Saturday, September 7, 2013

Choosing How to Be: Choosing to Be a Better Person

Cover of "On Becoming a Person:  A Therap...
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by Dr. Benna Sherman

I do believe that people are born people, not blank slates.

I do believe that people are born with dispositions and natures, sensitivities and preferences.

I don't believe in predestination or that biology is destiny.

I do believe that people are shaped and influenced by experience, whether that is family influence, environmental exposure to toxins or to healthy nutrition.

I don't believe that you are limited perpetually to what you experienced in the past.

I do believe that a person can choose the kind of person he or she wants to be.

No, you can't, for the most part anyway, choose your height or your race or your sensitivity to gluten, among many other immutable characteristics.

You can't be born with a significantly limited cognitive ability and become a winner of a Nobel Prize for your research that cures cancer. No, you can't flap your arms and fly just because you choose to.

But the plasticity of the human being is grand and amazing. And one of the most malleable aspects of a human being is the way of being in this world and being with other people.

Obviously, some babies are born fussier than others, with greater sensitivity for instance to noise or temperature or touch.

Until they have enough consciousness of self and others to be able to choose how to be, they will remain "fussy". Once there is consciousness there is possibility for choice and for change.

Some ways of being are more successful than others; they result in being happier or more successful in one way or another. So, if you're capable of change, why not choose a way that works better?

This is where I reject the response of, "But it's not in my nature", or, "It's not my natural way", or, "It's just not natural". Unless you have the intelligence of a potato, you have the potential to grow beyond your "nature".

If you're reading this column, you are way beyond the potato. In fact, if you're reading this column, I'm confident that you were successfully toilet-trained, meaning that you learned to abandon the "natural" act of peeing whenever and wherever your body was ready to pee.

We all learn a gazillion ways to go beyond our "nature" and do the "civilized" or more mature thing. We choose. This includes the ability to choose the kind of person we want to become.

You can't necessarily choose to become less sensitive, for example, to noise. You can choose how you're going to respond when you are exposed to too much noise. You can yell at people, you can get all grumpy and irritable with the people you're with, you can curl up in a ball and cry.

These are all behaviors that might come "naturally" and are likely to be observed in a baby. As a conscious adult you can choose to behave differently, particularly in ways that don't impact negatively on the people around you.

You might excuse yourself from the room but encourage the people that you're with to stay and enjoy themselves. You might work at relaxing your body in this stressful environment and remain in place so as not to disturb your companions.

You might put your fingers in your ears to mute the noise but smile as you focus on enjoying the energy in the room.

You may experience many things with heightened sensitivity or discomfort or displeasure. You can choose how to deal with those feelings.

You may have to work at it, but you can prioritize other people's feelings over your own sensitivity or wishes or pleasure, at least some of the time. You can willfully focus on what's good or useful or instructive about this difficult circumstance.

You can choose to be hard to be with or to be easy to be with. No, it won't be or feel "natural" at first. With practice though it can actually become your "natural" way. We build new habits by practicing them.

Your own sensitivities haven't changed, but your way of being with other people has changed. This choice-based way will be more successful, with better relationships with people, better outcomes professionally, and a wider world to explore.

One of my favorite book titles is Carl Rogers', On becoming a person. We all have the lifelong potential for becoming. We're all choosing every day. To reference another wise man, "Choose wisely."

Dr. Benna Sherman has been a Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Severna Park, Maryland, for over 20 years. She has a specialty in Marriage/Relationship Counseling and writes a biweekly newspaper column on relationships.

Her book, "How to Get and Give Love - Relationship Maps", is now available on in both paperback and Kindle.

Learn more about Dr. Sherman, subscribe to her free newsletter, and read more of her articles at

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