Ask Alistair

Dear Alistair,

My sister and I are very different from each other and yet she is barely two years older than I AND we are from the same parents and have exactly the same upbringing. She is quite an introvert, and very controlled when it comes to her expression of emotions. I, on the other hand, am an extravert and emotionally volatile, (and often say things in the heat of the moment that I later regret).  Please help us understand how these clear differences between us are possible.




I am not at all surprised to hear that you have identified numerous significant differences between you and your sister. In this article I will give attention to some of the possible ways in which these differences might arise especially in terms of how you and your sister manage your emotions.


First of all the attachment bond plays a large role in determining the attributes and skills associated with emotional management and expression. These skills develop early in life as part of our first interactive love relationship. The “attachment bond” is the term for this relationship – the one with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. This powerful connection reflects an infant’s total dependence, and impacts all aspects of the child’s development. The quality of this relationship is the most important predictor of how a child will perform emotionally as well as socially. Attachment isn’t a reflection of the mother’s love or caring for the child, however, only of her emotional state and her own attachment history.


As young children we had a limited ability to calm and soothe ourselves. To put it very simply, when a child’s primary caretaker/s is unable to provide appropriate comfort, some children will learn to stifle their emotions in order to survive. Other children will ‘simply’ learn to make a bigger noise. The route taken is determined to some extent by the child’s unique combination of genes inherited from the parents.


Socialisation and the ‘rules’ of our society also teach us, from the day we are born, how to cope with our emotions. Traditionally, daughters have been taught to express those feelings that are socially acceptable for girls, such as sadness, and to suppress those that are not, such as anger. The rational has often been prioritized over the emotional and many children have learnt to ignore some of their feelings, including fear, anxiety and sadness. Again, a child’s genetic inheritance will have some impact on which emotions will be expressed and which will not.


The emotional habits of our parents also have a significant impact on how we cope with our emotions. If we are raised in a household in which one or both parents rarely displayed negative emotion such as sadness, anger, or some other uncomfortable emotion, then, depending on our genetic inheritance, we may learn that it is better to avoid our emotions than express them… or we may tend to do the opposite. Both emotional habits quickly become ingrained.