How Associations Early In Life Cause Negative Emotions Later In Life
Very often we are plagued by repeated negative feelings in our life, such as fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, and sadness.
We experience these feelings every time specific events or circumstances occur, such as anxiety whenever we make a mistake or someone gets angry at us, or anger whenever we are asked to do something.
In many cases the events that stimulate the feeling in us do not produce the same feeling in others, and vice versa. Why does an event that is not inherently fearful produce fear (or some other emotion) in some people and not in others?
Here’s an example I use with my clients that will make the process of conditioning very clear. Imagine that I handed you an ice cream cone with one hand and made a fist with my other hand and drew it back as if to hit you. What would you probably feel? …
Some level of anxiety if you thought you might get hit. Now imagine that the next few times someone handed you an ice cream cone, the same thing happened and you felt anxious each time.
What do you think you would feel the next time you were handed an ice cream cone, even if there was no menacing fist? … Probably anxious.
The principle is that anything that occurs repeatedly (or even once if the incident is traumatic enough) at the same time that something else is causing an emotion will itself get conditioned to produce the same emotion.
That’s how making mistakes, being criticized, not meeting expectations, being rejected, and a host of other situations that are not inherently scary get conditioned to produce anxiety (or some other emotion, such as anger). This process is also the primary cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Here is a real life example: Consider one of my clients who experienced fear whenever he was asked to do something. I asked him when did he first experience fear associated with being asked to do something?
He told me that when he was a child his father frequently got angry and yelled at him whenever he didn’t do what his father demanded of him. When my client reviewed the original cause of his feeling of fear, he discovered that the fear was not inherent in being asked to do something.
What caused the fear was the meaning he unconsciously attributed to his father’s threatening behavior that usually occurred when he was asked to do something: The person he depended on for his very survival seemed to be withdrawing his love. No love, no care; no care, no survival.
That perception—that his survival was at stake—is what caused the fear. Being told to do things just happened to occur at the same time as something else that constantly caused fear.
Whatever is going on when you experience fear due to your parents’ anger (because their anger is an implied threat to your survival) gets conditioned to produce the same fear. The stimulus today—making mistakes, being criticized, not living up to expectations, etc.—is not, itself, scary.
How The Lefkoe Stimulus Process Works
The Lefkoe Stimulus Process works by assisting you to make a distinction between the original real cause of the emotion and the events that just happened to be occurring at the time. Once that distinction is made, the conditioning is extinguished.
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