DISCOVERING AND DEVELOPING YOUR
Revised October 14, 2005
Adam Blatner, M.D.
You are unique! It is
useful to recognize this, and here is how: The
mind is complex, a mixture of many dimensions of being, four major
categories being your (1) personal background; (2) interests; (3)
temperament; and (4) tastes
If you ask a person "who are you?" the question is so broad as to be
most difficult to answer. Similarly, there is no ultimate "true self"
that can be simply defined. (For a further discussion on the nature of
the "self," see my paper elsewhere on this website at this link on "Self-ing.") However, there is a way of
being in the
world which is more "true" than other ways of being which are more
"false." This is to be understood, though, in the sense of being "true
to oneself"--that is, following one's natural inclinations in contrast
to becoming conditioned to want what the family, peer group, or culture
values. In this sense, you might find that your tastes,
talents, and interests are different from those of your family's or
subculture's values, and the reaffirmation of this identity stands as a
second individuation. (The first individuation process, described, for
example, by Margaret Mahler, refers to the psychological birth of the
toddler in beginning to separate from the relatively enmeshed normal
parent-infant bond. Yet this individuation is ideally recapitulated in
adolescence in the development of a sense of personal identity.)
a. Genetic endowment: What are your talents or, on the
hand, relative weaknesses? Howard Gardner's theory of multiple
intelligences are helpful here. He notes that people can be more or
less naturally gifted in any of seven areas:
Language--thinking conceptually, using language,
learning foreign languages, public speaking, "the gift of gab," etc.
Mathematics--"a head for figures"
Kinesthetic--natural athlete, coordinated, juggler,
Spatial--interior decorator, artistic composition,
design, mechanic, archetecture, building
Intra-personal, introspective, depth psychology,
natural contemplative, certain kinds of poet (if mixed with language),
Interpersonal--a "people" person, "good with
people," a natural "mixer," socially adept
In some you may be "a natural," and this kind of activity comes easy to
you. In others, you may be rather un-talented. If it is in the area of
language, you might be dyslexic; in music, "tone deaf," or "can't carry
a tune." In the kinesthetic area, some folks are a bit more clumsy, and
in the spatial area, more easily geographically disoriented–they tend
to get lost more easily. There are some who are naturally gifted
"people" persons, while others are socially more inept. Some are more
introspective while others are less-psychologically minded. You can be
very bright in several areas, ordinary in some areas, and weak in some
areas. Everyone has his or her own profile.
Nor is this list exhaustive. There can be other talents which represent
subtle nuances of the above or not on Gardner's list--the natural
showman, the spiritually sensitive, the individual who is a natural
healer, etc. Allow yourself to include in your contemplations the
possibility that there might be certain latent
talents awaiting development.
Handicaps represent the other side of this exploration. People are born
with inclinations to certain problems. Some have congenital physical
problems, weak eyes, hearing, a nerve damage to one limb, one limb
shorter than another, etc. Later in life certain genetic tendencies may
emerge--early or late puberty, being unusually tall or short, fat or
thin. Physical features may be both a blessing or a curse depending on
how they are perceived in the environment. For instance, a homely child
who is adored because she so closely resembles her father may have
certain advantages at a crucial life phase. Being beautiful can present
many stresses if one's other qualities are eclipsed.
Significant temperamental deviations, tendencies towards hyperactivity,
obsessive thinking, submissiveness, self-centeredness, aggressiveness,
and other traits also should be identified and noted as part of one's
makeup. These traits, in turn, may have been indulged, overlooked,
or overly-suppressed, just as being left-handed was suppressed a
b. Family makeup: What were your parents like? How did their
personalities and problems, affect you? There is also the challenge of
having grown up with siblings who may have had their own unique issues,
illnesses, behavioral problems, extremes of temperament. What were your
economic circumstances, traditions, extended family, size of family,
and other variables make for a unique childhood?
c. Neighborhood(s): What was the environment like? What kinds of
recreation were available? How many friends were around and what were
they like? Were there many moves? What kind of schooling was offered?
d. Cultural Context: What was the historical environment? Which
generation were you part of? Each decade and sometimes even part of a
decade had its own tone, and the second decade of your life was
especially influential your values and sense of social norms. Were you
raised in a country afflicted by war or persecution? What was the
religious environment? In what way were you a minority in any
respect--language, ethnic background, race, etc., and what difference
did it make? Being even modestly richer, poorer, smarter, slower, more
or less athletic, and in any other way, feeling "different," all
affected your unique life story. In young adulthood, your own
experiences with types of work, social class, sexuality, religion,
college or trade schools, and many other elements all fit in this
e. Miscellaneous. Your name and how you felt about it, your
special experiences with pets, nature, geography–all add to the story.
Don't take the kinds of weather you grew up with for granted: People
coming from other regions might find your stories quite interesting and
unusual. Special toys, experiences with cars, clubs, special friends,
unusual neighbors, teachers, characters--for good or bad--all make for
good conversation topics.
