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Why Do People Behave the Way They Do?

By Peter Shepherd

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For cognitive growth to occur, a child must orient himself to novelty and respond to it with exploration. So long as the child operates within the protective environment provided by mother, anxiety is low and learning can proceed. But if the child's exploration arouses maternal rejection or punishment, anxiety is aroused in a strong form, because the child is dependent on mother and fears desertion. The child can resolve this dilemma only through compromise: he voluntarily restricts his activities within the boundaries acceptable to the mother. He avoids, denies or suppresses the emotional responses which, although natural reactions to frustration, are unacceptable to mother. This creates a social environment of adaptedness within which he can feel at ease with himself.

These patterns of responding are not forgotten; they remain as unclarified memories that are not incorporated cognitively into the rules by which a person explains himself - in other words, they are unconscious. But they still take effect. Fear hurts; as an experience it is normally avoided. So, with no clear understanding as to why, a person comes to shy away from certain kinds of social experience that sufficiently resemble the original circumstances that created anxiety as an infant. The original fears are re-stimulated and the safe solutions that the child adopted are re-enacted.

The 'unconscious', then, refers to those memories that were once attended to so vividly that they cannot be erased but which, because of the fear with which they were associated, triggered so much avoidance that they failed to be incorporated in the cognitive rules that construct the understanding of the self. Indeed the interpretive brain is not fully formed when the infant experiences its early trauma; these experiences are thus laid down in the 'old brain', the primitive (in evolutionary terms) but powerful and very fast-acting limbic system which has major influences on emotional response.

In later life, defense is not so much against the ancient memories as such, for they are in any case barely available without extensive psychological work; rather it consists in a failure to process information which tends to arouse anxiety and for which no rules of incorporation have been established. The person either has blind spots and tunnel vision that cuts off unacceptable views, or the information is distorted to an acceptable form.

It thus comes about that personality types unconsciously seek to create for themselves social environments which do not arouse in them the fears of the primal experience. These processes are inevitable characteristics of being human, the evolved basis upon which the diversity of human personality types rests.

Jung suggested that the repressed material as revealed in dreams, fantasies, and evocative folk legends and tales, is far from arbitrary; rather it tends to be patterned in a highly thematic way. Jung's intuition may be based on a universal responsiveness found in human affairs; each of us has a mother, a father, attempts to be a hero, seeks the wise man, and other such 'archetypes'.

These considerations suggest that most adult human beings actually comprehend few of their sources of action and impulse and are often far from knowing consciously what they are about. What we profess to know is usually a rationalization of what has impelled or directed us from within. This includes sources such as innate bio-survival impulses for sexual proliferation and territorial dominance, though these may be suppressed for social acceptability; archetypal themes that pattern unconscious expression drawn from bedrock structures of human family and society, as well as cultural conditioning where ways of being are learned and acquired by identification; frustrating and traumatic experiences in infancy patterning our social boundaries; decisions made as a consequence of traumatic experiences in later life, that are carried over to act in the present, even though the original associated trauma is suppressed from memory and may be empowered by the infancy trauma.

The normal human personality is rife with unconscious or semi-conscious conflicts and limitations, resulting in unhappiness, upsets and depression, and an inhibition of potential self-realization. Healing is not just about alleviating symptoms, it is about discovering the cause of a problem, which ultimately comes down to the individual assuming responsibility for his decisions and choices in the present time. We need to expose the blind spots and distortions and to re-evaluate our present environment newly and objectively. It's never to late to change the early programming that was imprinted in childhood or even in our genes or carried over from previous existences. The life scripts based on which we act out our lives can be replaced with new world views that are empowering rather than self-defeating, based on our adult reason rather than childhish fear, greed and envy.

Question everything you think. Is it a false assumption? An over-generalization? Is it copying someone else you like or admire? Do you think that way because you need to? Because you fear not to? Do you prevent yourself from thinking something because you are afraid to, because of consequences that you fear? Is it to get another's approval? To gain admiration? To escape domination? To make yourself right? To make another wrong? To punish yourself, because you deserve it? To please or appease another? Because your parents or friends say so? Because it's on TV or in a book? Because God says so? Because you'd like it to be so or wish it were so? Because you know it isn't so but the lie is useful? Because you have to? Because it's the way you feel? Because it's convenient? Because it helps you to fit in? Because they deserve it?
By being totally objective and reality-based in our thinking, we move out of the left-brain mode of rationalized thought, with its potential for lies and fabrication, towards a new mode of thought that integrates fully with the right brain and its quality of honesty (the right brain cannot lie!) and intuitive truthfullness. For more information about the qualities of left and right brain thinking, see 'Transforming the Mind'.

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