Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships

Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships

Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships

Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships


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Living on Automatic not only introduces the concept of emotional conditioning, including how it occurs and becomes entrenched in our minds, but also explains how individuals can "decondition" themselves to become more adept at choosing and negotiating more rewarding relationships.

Authored by two psychiatrists, the text draws from more than 80 years of their combined psychotherapy work with thousands of people. The authors focus on helping readers to understand their roles in relationships and to develop more rewarding relationships. Case studies and questions are provided to illustrate emotional conditioning and the personality roles that emerge from it. Readers will learn why people choose the mates that they do; why the ways we learn to relate as children often do not change later in life; and how to observe and engage in introspection to begin to decondition themselves from auto-pilot, knee-jerk emotional responses, allowing for the formation of better relationships with their spouse or partner, children, and other family members.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440865190
Publisher: ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/03/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 187
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

The late Homer B. Martin, MD, practiced general (adult) psychiatry for 40 years in Louisville, KY. He trained at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, MD and practiced forensic psychiatry in Baltimore, MD.

Christine B. L. Adams, MD, has been in the private practice of child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry for 40 years. She is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Read an Excerpt


How We Learn About Relationships

Abigail was in her mid-forties when she entered my office with bloodshot eyes puffy from crying, no makeup, and a downcast gaze. Her clothes were rumpled. She burst into tears as she told me she was distraught over learning her husband of 20 years was having an affair with another woman. Abigail said it was her fault because she had begun full-time work outside the home. She said her husband was upset she was gone so much, and he felt he and the children were being neglected.

When I met Briana, in her early fifties, she was impeccably dressed, well groomed, and wore makeup. Her look was stern, almost frowning, with knitted brows. She told me she was angry over learning her wife of 12 years was having an affair with another woman. Briana said she blamed the "other woman" for being so seductive around her wife. She assigned no particular blame to her wife or herself. "My wife just did what anyone would do around a seducer," Briana explained.

Charles, in his early sixties, swept into my office and seated himself in an armchair. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, revealing an entire arm of tattoos. He told me he was angry to learn his wife of 22 years was having an affair. Charles explained his wife was "an irresponsible b*****" who didn't give a damn about him and the children. He told her he was going to file for divorce. He did not blame himself or the other man in any way.

All of these people experienced the same profoundly upsetting event, yet they saw their situation, themselves, and their spouses very differently. How could this be? Are people and their relationships infinitely variable, or are there common rules and principles we share that affect how we conduct relationships?

The quest to understand human nature has gone on for millennia. Every thoughtful person throughout the ages ponders this question, ultimately finding that age and time bring only more questions. Even at the end of our lives, we may still feel unable to understand other people and to comprehend ourselves.

Questions like these have been troubling people from ancient times until today:

• What is this life all about?

• Do my loved ones really care for me?

• Why do some people admire me while others despise me?

• What can I do to be loved?

• Why do I have conflicts with my friends, relatives, or mate?

• Why do evil thoughts come to my mind?

• When life overwhelms me, who can I turn to? Gods or spirits? Forces of nature? Myself?

We Do Not Learn Self-Understanding

When reading early works of literature and religious writing, we see remarkable similarities between the ancient characters described and people today. We find identical personalities from ancient to modern times and encounter the same recurring relationship problems and the same perplexing questions about life. We find emotional illnesses described in lucid terms that rival modern psychiatric case histories. These historic texts omit none of humankind's quirks, defects, or strengths that we recognize today.

Yet with all our modern knowledge, we don't seem to be any better at understanding ourselves or our relationships than those who lived long ago. Because of humanity's remarkable resistance to learn new approaches, people today use the same antiquated approaches to manage their relationships as people did centuries ago, and are no nearer to gaining self-understanding and emotional security than our ancestors were. Society has experienced impressive scientific breakthroughs in health, education, travel, business, and technology, but such achievements have not substantially enhanced our personal happiness or emotional welfare.

Those of us who work in the field of analyzing and resolving emotional problems are accustomed to hearing patients blame their stresses on external causes such as losing a job, financial problems, or career disappointments. In the end, however, we find that the cause is almost always a result of an ongoing conflict in interpersonal relationships. Our sense of well-being depends largely on the status of our relationships with others and how well we manage them.

Most of us are intensely interested in personal relationships, and we are often unaware of the factors that determine their success or failure, or of the influence relationships have on other aspects of our lives. We learn the basics of how to relate to others in early childhood. The way we do that does not seem to change significantly throughout our lives. As long as the method we learned allows us to function fairly well, we have little reason to question its effectiveness or to consider other options.

