Dandelion or Orchid — Which Are You?

DandelionOrchidEvery six or seven years I head back into therapy for a mental tune-up. I dig the process, so every once in awhile I might share some insights from my sessions with “Doc,” my awesome psychologist.

A few sessions ago, Doc brought up the theory of dandelions and orchids. The high-level gist is that genetically most people fall in the dandelion category — robust, able to take root and survive anywhere — and a minority fall into the orchid category —  emotionally/mentally sensitive to their environments and how they’re nurtured. In the wrong environment they wilt and are more likely to succumb to behavioral issues such as depression. However, given the right environment they can bloom more spectacularly than “normal” and “healthy” dandelions.

In other words, the genetic predisposition toward wilting is also the genetic predisposition toward having great potential.

Both dandelions and orchids were/are necessary for human survival, which is to say orchids are “normal” too. (Don’t get me started on the concept of normality; did you hear there was talk of putting introversion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM)?!?!)

Where was I? Oh yeah … Doc wondered if I might be an orchid. I didn’t thrive in my childhood environment (PTSD by the time I was in second grade), and I’m prone to depression.

The realization that I’m normal but in a minority (like being left-handed or an introvert, both of which I am) is reassuring. It’s also reassuring that it’s not that I’m some to-be-pitied overly sensitive dysfunctional person. As a wonderful article in The Atlantic phrased it, I might just have “a heightened genetic sensitivity to ALL experience” (good and bad).

The article is fascinating. (Check it out here.) However, the article focused on childhood development. I got to wondering about adult orchids. By changing our environments so that they nurture and support us (ditch crappy marriages, change jobs, carve writing time), can we still bloom?

Toward the end of the article, the author, David Dobbs, writes about genetic testing he did on himself, which showed that he is highly vulnerable to depression (my bolding):

The orchid hypothesis suggested that this particular [short/short] allele, the rarest and riskiest of the serotonin-transporter gene’s three variants, made me not just more vulnerable but more plastic … I felt no sense that I carried a handicap that would render my efforts futile should I again face deep trouble. In fact, I felt a heightened sense of agency. Anything and everything I did to improve my own environment and experience—every intervention I ran on myself, as it were—would have a magnified effect. In that light, my short/short allele now seems to me less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than like a springboard—slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.

The answer is yes, as adult orchids we can still bloom spectacularly. It’s never too late. And I find this the most reassuring message of all.

So, my friends, which are you — dandelions or orchids?

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6 thoughts on “Dandelion or Orchid — Which Are You?

    1. Hi Charlotte — on Facebook, someone asked if you could change over a life. I was thinking that since there’s a genetic component, maybe not, because the orchid sensitivity is partly wired in. But it’s an interesting question. If we orchids work on ourselves, we can become more dandelion-esque. But I think part of what the author was saying is that being an orchid is actually OK.

    1. Hi Eric! I just looked up the lion orchid too. Wow — some of the images are almost creepy — but overall gorgeous. You got me thinking that the dandelion orchid thing is a spectrum like anything else. It’s not like we’re all one or all the other.

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