Blog 32: Genetics, environment … and then there’s me!

Written by Jim Sheehy


When we look at how we operate, we look for reasons why.  How much of what I do is beyond my control?  Whether alcohol misuse, schizophrenia, severe anxiety or any mental health issue, we ask if we were programmed from birth because the issue seemed to be in the genetic code of parents or extended family.  I speak to teenagers about the crucial transition when they reach 18.  During their teens, usually around 15 and 16, they seem to go through a phase of reflection. They take a time-out to look over their shoulder at the 16 years they’ve spent on the planet.  I compare it to a Formula One race.  Speeding cars race around lap after lap but maybe twice in the race they come in for a pit-stop to check the tyres and fuel. 

Part of this reflection is the realization they are waking up to: in a couple of years I am likely to live in a young adult environment with new people.  Mum, Dad, siblings, grandparents and extended family – my environment up to now – won’t be around and I’m going to need to take responsibility and be accountable for how I operate.  If we were to draw a simple diagram, the 50%  of my personality formed through genetics and the typical environment comprising home / school / local community has ended for better or worse.  From 18, the other 50% is making this personality called ME work, shaping it for the next 60 years or so.  We can call this developing character, becoming wiser, kinder, funnier, more skilled in work / partnering / parenting / grandparenting.  Compare yourself at 18 being like a semi-shaped version of you, like a sculptor who has only carved half the eventual statue that is potentially there in the granite block.  Post-18, you find new tools, strategies, networks of fellow ‘sculptors’ who want to make something of their lives. 

But as we go from child / teenager to young adult / mature and then senior adult we discover all these stages of living are present whatever age you are.  In therapy, I come across a 10 or 18-year- old with the wisdom of someone much older.  Again, we all know elders with the play and curiosity of children. 

With genetics, we get the best and worst of traits physically, mentally, neurologically.   A gene can carry attractive facial features and a different gene can carry cancer or clinical depression.  I just have to accept the package I’m given.   But the freedom and power to manage what I’m given is all my choice.  

Each generation is tasked and challenged to work with the genetic code to improve what their children’s personality, intelligence and attitudes will be from the womb onwards. 

How does trans-generational change happen?  Once the child becomes an adult, s/he becomes aware of the dynamics they saw play out within and between parents – for 18 years!  If all they experienced was positive, they choose to continue to practice and expand what their parents modelled.  Usually though, our actual experience is a mixed bag.  Parents usually try to do their best, but they can struggle with some aspect of life: personality, lifestyle choices, even being different – autistic, dark-skinned, poor area economically.  We take up the baton and our parents can beam with pride when they see their adult children break free from the shackles they, the parents, carried.  Similarly, when adult children see their parents in their role as grandparents, they notice them being so different in their relaxed and skilful interaction with grandchildren. What’s happening is these senior adults are getting a second chance operating with the grandchildren and sometimes their life-experience has resourced them to be skilful in ways that were not available to them as parents.

There are tried and trusted routes in finding an identity free of genetic and environmental baggage.  If at 18 we carry the scars and bruises, guilt and shame, of who we’ve been with at the family, community, social level we wait and look out for ‘the second chance’.  If we partner with the right person, travel to widen our perspective, commit to an educational pathway, be mentored by adults we trust and admire, then dark moods can lift and hope has a real edge to it, not a fantasy that is fuzzy. 

At a societal and global level, with communication being so fluid, we know some of us are born lucky, relatively privileged.  Many are born into poverty, terror and abuse.  Yet we are all human with the same fears and dreams.  Social and global awareness leaves the privileged with no place to hide regarding the desperation of homeless Irish families and displaced refugees from war zones.  It is the human in us that puts to one side what separates us and reaches a hand to the drowning and hopeless.  Our teenagers march on streets to lead us blind adults into caring, not ravaging, our planet.  Nature, through Covid, suggested in the strongest terms that we humans are just one very dispensable species.  Let’s all try, in the smallest of ways in our families, our workplaces and communities to make our generation a more loving, responsible generation, one our children and grandchildren can applaud.  

Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and blog through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.



Contact me:

Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
F94 WV99

087 2137922


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