Our patients don't search for new ways to deal with problems or seek psychological help unless their methods for relating to others malfunction or fail altogether. Because a person suffering with emotional problems initially doesn't understand what is causing her symptoms, she may not know she even needs to ask for help. She might see outward signs that something is wrong, but have no idea that unconscious issues are directing the course and outcome of her relationships.

Over the years, Dr. Martin and I observed that most relationships are strained and complicated to a significant extent by the combined unconscious patterns of each of the participants. It's no wonder that relationships defy interpretation. Because we don't perceive any of our own unconscious influences, let alone those that affect others, we cannot fully comprehend our relationships. To achieve the intimate connections and successful relationships that we long to have, we must learn to understand the unconscious and how it acts on others and ourselves.

There is a major difficulty in writing a book on relationships. It is difficult to describe behaviors and emotional issues people struggle with that lie outside of their conscious awareness. Our goal is to help you become more aware of yourself. By reading the book, we hope you will become more familiar with how the unconscious is working in your own and others' lives, and be able to take control of situations that you want to change or improve.

To get started on discovering how we each learned to behave in relationships, we go back to the beginning and look at what happens to us as babies and toddlers.

Children Get Early Emotional Shaping

The most important task of early childhood is to establish a method of relating with others. In infancy, a baby's survival depends on support from his parents or other caretakers. For the rest of his life, this experience of how his caregivers relate to him beginning in the first days, weeks, and months of life will govern his ability to deal with all others. What that baby learns will also affect his emotional health. A young child not only experiences all of his own reactions but will scrutinize his parents in minute detail in the ways they interact with him. These interactions are recorded indelibly during the vital first years of life. We never erase this early learning about how relationships work.

By the time a child can talk, she begins to grasp the basic principles of social contact with others. In other words, she starts to acquire a foundation of socialization early — in the first two or three years of her life. She is taught how to relate to others by her primary caregivers, usually her parents. New parents often take on this daunting task with the belief that parenting skills come naturally. They rely on their own instincts instead of taking formal parenting classes. So, where do parents get their information on how to teach their children how to relate to others? From their own experiences during their childhood — from the way they were treated when they were children.

Most parents face the challenge of child rearing with determination to teach their children their own approaches for dealing with others. They consciously teach their children principles such as kindness, trust, reliability, and self-reliance. They also provide emotional affection, which affects the way a child will embrace these principles.

If you are a parent, you are likely aware of the values you wish to impress on your children because they are the ones you live your life by. What you are not aware of is that you convey unconscious emotional messages simultaneously with your conscious instructions. You may teach your child how to make her bed, but you will also teach her emotionally how to see bed-making — as a bothersome chore, as something to take pride in, or various other possibilities. These unconscious emotional messages are often different from those given consciously and may even contradict them. You may tell your child not to fight with a sibling, yet encourage him emotionally to settle differences with physical aggression if you strike him for misbehaving.

Because of unconscious emotional instruction we receive as children, our actions are often in conflict with and inconsistent with our ideas of who we are. A young child is extremely sensitive to his parents who make up his entire universe. He learns from the beginning that he can ignore certain verbal communications because another message, an unspoken and unconscious one, takes precedence.

An example is a father who tells his son to stay seated in the grocery cart, but who laughs with delight at his son's attempts to stand up or get out of the seat. This father does not correct his son for doing the opposite of what he instructed. His son gets the unspoken message through his father's emotional reaction of laughter that it's okay to disobey verbal directives. The boy recognizes the real message, which is his father's laughter, because it is charged emotionally. These emotional experiences establish how the boy sees his relationship with his father.

Now add another layer of complexity by including another parent. Parents send different messages to their child. A relationship with one parent might require a very different reaction than when dealing with the other parent. A child learns that although parents may agree verbally on their expectations, their subtler, unconscious messages often conflict. Taken together, these messages offer a coherent, if sometimes complex, approach toward dealing with other people. Each child learns them well.

Therapists who treat children with emotional disturbances understand that these unconscious emotional instructions govern a child's ultimate strategy of relating to people. The messages are highly consistent, and necessarily so, since they represent parents' ingrained attitudes toward others that make up the habitual patterns in their lives. Their emotional instructions are repeated continuously so that, by reinforcement, they become entrenched in their child's personality.

