Rats are one of the animals used in testing the Theory of Learning in Psychology known as Operant Conditioning or Skinnerian Conditioning. A major finding of this approach to how we learn things is what is called “Escape and Avoidance Learning”. Escape conditioning refers to the situation in which a rat learns to “escape” a noxious stimulus, i.e. a rat learns to jump off an electrified platform into water when a shock is turned on. This is the “get me out of here” or “shut this thing off” response.
The rat can learn very quickly that it can “avoid” being shocked if it jumps off the electrified platform before the shock is turned on, when it gets a cue that the shock is coming.
Avoidance behaviors are incredibly persistent; they continue to happen long after there is no longer anything to avoid. The rat will jump off the platform at the sound of the cue long after the shock generator is turned off, even if the experimenter never turns it on again. What keeps the avoidance behavior going is the relief the rat experiences as it jumps off the platform.
We human demonstrate the same “escape-avoidance” kind of learning in the face of a noxious stimulus. Our human noxious stimulus is feeling “threatened” in an interpersonal situation. Feeling threatened, often signaled by feeling angry, irritated, miffed, hurt, anxious, and/or fearful, is the dreaded sense of being exposed as inadequate in some way.
There is ample evidence that childhood experiences, such as not being attended to by a parent, are recorded in some form in our memory and can be evoked in our adult interactions. Such experiences are frequently evoked in our adult intimate relationships because we expect extra consideration from our spouse. Married couples, thus, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing the dreaded feeling of “not being good enough”,” not being important enough”, “not being worthy”, not recognized enough”, “not valued enough”; experiences elicited first in childhood when a child perceives his/her parent is not caring, loving, and keeping her/him safe.
The most common indicator of feeling threatened occurs when we “take things personally”. The threat comes from our own sense of inadequacy or insecurity. We all suffer from such feelings; this is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment. It is a consequence of the cognitive and emotional limitations of childhood that we all experience at some time in some way.
In those situations in which you find yourself feeling threatened, you will recognize your “escape” responses. You will either do something to “get me out of here” (the flight reaction, e.g. shut down verbally, leave the room) or something to “shut this thing off” (the fight reaction, e.g. yelling, threatening retaliation).
No wonder we develop defenses, which are our “avoidance” actions, in order not to have to continually “escape” obnoxious experiences that cause us to feel really badly (insecure and inadequate) and cause us to behave so badly toward others.
I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” for these “avoidance” strategies because most people think of the common Freudian (Anna not Sigmund) defenses of denial, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, and sublimation. These defenses are used to protect our self from our self (our ego from our id). I am identifying strategies we use to protect our self from perceived attack, criticism, rejection, etc. from our spouse and others.
An example of a self-protective strategy is “perfectionism” in which we try to avoid being corrected or criticized by doing things “correctly”,” logically”,” in the right way”. Being corrected or criticized elicits strong feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.
You can find other examples of the self-protective strategies we develop from the time we are very young to try to “avoid” the noxious feeling of being threatened in my previous post “Protecting Yourself from Threat”.
Managing Your “Escape” and “Avoidance” Tactics
Personal insecurities that elicit “escape” tactics are not set in stone. Don’t waste your time trying to overcome or get rid of them. Personal insecurities are manageable and modifiable with effort on your part. Here are some suggestions:
Regularly taking a personal inventory using the Inventory shown at the bottom of the post. Keep a journal of the kinds of insecurities that tend to show up in your inventories. They will emerge under the inventory heading of “What is the threat?” Once you can recognize such themes of insecurity, you will more easily manage them effectively.
Of course, the first step in managing your self-protective strategies is to recognize what they are. You are likely to think that the particular strategy or strategies you use are due to your temperament or personality because these are old patterns we learned when we were younger. Just like our lab rat, these strategies bring us immediate relief when we use them even though they are ineffective and unhealthy long-term strategies. Here are some suggestions on how to manage these ineffective interpersonal strategies:
Look at the Rationale column of the list of self-protective strategies in my previous post “PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM THREAT”. This column describes the way you think about yourself, e.g., “I am a quiet person” or “I am a nice person”. Look at the Interpersonal Goal column, which describes what your strategy is and what you are trying to protect yourself from. Your spouse or someone close to you may be able to help you identify these strategies because they directly affect him/her.
Become more willing to be self-reflective by both recognizing when you are taking things personally and recognizing the patterns of self-protection that you use to avoid feeling insecure and/or inadequate. The payoffs to you personally and to your relationship will be dramatic. When you first make the attempt to be more self-reflective, it will seem awkward and you will feel very self-absorbed. Over time, you can learn new approaches to communicating interpersonally with your spouse and others, which will become more second nature and your old patterns will require less attention.