Tag Archives: conditioning

If you can choose

It sounds empowering – you can always choose how to think about something. Unfortunately it isn’t true, and putting that idea about can add layers of blame and shame for people who have been damaged by trauma, and by design.

Brainwashing. Conditioning. Gaslighting. These are terms for processes that are undertaken with the intention of controlling how a person thinks about things. Stockholm syndrome is a consequence of experience that impacts on how you think. When people come out of cults, they need de-programming. Depression and anxiety are illness that are fundamentally about not being able to choose your thoughts. These are all familiar terms, and yet the idea that we can all control our thoughts and choose them, all of the time, keeps doing the rounds.

The human mind can be quite fragile. It can be damaged. Your ability to think rationally can be messed with in ways it will take years to recover from. We like to focus on the people who, by dint of remarkable strength, faith, or persistence are able to resist mind-control and keep their thoughts their own. That a person can do something is not evidence that everyone can do it.

To have your mind broken is to lose yourself. You don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t know what you want or need, or how to feel. You can’t make choices, you are frozen and frightened and lost. I’ve been there. I’m a person with a lot of willpower and a decent capacity for reason, and I have had that taken from me and been obliged to re-build it from scratch. I’ve spent a lot of time not being able to control my thoughts or choose what I think and I’ve had a long, hard fight to overcome that.

I don’t have words adequate to express what it means to lose your self in this way. The experience of not being able to control thoughts – of not being safe even inside your own mind – is an awful one. For anyone who was damaged in childhood there may not even be points of reference for knowing what a functional self looks like. It is hard choosing thoughts when you don’t have a range of possible thoughts to draw on in the first place.

If you can choose what to think about a situation, then you are in a position of privilege. Either you’re not going through something that is damaging you, or you are possessed with unusual degrees of inner strength and resilience. While that’s something to celebrate, it isn’t fair or realistic to assume everyone has the same experiences and resources. Like all privilege, it remains largely invisible to the people who enjoy it.

The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.


Walking new paths through your mind

Humans are creatures of habit, and much of what we do, we can do on a kind of autopilot. The neural pathways we walk in our brains are the easiest to keep visiting, and so we can become locked into patterns of thinking and behaving. When reality conspires to affirm a way of thinking or being, we can be really persuaded by the truth of it. So, a few verifications that the socks are indeed lucky can make us sock-dependant!

The trouble is that what comes to us from outside can train us into habits of thinking and acting that don’t reflect who we are, and aren’t functional either. The child who is rewarded with attention for having a tantrum, or refusing to eat or sleep, is the obvious case in point here. We can learn early on that certain things get us our own way and it can become part of the regular routine. The technical term is conditioning, and the psychology of it is out there to be read if its a topic of interest.

Seeing a pattern of thought or behaviour in this way isn’t easy, because for us, these things seem normal. But, if something isn’t working, feels wrong and gets shitty results, it’s a good time to dig in and look for those underlying stories and pathways that we have in our heads.

Trying to unpick old lessons is hard. The easiest way to deal with conditioning, is to get a new layer of conditioning over the top of it. That often calls for outside help.

There was a period when my anxiety around post was massive. It wasn’t irrational – terrifying and life altering things were turning up in the post at unbearable frequency. So hearing the post became fearful. Then seeing a post person or van became fearful, because they were bringing the things… then the post office, and anything posty in any context started getting to me. A red postbox in the street could give me a queasy moment. Dysfunctional to say the least, and horrible to live with.

Other the last few years, there’s been no post drama, and a lot of good post. Review books, gifts from friends, letters I wanted… and now when I hear the letter box go, most days I’m fine. Some days I wonder if it’s the book I’m waiting for. Occasionally there’s a flicker of fear. I’ve built new associations with post. I offer this as an example because it’s not too emotive, and most of my other conditioning issues are.

People in abusive situations are trained to accept the abuse as normal – especially pernicious with child abuse where no other points of reference may exist for the victim. People suffering trauma have often internalised what happened as something to expect. Recovery means embedding new stories, creating new paths through the mind. To build something better, it helps a lot to be in supportive spaces with people who can give you a different sort of reality to play in.