For instance, a child may be told verbally that she is important and loved, but she may hear a stronger, unconscious message of rejection that says, "You have no significance at all and I wish you'd stay at a distance." Or, on a conscious level, she may be told repeatedly the importance of being pleasant and following rules. On the unconscious level, she may be given the compelling message that she may do as she chooses without regard for others. A child who is being neglected or subtly abused by a parent may receive an unconscious instruction that such treatment is reasonable and that she is wrong to question cruel treatment or stand up for herself. When parents repeatedly send these unconscious messages, a child learns to follow them even if she wants to accept and follow the conscious intellectual messages her parents talk about.

What parents convey to their children as they prepare them to participate in society is their own method of relating to other individuals. A parent's reaction to a child's own clumsy and inexperienced efforts to be accepted mold each child in the parents' own image. Each parent can and will teach only what he or she knows. Parents instill and mold their own standards in their children by these continuous emotional responses to their child's behavior. Unaware of the hidden messages their unconscious sends, parents transmit their values, roles, and standards that rigidly govern their child's characteristic response to any given situation involving other people.

This process governs how a child's personality begins to form in his first years of life. He acquires a method of relating to people that he will carry forward from his parents to his immediate environment, to school, and beyond to the demands of adulthood. A child constantly refines her methods and becomes more skillful and, with experience, can handle increasingly complex interactions. But the foundation bears the clear imprint of her parents' basic emotional instruction throughout life. The enduring nature of personality supports the common belief that the personality does not change. But a child's repeated and reinforced emotional conditioning provides continuous and repetitive training for her emerging personality. Each child's personality is established in a gradual but steady manner, its form depending on the particular child and the way her parents, beginning in her first years of life, shaped her.

Unfortunately, most of this early instruction is incomplete and unbalanced and is based on how parents have themselves been instructed. As already explained, this creates a lot of disharmony between the principles and values we want to teach our children and the emotional instruction we give them that sometimes contradicts these values. These contradictory messages often trigger anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders and problems that develop in response to some of the ways we have been taught and trained in early childhood. These problems keep us from understanding the people we relate to as well as ourselves and wreak havoc in our interpersonal relationships.

How People Would Behave in an Ideal World

In an ideal society, children would grow up endowed with guidelines of behavior so well balanced and reasonable that they would act appropriately in every situation. They would be unfailingly thoughtful, though not a pushover, and share the same concern for others as for themselves. They would meet life's changes and stressful conditions with composure. In order to meet each situation appropriately, they would demonstrate exquisite sensitivity to others, remain flexible and empathetic to everyone, and be capable of navigating between extremes of behavior in both themselves and others. They would not be threatened by other peoples' beliefs that conflicted with their own and would even find them interesting and stimulating. They would understand themselves so well that they would feel neither superior nor inferior to others.

If we were all such well-balanced human beings, we would be exempt from emotional illnesses and be more valuable members of society. Unfortunately, although some of us have such admirable qualities, we would have difficulty existing in most societies of the world.

Although these ideals are extremely difficult to achieve, we can learn how to become more aware of ourselves so we can attain greater balance and compatibility in our relationships. When we continue functioning as we've been emotionally shaped, somewhat handicapped by the experiences we had as children and the way our parents taught us to relate to others and the world, we subject ourselves to many crippling outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and other emotional disturbances.

Let's take a closer look at these emotional illnesses, how they come about in early childhood, and how they affect our ability to see our relationships and ourselves clearly.

What the Need to Control Anxiety Does to Our Relationships

Our social relations would be chaotic if we didn't know what to expect from the important people in our lives. Since we unconsciously want to do what is expected to keep our social interactions running smoothly, we consistently behave in ways that give us predictable responses from others. In the process, we create our inflexible personalities as a self-imposed liability, and accept this handicap to decrease our anxieties. We tend to react to others emotionally and reflexively in the same way whenever we meet them. We lose sight of the context in which each interaction with them takes place.


