Years ago, in my previous career, a work colleague and I left the office to get a coffee. My interaction with the barista was a routine “have a nice day / thanks, you too” kind of transaction. But something about how the barista spoke, and her lack of eye contact, upset my co-worker.
As we were leaving, my colleague declared that not only was the barista’s demeanour towards me not friendly enough, but that she should be fired. When I explained that my experience of the barista was completely different to hers (and that I suspected it was the barista's first day on the job), my colleague became angry with me. The rest of our walk back to the office was silent and tense.
I thought to myself where did that come from? Surely that kind of anger has nothing to do with the anonymous barista we encountered.
I’m starting with this anecdote because I want to explain the idea of conditioning and how it affects the way we react to some things. Most of us have wondered why someone we know – or even ourselves – react so strongly to some situations, when others simply don’t. Sometimes our reaction to something might seem automatic – especially to everyday, small experiences. We might see these automatic responses popping up most often in our relationships – intimate relationships, friendships, work relationships, or even transactional relationships with strangers (like baristas).
The word conditioning was often used by my therapist in the first year or so after I began seeing him. He tended to use it after I would ask him something in frustration like, why am I like this?
The answer may seem unhelpful: experience creates memory, and memory creates conditioning. This is an important aspect of our personality. Conditioning is the “automatic” reactions from implicit memory.
That’s one of two major kinds of memory we have: implicit and explicit. Explicit memory is of events and things we “see” in our mind’s eye. Implicit memory is unconscious, usually non-verbal, and often not recognized as memory. Implicit memory lets us tie shoes, drive cars, touch type, and do other physical things without having to “think” about it. We long ago delegated those motions to the body, via specific areas of the lower brain.
Implicit memory is also the “classical conditioning” memory that forms from experience that makes an impression on us. Most people don’t develop explicit memory until age three, but implicit memory begins much earlier.
Our childhood experiences condition us to respond adaptively to future experience of the same or similar kind. We experience it as the emotion or feeling sense we experienced at the time of the memory-making. As toddlers, we didn’t yet have the words, but we had the feelings, and that’s what our body “remembers.”
Conditioning continues to be created throughout childhood. It can influence how we encounter our education, friendships, relationships and attitude towards life well into adulthood. And if most your childhood experiences were negative, then your adaptive responses – your conditioning – will be defensive.
Childhood trauma can create strong implicit memory that’s activated again and again for decades, evoking reflexive emotions and reactions of anger, fear, depression, anxiety and self-limiting behaviour. If a child’s experience of parental love was inconsistent, rare, or abusive, that’s traumatic. To be cut off from loving connection is to face perishing alone. Imagine how that implicit memory gets activated in intimate relationships whenever the adult feels that their loving connection with their partner is somehow threatened.
This process is most often shame-driven. A wounded child believes themselves to be unacceptable to Other . The child improvises strategies to relieve the desperate desire to re-establish loving connection and acceptance. Unfortunately, our brilliant childhood adaptations increasingly fail us in the adult world. As my therapist would tell me, the coat I fashioned for myself to “stay warm” as a child no longer fits.
Let’s take a step back from this for a moment. You may be thinking that none of this applies to you because you had a happy childhood. And you may very well have. But the principle of conditioning remains the same, and still affects you, if only in a milder form.
A family friend feels offended if someone she’s just met forgets her name. Another friend feels anger whenever he hears a little boy crying. I remember feeling overwhelming sadness whenever I saw young children happily playing and laughing. Our reflexive reaction to experience is our cue to stop and notice what’s happening inside us. Whatever it is that happened in the past has formed part of our unconscious story.
American spiritual teacher Byron Katie asks, who would you be without your story? She’s using the word story in place of memory. In a way, she’s really asking, what’s holding you back? What unconscious memories are whispering that here, in front of you, is proof that you’re not good enough? Or unloved?
Your implicit memory lies beneath even your most benign “hang-ups.” They’re not really hang-ups, but simply adopted coping styles you created as needed. Dr. Gabor Maté, the Canadian physician and addiction expert, has written that “… what we call the personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and adopted coping styles that do not reflect our true self at all but the loss of it.” When Byron Katie asks who you would be without your story, Maté’s answer is that you would be your recovered lost self.
That’s the self without the conditioning. Experience creates memory, and memory creates conditioning. But we can learn to interrupt the conditioning, and learn to be skillful in distinguishing between our Self, and our memory.
Something about the barista triggered my co-worker. The present-moment experience arose in front of her, activating a wordless memory. Whatever emotion arose was quickly converted into defensive anger in the blink of an eye. Had she known about mindfulness, and mindful awareness, she might have been able to pause, look at her emotion as it unfolded, and follow the thread back to something she could then give words to.
If she were my client, that’s what I would’ve done with her. I might ask her to slow it all down in her mind, and walk her back to the point where she watched the barista. “What do you notice in your body as you watch the barista?” I might ask. “Does this feel familiar? Where else have you felt this? What happened then?”
Through this she might be able to give adult expression to something younger and non-verbal. Perhaps a part of her felt chronically unseen and unappreciated, but she otherwise rejects that part of herself because it’s too painful to connect with. Rejecting that part of herself is damaging, but there’s some relief in projecting her rejection onto the barista. Whatever the cause, seeing it and giving it expression therapeutically would help to remove the painful thorn.
When we engage ourselves in this process, and especially for those of us affected by childhood trauma, we’re shedding that old, small coat. It’s important that we do this with someone we trust, who is trained in providing a safe and therapeutic space to contain what we process. So much of our conditioning is related to attachment and connection. Fashioning ourselves a new coat is the process of finding a therapeutic connection that heals.
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