Lessons from the PTSD cat

I’ve been living with this cat for about six months now, and she’s taught me a lot about fear, and about healing. She’s a long haired kitty, and when she first came to us, the sight of a pair of scissors made her panic. She gets tufts and knots, and she sheds a lot of fur so sometimes a little cutting out is in order. At first she fought us, clearly really distressed by any attempt at tidying her up. Even in the first few weeks we saw a lot of changes, as she became less fearful. We weren’t hurting her, and that knowledge started to replace the evident fear that she would be hurt. We used cat treats and fuss to reinforce the idea that she’s safe, and all is well, and she’s responded to this.

She’s evidently anxious about being left. Early on we had frantic responses to absence – and we’re talking a few hours here. She’s usually waiting by the door when we come in, although she’s calmer about it than she used to be. We never leave her unattended for long enough to cause her physical problems, but even without knowing her history, I could easily infer that she has abandonment issues.

At the moment, we’re working on going outside. She’s been indoors for six months, and I know before I got her she’d lived outside for months. She’s clearly afraid of going out – she seems anxious either that she won’t be able to get back in, or that she’s being kicked out. I take her to the front door, and open it. The first few times she just ran away. She’s now venturing to stand there and look outside. Treats and cuddles for positive reinforcement always follow, and I think by the summer she might be ready to sit out in the sun.

I can’t reason with her or tell her she should feel differently – she’s a cat. The only way to overcome her fear and help her live a fuller cat life, is to help her feel safe and secure and in control. She doesn’t have to go out, she can come back at any time, she won’t be hurt with scissors, she won’t be left for extended periods. The only way to have her feel this is to keep presenting her with a safe, supportive environment and wait for her to learn to trust this.

I think about my own patterns of damage and healing and the parallels are obvious. No one has ever helped me by telling me my reactions are wrong, or that I am silly. I’ve not coped when new situations seem to mirror old ones. It has taken time, patience and learning to trust a new environment to get me not to panic as much. With me it isn’t scissors and the front door, but the patterns are the same.

When fear becomes your state of being, it isn’t a consciously held thing, and it can’t readily be reasoned with. Learned fear is a body thing, an issue of the animal self, and if we want to heal ourselves or other people who are damaged by fear, then we have to heal them as creatures first and foremost. A safe space and the time to relearn how to feel safe is essential. Damaged people need the same patience that rescue dogs do. The only way to break the conditioned responses to the past (cowering before the dangerous scissors) is to replace it with a different reality (after the pain-free scissors, the treats). Recovery is so much easier when someone is holding that safe space for you, and healing is so much more viable when it isn’t a solo project.

Seasons don’t fear the postman

Conditioning is a process by which one thing becomes so associated with another that it informs our reactions. Pavlov’s famous dogs, drooling when they heard the lunch bell ring are of course the classic example, but we all do it. Conditioning is one of the means by which we learn, and you can get all kinds of problems by teaching a small child that they’ll be paid attention if they act out.  We don’t just consciously look for patterns, we learn them with our bodies.

So, postmen then, and where they all fit. There were years when anything dreadful started with a letter and anything terrifyingly important would be in the post, too. Things from solicitors. Bills (not always but frequently also from solicitors). Paperwork for Tom getting to stay in the UK. It all came thick and fast for a long time such that the sound of post became associated with a rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t long before I’d get the rush without even knowing what had come through the door. By extension, seeing our postman or his van started to make me nervous, too. Then we moved to the boat and had to collect our post from the post office. Cycling past the post office soon became unsettling. And then gradually all post offices, post vans, post persons, post boxes and reference to post started to be infected by a sense of creeping dread.

It probably sounds mad. It is, and it isn’t. There’s a perfectly reasonable connection with things that were genuinely terrifying and I had every reason to dread and fear, but the way in which trained fear responses can spread makes it rather a lot like a disease. It is mechanisms like this that result in people feeling like they can’t leave the house.

