As small children we can’t “think,” at least in the critical sense, so how do we learn things, in the classical sense, when we can barely say ‘‘dada’’ or ‘‘mama’’? A lot of what we learn, especially early on, we learn the same way a puppy learns. Psychologists refer to this as ‘‘conditioned’’ learning.
For example, we get “potty-trained”; we get positive reinforcement or praise when we do something ‘‘right’’ and hear ‘‘no-no’’ when we mess up. We also learn how to react to people and events around us by feeling emotions — emotions we likely can’t even define or call out by name. Yet, we learn to avoid Uncle Al, but run up to hug Daddy. And all of this is conditioned learning — learning that is stored in our emotional “gut,” not in our thinking “mind.”
The problem arises as we grow older, since then we may react emotionally to someone who is much nicer than Uncle Al, but react to him as if he actually was Uncle Al! Or, to someone who is pretty nasty, as if she actually is Mommy. The point is, even though our word-thinking mind knows better, our emotional gut still reacts the same way.
As these misplaced emotional reactions replay themselves again and again, we can go through a lot of needless suffering. That is, unless we get the right kinds of “new” experiences to retrain our emotional gut and break those old patterns. That’s what psychotherapy, at its most effective, does for its patients
A psychotherapist’s job is to use the individual therapy setting (ideally, combined with group therapy) to help people experiment in a safe setting with behavior that runs counter to what their misplaced emotional reactions otherwise lead them to do.
When it works, people change in their emotional gut, not just in their word-thinking mind. Yet, just like in physical therapy, both therapist and patient must work hard and in concert. It isn’t easy and it can be painful, but this process provides more than temporary relief of symptoms.
Many people find that their whole life has been changed. Is it worth seven or eight years — and a financial investment — to live life freed from personal ‘‘demons’’ from the past? You’ll have to decide on that one.