Posts Tagged ‘personality’


July 8th, 2011

A few days ago my father-in-law celebrated his 100th birthday. Someday a lot of people may reach that milestone, but today few do. What impresses me is not that he made it (a testimony to his genes more than his less-than-healthy lifestyle), nor that he remains cognitively sharp. What impresses me is his amazing positive attitude. Almost always, he is “up.” He sees opportunities, even at his age. He finds reasons to laugh, celebrate, get excited.

Duane grieved deeply when his wife died. But he rebounded, set a new course (he was 90), and move forward. At his 100th birthday party, he entertained four generations of family members with witticisms that could be on his gravestone.

Presumably by the luck of the genetic “draw,” some of us run on the depressive end of a mood spectrum: seeing the dark and ominous side of every development, the glass half empty. Others, like my father-in-law, see what’s possible, visualize the positive, and make it happen. I just read a book by Dean Karnazes, who embodies this grab-life-by-the-horns approach and inspires others.

Good parents help their more anxious, depression-prone kids to modulate their darker thoughts and world view. They move these young people further to the optimistic, resilient end of the mood spectrum. Truly, it’s not immutable. People can learn to see the good possibilities. CBT and most therapies try to help in that vein.

I think my centenarian father-in-law inherited good genes. But he also made conscious choices over his long life, and he benefited from many of them and achieved joy and a sense of purpose.

-Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry




Riding the horse we’re given

September 6th, 2010

When I lived in Tucson I owned two horses—Arabians. I loved them. And learned from them. A rider has to get to know his or her horse, to learn how the horse thinks. Some experienced riders say one should “ride between the horse’s ears,” which means thinking like them, anticipating their next move.

Over the centuries, humans have lived with three other species primarily: horses, dogs, and cats.  A quick glance at newborns of any of these species tells us how much temperament varies from the first day of life. It’s true of all social mammals—including us.  Some run from a novel stimulus. Others seek it out with eager curiosity.

I’m a father and grandfather. I’ve owned horses, dogs, and cats. And I’ve been a psychotherapist. What I’ve learned from all these activities and roles and from a long life and reflection is how each of us is born with a temperament and that our biggest challenge is to learn how to manage ourselves in life’s adventures—within the limits of that temperament. It’s as if each of us were arbitrarily assigned a horse to ride throughout life—with no choice in the selection. To avoid calamities, we’d try to become familiar with that horse’s peculiarities, fears, and needs. As parents, we try to recognize each kid’s strengths and weaknesses. Some need more quiet time; others thrive in high levels of novel stimuli. Some do best one-on-one; others love groups. Wise parents help their children become familiar with their assets and manage their limitations.

It reminds me of rehabilitation after an injury. Or coping with a loss. We assess assets and weaknesses, fears, hopes, and preferences. We manage expectations and try to play to strengths.

For myself, my family, and my patients, I try to convey these lessons. Accept that horse. Learn to manage it through life. Become familiar with it, comfortable, accepting. And then turn it loose to enjoy life to the fullest.