The post hasn’t been scary for about five months now – it was scary again during the house buying period. I still feel anxious when I hear mail falling through the door, and have to consciously remind myself that most of it will be junk, the rest will probably be ok and some of it could be good. “The postman can bring nice things” has become an important personal mantra for dealing with fear.

The best way to deal with conditioning is to put a new layer of something different on top. I’m being helped by people sending me lovely things. The postman can bring good stuff. I make a point of talking to postpeople and being friendly, I make myself go into post offices, and slowly, slowly I replace the conditioning with better associations. It is an attrition job.

If you do something, or respond to something in a way that seems irrational, it is always worth tracing it back and finding out where it came from. The odds are there was a time in your life, or there is a place where that reaction makes perfect sense. Knowing what it is, you can start trying to build a different set of associations and beliefs to replace the ones that aren’t serving you. Our minds and emotions are surprisingly malleable. We can learn startling emotional responses without knowing how it happened, but we are not then, any of us, stuck with them. It is always possible to change.

The postman is nice.

Other postpeople do not have things for me and will not run at me in the street with unpayable bills.

The postman is nice.

There may be mushroom spores in the post today.

Seasons don’t fear the postman…

Magic from the bottom of a hole

One of the interesting things about being at the bottom of a hole (emotionally speaking) is how hard it becomes to think anything other than the hole exists. There’s a feature of human psychology underpinning this. When we are in any given emotional state, we tend to recall most clearly the other times when we have felt that way – which in turn tends to reinforce the mood. For this reason (and others) it is as well not to do exam revision whilst drunk but sit the exam whilst perfectly sober.

Much of our thinking is associative in nature. A significant amount of what occurs betwixt the ears is not a rational development of logical and causal links, and it is worth grasping the implications of this. You may be familiar with Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate when they heard a bell ring. We all do this, and there is no inherent logic. We feel associations between things that turn up together. There may be no real relationship between the bell and the food, but if they seem to correspond, our bodies will start to assume kinds of causality. Much of our ‘thinking’ has this bodily quality and it informs our choices and expectations.

If you can persuade a creature or person to do one wholly irrelevant thing in the hopes of getting the coincidental outcome they appeared to get one time… that’s generally called superstitious behaviour. Touching your lucky socks, or doing a little pigeon dance before tapping the bird feeder. Not because there’s a causal link, not because it makes any real odds but because the first time we did the pigeon dance and hit the button, some grain appeared. Maybe we aren’t sure whether it was the dance or the button that got the result. Maybe we are a bit afraid that if we test it, the universe will be cross with us, and decide not to deliver. Obsessive compulsive behaviours are one possible outcome here.

For the person interested in magic, this can go several ways. Are we practicing a superstitious action that makes no difference? Or are we tapping into the greatest bit of superstitious magic there is, and getting an entirely real placebo effect? Or is something else happening?

Any kind of superstitious behaviour has the potential to give us the self fulfilling prophecy. This is especially true for the person in a hole. If you already think that everything is shit and you are doomed, the odds of pulling a bunch of metaphorical flowers out of your equally metaphorical magician’s hat, are not good. Belief can shape our chances. The person who is in a profound state of disbelief cuts off certain options for themselves. The person who thinks they have lost already is unlikely to come up with a winning move. When you can’t win because there is just no way you can win, that circular trap can take some breaking. It’s just as true that imagining you are all powerful and invincible does not make you bullet proof in any literal sense. Overconfidence can be just as dangerous as a sense of doom.

We think with our bodies. Quite a lot of what happens in our brains has already done some of its shaping up other places, in our central nervous systems, and our conditioned physical reactions to stimuli. You can teach the body to react in ways the mind finds abhorrent, and it is worth recognising this as one of the features of our animal selves. That animal self tends to have very basic needs and wants, though. If you can, snuggle it up in a warm place with some decent food, and let it have a rest, then tomorrow it may not be quite so certain that it is standing at the bottom of a really big hole.