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Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised October 14, 2005

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.)

Personal History

  a. Genetic endowment: What are your talents or, on the other 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, dancer,
    Spatial--interior decorator, artistic composition, design, mechanic, archetecture, building
    Intra-personal, introspective, depth psychology, natural contemplative, certain kinds of poet (if mixed with language), self-expressive
    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 century ago.

  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 category.

  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 vocational 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 endeavor.

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.

Intuitive Preferences

Like interest, but more just matters of taste, include which types of 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 empathize.


You'll also notice that each variable influences the others, so that 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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