Tag Archives: what we inherit from our parents

The Personality Traits We Inherit From Our Parents

tennis racket

tennis racketOne of the beautiful aspects of losing someone you love is that people send you their memories of that person. When a friend from high school learned that my mother had died, she shared that news with her own mother, who played tennis with my mom for years. My friend shared this story via email:

One time our mothers were playing on a way back court. They see your father approaching. He strode past all the courts straight through to the one where our mothers were playing, lifted the latch and came onto the court. He had several ties hanging around his neck and called out, “Daryl! Which one should I wear?” Apparently, he had a big court appearance and wanted to look just right.

The vignette captured my parents’ respective personalities – and the dynamic underlying their 50-year marriage – beautifully. My mother was the brains behind the operation and the one who made sure the trains ran on time. My Dad brought the charm and unpredictability.

Behavioral Styles

This story got me thinking – again – about personality types. One of most popular workshops I deliver to corporate clients focuses on communication styles. The model draws on the  work of two psychologists – Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton – and their model of “behavioral  styles.”
Bolton & Bolton argue that two main dimensions can explain and predict how people behave: assertiveness and responsiveness.
Assertiveness is the degree to which people’s behavior is seen as forceful and directive.  Responsiveness is the degree to which people are seen as showing emotions or demonstrating sensitivity.
The two dimensions yield four resultant “people styles”: quick to action but less demonstrative is the Driver type – these are the “Get it done, damn it!” types. Bold and impulsive, but also charismatic are the Expressive types. These folks are the life of the party. Less assertive but deeply empathetic are the Amiable types – your classic “people people.” And finally, thorough and detailed, but emotionally reserved, are the Analytical types.
In a professional context, the model is meant to help you identify your own type, appreciate how others may see you and – crucially – learn how flex your style so that you can get along effectively with different types you encounter at work. From a personal standpoint, what I find interesting about this model is how perfectly I can place my parents into two of those boxes. My mother was your classic Driver:  highly organised, efficient and action-oriented, but at times practical to a fault. My father was a vintage Expressive: an enthusiastic storyteller who connected with people easily, but couldn’t keep track of details.
I’m right on the line between the two types: organized and logical on the one hand, but lively and voluble on the other.  I’ve written before about how my current portfolio career as a communications consultant suits me well for psychological reasons: it combines the pragmatic trouble-shooter of the editor, with the animated cheerleader of the coach. But until my friend sent me the story about the tennis court, I’d never linked this dichotomy back to my parents.

When I shared this insight with another friend of mine, he concurred. He’s worked for nearly two decades in assorted senior roles in a global financial services company. A couple of years ago, he started coaching younger colleagues in the company on the side, and he now leads the company’s talent development division. As he explained it:

“My mother was a school teacher who once told me that she loves nothing more than seeing a child develop. After business school, my father took a job with Yellow Freight in Kansas City where he worked for about 25 years.  He was a company man… very loyal and got a lot of his value through his contribution at work.
While the links to my father were apparent early in my professional career, the links to my mother were a little more subtle.  Over time though, I realize that working with individuals on my team and helping them develop is what provided me the most reward.  In some ways, my most recent role has consummated that professional marriage between my mother and father.”
What our parents leave us 

I wrote recently about the things our parents give us when they die. (In my case, this amounted to a life-long love of writing and a bottle of instant decaffeinated coffee, among other treasures.) But we take other things forward as well: who they were as people and how those traits embed themselves within us.

As I settle into a prolonged stage of reflection – and grief – over the deaths of both of my parents, I take comfort not only in their memories, but in how they live on within me.

Image: Tennis Racket and Balls via Wikimedia Commons

What My Mother Left Me When She Died

flowers in a vase

flowers in a vaseI lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid19, thank goodness. But it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year. Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.

What I Notice

When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl. My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.

Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The bottle was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone. I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian Style sardines.

Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.

Rituals and Values

Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother. These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull…doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children…and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.

That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf. A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.

I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone. That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80’s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.

I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.

The Gift of Writing

The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death. When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.

When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog. It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing…and life.

I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Image: Dahlias in a vase via Pxfuel

This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.