable, share a common history, or personality, or cultural heritage. But a special synergy might come from opening ourselves up to someone whose views and life experiences are quite disparate. Such alliances can be mutually enhancing. In the other person, you might appreciate qualities that aren’t part of your repertoire but that you find fascinating or awesome. The world we live in might then become a better place where differences are welcomed and appreciated rather than distrusted.