Interrupting Automatic Pilot to Change Unhealthy or Self-Defeating Behaviors
On any given day, how often do you consider your emotions or thoughts? Why do you feel the way you do in certain situations? Why do you lash out or withdraw from others? The truth is much of who we are and how we respond to different levels of stimuli was learned. Despite the feelings of such decisions being inherent or natural, they have been practiced and cultivated throughout our entire lives.
Human beings, unlike most other species, are capable of complex learning through situational experience and tasks. While these events create a particular type of reflex, we also tie emotional weight to each lesson, which can lead to unhealthy or self-defeating behavior. Therefore, it is necessary for a psychotherapist to intervene and help patients understand the root of such phenomena to aid in the development of new and practiced healthy responses to such stimuli.
Visual and Auditory Discrimination
As children, our world is very new, and we experience everything on a raw, tactile and emotional level because of our limited experience. Therefore, in those early developmental years, we interpret all types of visual and auditory clues to protect ourselves and find our place in our environment. The raised eyebrow of a parent, the foreboding sound of heavy, quick footsteps outside our door, a gentle hand on our shoulder, all of these things offer clues of possible danger or compassion.
While the experiences of every person are unique, and their interpretations of such stimuli equally so, every individual extracts meaning from the visual and auditory clues of early events and traumas that are then transcribed onto future events, even those with minor similarities. For example, an abuse survivor might interpret a shoulder rub from a friend differently from someone with healthy childhood relationships.
The problem with forming such associations as an adult is that it can be challenging. As children, our ability to acquire such information and environmental clues is almost natural or instinctual. However, as adults, with vast amounts of sensory data compiled over years of experiences, it is challenging to limit and reacquaint certain social or environmental clues to specific responses, which is why many people require the guidance of a psychotherapist.
While common sense exists, especially as it relates to assessing social cues, this ability is not entirely instinctual. Our interpretations of social norms and niceties have developed after millions of little experiences and interactions, likely all stemming from the experiences we had as children. Our assessment of future relationships and behaviors, then, is weighted heavily in the experiences of our youth, and the healthfulness of those early interactions can determine whether our future responses to similar stimuli are healthy or self-defeating.
Every decision leads to some level of cost or reward. When we experience something that leaves us feeling happy and satisfied, we are likely to repeat that behavior. However, if the experience leads to pain or dissatisfaction, we are likely to avoid it. While the idea of consequence seems straightforward, not everyone has been conditioned in the same way. For example, while many people have a positive response to having a quiet evening alone at home, some, especially those who have suffered significant trauma at home in their youth, might be prone to anxiety attacks in solitude or quiet. Consequently, our early experiences lead to transferential expectations as we age, which can lead to abnormal, unhealthy or self-defeating behaviors.
Therefore, to help patients, therapists must guide them through the reasoning for problematic patterned behaviors. Only through this self-reflection can unhealthy responses be negated, allowing for personal change and growth.