There are those who claim that our personalities are wholly defined by our childhoods and the world around us. Whilst this obviously plays a large part, I’m not so sure that it’s the whole story. I have worked with families where groups of siblings have had identical upbringings and yet one stands out as different from the rest. The parents have treated them no differently and yet one is less amiable than the others or indeed vice versa, in a troubled family, there is usually the one who is able to rise above their seeming lot in life. In keeping with this idea, my own siblings and I are very similar in lots of ways whilst being polar opposites in others.
We all, for instance, have deeply ingrained manners having been brought up to see bad manners as a shameful stain on the character. One of the reasons I found myself laughing a tad uncomfortably at the lead character in The Double was due to the fact that he has a tendency to apologise for his very existence. I often find myself apologising for absolutely no reason at all. For example, when I am rammed by an aggressive shopper’s trolley in the supermarket or almost pushed to my death by an impatient traveller, wanting to disembark from the train before it’s even stopped. I have the kind of manners that more ‘assertive’ types often take as carte blanche to act as if I’m not even there. It’s at times like this that I curse my parents for afflicting me with such a habit but, truth be told, I’d much rather have good manners, even if it does lead to me being mistaken for a door person on a daily basis, than be a boorish clod.
I suspect it comes from the same source as the manners business but I’m also a pathetic people pleaser. I invariably find myself inconvenienced and grouchy having gone completely out of my way or felt forced to attend some function or other that I’d really just rather avoid. That fear of displeasing people is a terrible trait especially when, most of the time, I don’t even like the people I’m bending over backwards not to offend. It’s the horrible awkwardness of it all that I can’t bear and, it’s that fear of social discomfort that so often results in me feeling as if I am chasing my own tail for no apparent reason.
Come to think of it, it’s not just a fear of social discomfort; it’s a fear of any public display of emotion. People venting their anger, even when it’s not directed at me, leaves me wanting to flee the scene as swiftly as is humanly possible. Likewise when people are upset. It’s often assumed that women have more of an aptitude for offering comfort but not me. In the presence of tears I find myself shuffling about like an inadequate buffoon. I can think of nothing useful to say and nine times out of ten will blurt out something inappropriate, making the situation infinitely worse.
In terms of upbringing, there is also the theory that our place within the family structure has some bearing on our character, which I suppose makes a lot of sense. As the eldest child, I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility which can result in a tendency towards anxiety. I like my own way which probably comes from holding the dominant position of first born amongst my siblings. Even though we are all relatively close in age, I got to be the boss and was always the one left in charge.
Despite all this theorising though, I think there are parts of us that are all our own – just who we are. This is evidenced by the ways in which my brother, sister and I, like any siblings, are completely different regardless of our shared childhood. For all my people pleasing, I lack any ambition or drive. I succeeded academically primarily because I didn’t want to displease my parents or teachers. Once those parameters were removed and any achievements were just about me, I found myself becoming disinterested in anything work related. Were it not for the impossibility of surviving on minimum wage, I would be just as happy stocking shelves in a supermarket as I am in my so called chosen career. That being said, I have no interest in the acquisition or status of money and I derive not one jot of self realisation through my job.
I’m also much more independent than my siblings. I enjoy living alone and spending time alone. If I want to do something, it doesn’t matter to me whether I am accompanied by someone else or by myself. I have moved around a lot, choosing to live in cities where I’ve known not a single other person. I think there’s something liberating about having to start afresh with new people and new places.
I suppose linked to these two traits is the fact that I don’t really care what other people think of my choices, lifestyle or personality. This may seem quite at odds with my people pleasing which is why I believe that our conditioning and our true selves are completely separate. I can perform my people pleasing duties almost in my sleep, I take jobs I don’t really want, attend functions I have no desire to be at but, at heart, I don’t think any of this is linked to who I really am. Maybe one of the reasons I enjoy my own company so much is because I don’t need any affirmation from those around me. In fact, my interactions with others can often lead to me feeling more distanced from what I really want to do and be.
The character in The Double is no doubt an exaggerated representation of someone who is unable to express who he really is. He bemoans the fact that he feels like Pinocchio, being held up by strings rather than a real life authentic person and I suppose we all feel like that in varying degrees. We are all somehow patch worked together, part nature, part nurture and so it’s inevitable that, for a lot of us, these two sides of ourselves will be at odds, each clamouring for pole position whilst leaving us feeling confused and alienated from our sense of self.