Excerpted from "Living on Automatic"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Martin and Adams, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Mary E. Schwab, MD, MAR, xi,
Preface Homer B. Martin, MD, xiii,
Acknowledgments, xvii,
Introduction Christine B. L. Adams, MD, xix,
Part One Understanding Emotional Conditioning, 1,
Chapter 1 How We Learn About Relationships, 3,
Chapter 2 Emotional Conditioning, 13,
Chapter 3 Seven Effects of Emotional Conditioning, 29,
Chapter 4 The Omnipotent Personality, 43,
Chapter 5 The Impotent Personality, 60,
Part Two Relationship Struggles: Miscommunications and Marriages, 79,
Chapter 6 Why We Miscommunicate, 81,
Chapter 7 Roles Within Marriages, 104,
Chapter 8 Conflicts in Marriage, 116,
Chapter 9 Getting Divorced and Single Again, 132,
Part Three Solutions: Psychotherapy and Deconditioning, 149,
Chapter 10 Emotional Illness and Therapy: The Deconditioning Process, 151,
Chapter 11 What You Can Do to Decrease Living on Automatic, 164,
Notes, 173,
Suggested Reading and Viewing, 175,

What People are Saying About This

Richard L. "Rich" Jones

"With 80 years of solid clinical experience behind it, this groundbreaking book illustrates a revolutionary approach to manage your life, your relationships, and gain self-understanding. Martin and Adams' new discoveries will make a difference in the lives of people who are dealing with substance use disorders."

Mary E. Schwab

“The beauty of this book is that it goes far deeper than self-help. Martin and Adams show us how to discover who we are, what people we become attracted to, and why. They also give us hope by offering solutions for relationship difficulties.”

Kevin Fall

“With laser focus, Living on Automatic cuts to the crux of the human condition—self-understanding and how we relate to others. Drs. Martin and Adams provide us with a lens and method to begin changing our lives. Want to positively impact your world? Read this book.”

Moshe Landsman

“Martin and Adams present a straightforward and refreshing analysis of your interpersonal behavior and how common difficulties in relationships can be explained and understood. Many case examples enliven the text and include people of all ages, gender/sex pairings, cultures, religions and economic strata. You will gain self-understanding, discover why you respond the way you do in your closest relationships, and what you can do to make changes in yourself.”

James L. Fisher

“A must-read for anyone seeking new ideas and findings about their relationships. The scope and depth of Drs. Martin and Adams’ clinical experience to discover how we manage our relationships with one another is nothing short of mind-boggling. Their work is comprehensive, spanning infancy through old age.”

Ron Higdon

“For most of us, it is far too easy to be unaware of how unaware we are. Dr. Homer Martin did not hesitate to cut across traditional boundaries in order to help people get off automatic pilot and bring a larger degree of intentionality into their relationships. I am grateful that his unique methods in psychotherapy and his innovative approach have made their way into this book coauthored by Dr. Christine B.L. Adams. The reader is assured of many 'Aha!' moments in terms of self-understanding and the emotional conditioning that shape our interactions. The book concludes with 'Steps You Can Take to Diminish Living on Automatic.' Homer never failed to tell me, 'There is something we can do.'"

Jim Wayne

"Living on Automatic is a welcome guide for the curious, the confused, and the conscientious seeking to understand themselves and the people around them. Breaking new ground in understanding the patterns of the mind shaped in childhood, this book offers direction and hope in our troubled world."

Judith R. Milner

Living on Automatic is a life changer if you want to possess authenticity through self-discovery and look deeply into your relationships. If you wonder why you repeatedly marry similar spouses, why you have problems with your children or parents, and why you are unhappy in your closest relationships, you will find answers.”

Richard L. “Rich” Jones

“With 80 years of solid clinical experience behind it, this groundbreaking book illustrates a revolutionary approach to manage your life, your relationships, and gain self-understanding. Martin and Adams’ new discoveries will make a difference in the lives of people who are dealing with substance use disorders."

Homayoun Sadeghi

“A timely new concept simply and eloquently expressed. Drs. Martin and Adams provide a surefire method to help you uncover why you think and act the way you do in life. This is a must-read for those seeking a new avenue for raising children, negotiating relationships and getting out of or avoiding messy relationships that do not work. You will discover how to re-evaluate your emotionally triggered roles and habits and make relationship changes for the better.”

Carol Clifton

“Ever wish you could solve or avoid problematic relationships? If you are willing to do the tough work of self-examination, Living on Automatic will improve your relationships and your life. This book invites you to think deeply about who you are and to discover how to lessen your automatic emotional and behavioral responses to others that create difficulties for you.”

Jennifer Bell

“Drs. Martin and Adams not only craft a new approach for grasping personality development but they also explain why we act and react in relationships the ways we do. Living on Automatic provides practical strategies for making positive and healthy changes in our most vital relationships with our families, friends, lovers, children, bosses, and coworkers.”

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