By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.


A great deal of what we do, and how we think and feel happens without contemplation or awareness. The development or learning of automatic or conditioned behaviors, thoughts, and feelings is both complex and simple simultaneously. The massive volumes of psychological research reported over the last century demonstrate our abilities in the mastery of complex learning situations and tasks. Fortunately, we don't have to look at the vast amounts of psychological research to understand this idea.

Common sense tells us that we learn to understand the subtleties of the behavior and the behavioral interactions of others at an early age. For example, a child learns to read parental behavior as s/he grows from infancy into childhood learning to distinguish between behavior that leads to loving interactions versus behavior that prompts fear as it signals potential harm.

At an early age we begin forming both visual and auditory discriminations that give us vital information about our environment. For example, a child may learn that the raising of an eye brow means something relative to anger on the part of a powerful and threatening parent. As another example of the social subtleties we are capable of learning, imagine the quality of sound portrayed by footsteps on a wood floor and how such sounds may alert a child as to the emotional experience and behavioral intent of the approaching parent. Again, this requires a complex interpretation of subtle envirnomental information in order for the child to extract important meaning from what might otherwise be experienced as random sound patterns. Children seem to learn to form these kinds of interpretations without realizing they are learning and without trying to learn these things. It appears to be a natural or maybe even an instinctually based learning process.

At a more simplistic level, we learn by experience of consequence. If we experience something positive or satisfying from a particular event, we are likely to approach that kind of situation again. On the other hand, if an experience results in pain, we will learn to avoid that kind of interaction. This kind of learning is a part of us all and we are capable of bringing such experiences into adulthood and generalizing learned or conditioned responses in our adult lives. As an example of this, a client discovered that what appeared to be a spontaneous anxiety response was an emotional pattern with childhood origins. She recalled specific situations in which she was quietly enjoying herself at home only to find her mother, without warning, flying across the room to attack and beat her abusively. As a result of this pattern, she learned to suddenly and spontaneously feel very uncomfortable when she was in a comfortable situation. During adulthood it was crippling from an emotional perspective as it interfered with the nature of her relationships with anyone with whom she would become close and comfortable. This transferential expectation of physical harm produced an unconsciously based fear; a once rational response to an irrational and threatening environment, gone wrong.

The list of such learning experiences occurring over the course of our childhoods is long and informative. Looking at our problematic patterned automatic behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and tracing them to their natural origins allows for personal growth and change.