Trapped in line behind a mother with a squalling child, I took in the grasping toward the candy rack, and advised, “You know, that’s not going to work much longer. You need to learn how to talk.” The child began to pout, and then settled into thoughtful repose.
In learning to nurse, an infant does not reference a “Mommy Owner’s Manual.” In the first cuddle after birth, the two partners do random things until the milk flows from breast to stomach. This is conditioned learning. This is how animals learn, and their drivers are primitive: survival and sex.
Words change our engagement with reality. They impose order and structure on sensory input. The infant’s source of life becomes “Mama.” When presented with a substitute lacking the necessary features (“Dada”), the right word summons her into our presence. And further, our graduation from dependent to partner might begin when Dada asks us to “Bring Mama.”
Those words do more than define a goal. They conjure her in our imagination, priming our senses to filter the noise of experience for clues to her presence. As we learn to describe events, we may recognize that Mama will take on different qualities in different circumstances. The “cooking” Mama may be unapproachable, while the “playing” Mama may hide in the closet. According to the promptings of our emotions, our speaking transforms her character – though our own behavior must adapt to match. Which is our priority, then: food or play? Remember and imagine, dear child…
This link between words and imagination engenders a transition that the Catholic Church sanctifies as “First Communion.” As the link between words and imagination solidifies, we reach the Age of Reason. We do not need to try a behavior to understand its consequences. We can play out possibilities in our imagination, we can ask permission, we can learn from the testimony of those that preceded us, we can negotiate roles, we can formulate theories concerning the evolution of material and social systems. This is intentional learning.
The early psychotherapists, predated by religious leaders, understood that reason qualified them to help clients bring order to lives dominated by conditioned learning. Sigmund Freud coined “id” to identify the realm of conditioning and cultivated fear of its excesses. Dr. John Kappas, founder of the Hypnosis Motivation Institute, was so impressed by the power of reason that he anointed the conscious mind as its repository. This was perhaps the only profound error in his theory of personality development, redeemed by his dedication as a counselor to the suffering and educator of compassionate students.
In counseling clients suffering from relationship trauma, the transition from conditioned to intentional learning is an essential point in psychoeducation. Partners doing random things to secure survival and sex are going to be chaotic and perhaps dangerously unreliable. Attempts to withdraw from an abusive relationship will generate destructive responses in the animal that is losing access to fundamental biological needs. Unfortunately, we cannot negotiate with a partner that operates at the level of conditioning. To them, words are tools that turn the victim’s imagination against them, creating expectations that never materialize.
This point is so fundamental that I am astonished that is not advance by psychotherapists. It is implicit in the structure of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which applies reason and logic to soften fears that prevent victims from accepting support from strangers thereby qualified for friendship. But something more is needed by those seeking to rebuff the random promises offered by the slave to conditioning. Victims need organized strategies to penetrate the illusions. They must be counseled to defer gratification of basic needs (survival and sex) until it is established that words will be matched by future deeds.
The challenge is that the sex drive evolves after the mind divides into conscious and subconscious realms. It arises from a part of the mind that operates at the level of conditioning, undermining our reason with the constant hammering of desire from the most sensitive parts of our body.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of adulthood is to build expectations for romantic partnership to serve as a counterweight to lust. Hypnotherapy can be a powerful aid in this quest. In dialog before trance, client and therapist build a detailed story of a fulfilled partnership. Then in trance the imagined life is presented to the subconscious, priming the sensory apparatus to focus on opportunities to realize that vision. Lust is moderated and eventually tamed, to be unleashed ecstatically only in celebration of that realized partnership.
To those that have been traumatized by romantic narcissists, or that identify as “trauma bonded,” recognize that your abuser is exploiting an underdeveloped capacity for intentional learning. Invest in the disciplines of reason. No attempt to use sex or service to modify their behavior can be successful until both you and our partner are intentional in your relationship.