Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When old strategies become problems: Part 1

The underlying logic and sanity of problem behavior rooted in old learning.

Threads:                        Getting unstuck, breaking up old patterns
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     5/13/2011     A frame for how we learn
                                     8/23/2011     Getting unstuck: Part 2

 “I’d like to take it out behind the barn and shoot it!”
client, referring to their fear of flying

In this and the next two post we explore the logic that underlies three different problem behaviors involving snakes, getting out of bed in the morning, and vacation adventures.

Example 1

The old learning: All snakes are dangerous and to be feared
For years I understood my reaction to snakes was phobic: Snakes seen close up or at a distance, garter snakes, teeny six-inch baby snakes, dead road-kill snakes—all triggered a strong startle response and paralyzing fear.

Identifying my response as phobic, while descriptive, obscured more than it revealed. As a child I loved spending time with my Grandmother. I remember being in the backyard with her when she saw a garter snake. She rushed to get her garden shovel and with a look of horror and repugnance, chopped the snake into pieces!

Given the wisdom and knowledge of The World that I granted to Grandma, from that time on, I intuitively understood snakes were to be feared and destroyed. It is no surprise that my mother also had learned to fear snakes; growing up, I had no adult to show me a different way to relate to snakes. Although the fear part persisted, I never felt compelled to harm them.

The old learning becomes a problem
Throughout my adult life I have liked to hike, particularly in the deserts of the Southwest and have had plenty of encounters with these creatures. My old learned response was not fun; whenever I saw a snake on a hike, it was an unpleasant act of will to keep going.

Seeing a problem behavior differently
I learned much from working with my clients as they made changes in their old patterned reactions—and it gradually became clear to me: My own habitual and strong response to snakes could be understood as an attempt to protect me from danger. I never consciously decided to have this protective response. It’s as if the part of me that learned and subsequently managed this response was entrusted with protecting me and, for decades, it earnestly persisted in its efforts—despite my conscious attempts to overpower or otherwise defuse it.

Responding to my own behavior differently
My attitude shifted: When I felt the familiar startle of spotting a snake (or a snake-like twig in the path, which would do it too), I said, as if talking to my unconscious: “Thank you for being so persistent in trying to protect me. I’m okay.”

The old response began to shift
I did this over and over and became aware of how many times the old circuitry triggered while on a hike. I thanked it every time. Gradually it triggered less and less and the startle and fear lessened. One way to frame this change: The old childhood learning was being refined and updated.

Making sustainable change often involves a number of shifts
Seeing an old behavior as an outmoded attempt to accomplish something good is often supportive of change… and likely only part of a larger body of entwined old learnings that need be addressed and untangled as part of the process of making sustainable change.

For example, I suffered a number of frightening traumas as a child. For me, snakes became a trigger not only for the fear associated with seeing my Grandmother kill one, but also for the fear associated with other frightening childhood events. I had to address those first before having a clearing in which to begin to change my response to snakes.

Unconscious learning

We learn many things—walking, talking, attitudes, how to respond in various situations, what to avoid, or what a snake is and how to respond to it—without knowing we have learned them. I call this unconscious learning (see post Unconscious learning). What is learned reflects both the circumstances in which we learn it and our understandings and resources available at the time.

In other words, in the past, what we learned about how to be and behave, how to act, how to think, how to respond—was the best learning we could do at the time. In my case above, given my circumstances, learning to strongly fear snakes can be seen as a sane and self-protective response.

The  old  learning can become outmoded
When we learn something unconsciously—like our attitudes and strategies towards adventures, snakes, or getting out of bed in the morning—it functions on autopilot (see post A frame for how we learning). The upside: We can function based on that old learning without having to consciously think about it. The downside: As we change, or as our circumstances change, our functioning doesn’t change to reflect the new conditions… which may be okay… or it may generate a problem.

The old learning can be refined
In other words: As we change and as our circumstances change, an old learning may no longer fit our circumstance and, as a  consequence, can  become a problem. In my case, as an outdoor-loving adult, I was able to refine my old learning about snakes in a way that now allows me more ease and comfort while still taking adequate care of myself.

In my story, above, and in the subsequent examples in the next two posts, hypnosis was used as support for refining the old, constraining learning.

More in the next two posts.

Your comments are welcomed.

Humans may be born with a self-protective fear of snakes. David Haskell describes this in his book “The Forest Unseen”:

“My fear of predators was likely imprinted on my psyche by millions of years of natural selection…. Like all other living creatures, I am the descendant of survivors, so the fear in my head is the voice of my ancestors whispering their accumulated wisdom”

Refining and updating my response to snakes likely involves striking a balance between an old childhood learning of intense fear and dysfunctional paralysis and an even older wisdom of self-protection.

The quote is from David George Haskell (2012). “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.” Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, p137.

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