There are many dimensions of temperament, the natural makeup or
tendencies of a person. Some of these include:
– a tendency to be more introverted or
extraverted – practical or imaginative
– do you prefer warmer or cooler weather, are you an early or
late riser, and similarly, do you prefer to retire early or stay up
late? Would you rather vacation in the mountains or at the seashore; do
you like to travel or stay at home? Are you a "dog" person, a "cat"
person, or "ambi-pet-ual" (a playful term I coined to indicate folks
who like both types of pets) ?
– when you were a child, were you slow or quick to warm up to
new situations? easy-going or easily frustrated? persistent vs
quick to give up? Intense or mild in your reactions? You
probably noticed such differences in your kids, and you had them also.
Don't assume you were all that interested in your major
roles. If you were lucky, you found a niche that offered a challenge
that really grabbed your interest. Might you have had other
interests? Some people's jobs are mildly interesting, but their
real identity and life is more tied up with one or several avocations,
which can include hobbies, sports, church, politics, and other areas of
Which types of television shows, books to read, magazines, clubs to
join, appeal to you? Within any general area, there may be sub-special
interests, so that, for example, in your church, you may have a special
interest in music, liturgy, scholarly study, good works, contemplation,
and so forth.
Also, according to Dr. Steven Reiss (2000), each person has a unique
profile of different types of motivation--over 15 have been identified;
so it is useful to discover and consciously note that certain kinds of
activities or conditions are more important to you than others.
Like interest, but more just matters of taste, include which
food you prefer. If you could go eat at any ethnic restaurants, how
would you list your priorities, from most to least preferred. Also,
even around the house, there are your favorite foods and disliked
foods. Consider also the inexplicable preferences you have in your
favorite colors, names, cities, climates or seasons, clothes, clothing,
hair, or other styles of adornment.
Regarding Art–do you have some favorite artists or styles, and also
least favorite or hated styles? Your way of living in a house,
degrees of clutter, neatness, interior
decorating, the pictures or hangings or items around–all reflect your
uniqueness. Similarly, your taste in music, dance, poetry, drama,
movies, cars, eras in history.
Some folks really feel drawn to ancient or modern Egypt, others to
China or some other locale. Again, these inclinations often cannot be
explained and don't need to be justified. They just are. Given the time
and money, if you had to travel, where would you like to go? Which
types of people intrigue and please you, and which groups or types
annoy you or make you feel less comfortable. (This isn't the same as
prejudice–you need not think that there's anything "wrong" with people
you're less comfortable with.)
Note also that many of these categories have particular variations. So,
for example, if you are interested in photography, there is
still the finer definition of what kinds of photography is most
preferred--color or black-and-white, a meadow or city street, something
with activity or a still life.
An associated concept is that people with one set of tastes often (and
especially when younger) don't recognize that others might have
different tastes, skills, ability levels, styles of consciousness,
background experiences, etc. So the playwright George Bernard Shaw's
advice is relevant here: "Do not do unto
others as you would have them do unto you; they may not have the same
tastes." (The creative alternative is to consider, at least, what
you would or would not like, then ask them and respect their correcting
or modifying your offer, as suggested in my paper on mutuality elsewhere on this
website. Don't just abdicate from the opportunity to begin to
You'll also notice that each variable influences the others, so
you may combine interests, or channel an interest so that it is
compatible with your temperament. If you like looking at birds, but
hate the heat, you might specialize in birds of the more temperate
rather than sub-tropical zones. If you like both dancing and also
ethnic music, you might explore folk dancing. If you've been a camp
counselor and also like the outdoors, maybe you might develop or join a
program in which, say, teenagers have a group therapy experience in the
course of a "therapeutic" camping trip.
Another major challenge in life is to become clear regarding those
roles in which you are less skilled or which are enjoyed less. Some
people are excellent laboratory researchers but make poor managers or
administrators. (This was the point of the book, "The Peter
Principle.") Some counselors are good at doing therapy but not at
writing theoretical papers about it. There's no reason why a person
should be talented in all the components of a complex role. It's
important to become humble enough to admit what roles are not strengths
and to relinquish such roles as goals, choosing instead roles which are
more in line with your natural abilities.
The many variables
in these three categories, when combined, make it clear that every
human being is
absolutely unique. Each has a special blend, a mixture of strengths,
weaknesses, and more, qualities which cannot be valued as being either
positive or negative, just its own preference.
It should not be assumed that most people are clearly aware of how they
are different. Our educational system tends to foster conformity,
attempting to deliver governmentally-mandated bodies of information to
children. There may not be much time to help a child explore a
potential talent or discover an inclination to a particular type of art
or dance or creative writing. Nor are there sufficient opportunities to
exercise the act of "shopping" among life-styles, and this is as much
because of media and peer group fashions and pressures as anything the
parental generation imposes.
The existential question of identity, "who am I?" has many
implications. Seeking a philosophical "answer" in a world where the
cultural consensus is dissolved can be misleading. However, if
rephrased as "what are my unique gifts and how can I cultivate them?"
then the problem becomes more accessible to work. This is a significant
aspect of many people's overall psychological struggles, and reveals
the appropriate place of a certain amount of "vocational guidance"
methods as an integral part of a comprehensive program of therapy,
education or personal growth.
Reiss, Steven. (2000). Who am I?
Basic desires that motivate... our actions. New York: Jeremy P.
Tarcher / Putnam.
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