Gen Med Mind-Body

Is Emotional Conditioning Getting in the Way of Your Life?

September 17, 2020

Featured Physician: Christine B.L. Adams, MD

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

Christine B.L. Adams, M.D., is a child, adolescent, and adult Board-Certified Psychiatrist. She has been in practice for 40 years treating people of all ages. During her extensive career, she has taught in academia, was a forensic child psychiatrist, and worked in community mental health settings, for the Social Security Administration, and for the Department of Defense. She received her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Florida, College of Medicine. She completed Residency in Psychiatry and also a Fellowship in Child Psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

She is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a Life Member of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Adams is a frequent guest on radio and podcasts. She hosts a blog at titled, “Living on Automatic––Why Emotions Override Thinking Every Time.” Dr. Adams is co-author with Homer B. Martin, M.D., of the award-winning, bestselling book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.

What is Emotional Conditioning?

myDoqter: Thank you for sitting down with us to discuss the idea of “emotional conditioning”, Dr. Adams. Can you explain to us this concept that goes back to childhood and how this seems to shape all of our future relationships?

Dr. Adams: The concept of “emotional conditioning” explains how parents unconsciously shape us emotionally in early childhood. Parents instruct us how to make a bed, how to read, and how to act when Uncle Bill comes over. They demonstrate to us emotional responses––how to feel about bed making, how to emotionally perceive reading, and how to emotionally regard and respond to Uncle Bill. This teaches us how to react emotionally to others and conduct our relationships.

The process is similar to the conditioning that scientist Ivan Pavlov did with his dogs. Imagine that your parents trained you just like you trained your dog. You are programmed to respond on cue the same way every time, as if a treat is waiting for you. You grasp how to react automatically to other people without thinking about what you are doing. Once you learn an emotionally conditioned response to another person, you repeat it every time you encounter him or her, like a trained dog.

We discovered children are emotionally conditioned by the cues from and expectations parents have of them. Parents impart ideas of not only how children see themselves, but also how they think about themselves and others, behave in relationships, and how they experience emotions, their own and others.

Emotional Conditioning is associational learning, or shaping, in which two things taking place in our lives at the same time, will gradually start to become associated. It takes place automatically. This early learning is reinforced as we grow up and it forms the basis of adult relationships. Emotional conditioning creates significant interpersonal difficulties for all of us. We grow up to live programmed lives that cause relationship conflicts with your family, partner or spouse, and children, and you have no idea why. This can lead to emotional illness and substance abuse.

Where Does Emotional Conditioning Come From?

myDoqter: You talk about a mindset concept, omnipotency versus impotency, that affects all of us and stems from childhood. These concepts seem to affect all people regardless of specifics like age, gender, nationality, or religion. Can you explain these different “roles” that affect how people function?

Dr. Adams: Emotional Conditioning creates two roles or personalities. We call these the omnipotent and impotent roles. Each role exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Omnipotent role people behave, think, and emote as if they believe they are very strong. They strive for perfection and avoid depending on others. They display strong problem-solving skills, especially for others who are needy. They rarely ask for help and seek out thankless relationships. They have wide interests and are goal-oriented. Usually, they are constrained with emotional displays and hold in their feelings to the point they may not be able to identify what they feel.

Impotent role people behave, think, and display emotions, seeing themselves as weak and powerless. They are very dependent on others to do and think for them. They downplay their ability to solve problems. They have a narrower set of interests and are skilled at avoiding responsibility. They act needy and are a bundle of continuing emotional displays. They resort to feeling over thinking. They are skilled at manipulating others to do what they want.

Each role is emotionally conditioned differently in childhood. We discovered age, sex, cultural upbringing, and nationality play no role in the conditioning process. The patterns appear to be the same worldwide.

Emotional Conditioning Affects Everyday Life

myDoqter: That is very interesting. Can you explain how this emotional conditioning affects us in our day-to-day lives? It seems that it would be important for us to understand this in order to make good choices!

Dr. Adams: Here are a few examples of how emotional conditioning affects our daily lives. Emotional conditioning stops us from thinking. We simply react emotionally to others by unconscious clues from them. We fail to think about the best way to respond to another person in a specific situation.

We have impaired judgment in evaluating others and ourselves. We learn to respond to the veneer of others––their role––but not to their individuality. We only evaluate by superficial traits and this creates chaos in relationships because it means we stereotype.

We attach the same meanings to emotions for all of us. But emotions have different meanings for each person. We often misinterpret what other people reveal to us emotionally because of our emotional conditioning in childhood. Crying in one person may not indicate the sadness another person believes they are having. Instead, it could mean anger or jealousy.

Emotional Conditioning, Miscommunication, and Conflict

myDoqter: That is really quite profound. So essentially our emotional conditioning can affect our judgment and thinking so that we may not truly understand the emotions of ourselves and of others. How does this contribute to miscommunication and frustration in our relationships?

Dr. Adams: We experience chaos and frustration in personal relationships because we do not understand those around us. Several things create miscommunication. I’ll list a few.

  • Emotions skew thinking. Because as children we acquire emotionally laden patterns of feeling and behavior, these affect our cognitive skills. Thus, emotions dictate personal decisions about others. These decisions introduce distortions into every relationship.
  • We don’t observe before making decisions. We react to others automatically and so quickly that we don’t gather all the data we need to make a good decision.
  • We use magical thinking. This means we assume that wishing or thinking something makes it happen. Thus, magical thinking substitutes for reality and breaks down communication between people.
  • We use double standards. We erroneously assume we treat all people the same when we do not. Impotent role and omnipotent role people do not relate the same way to one another. Such different treatment and assumptions about others produce miscommunication.
  • We think others think like us. We assume our judgment is reasonable and that others think the same way as us. This frustrates our relationships and introduces distortions because no two people think alike.

myDoqter: There seem to be a lot of potential roadblocks in our relationships! What are the conflicts in marriage you see as a therapist and why do you think they are so common today? Why are we seeing such a high incidence of divorces now?        

Dr. Adams: Couples struggle over sex, childcare, finances, running the household, how and when to spend leisure time, extramarital affairs, emotional illnesses and substance abuse.

Most conflicts arise due to our emotionally conditioned roles from childhood. Then, when dating, we practice our role from childhood and seek mates that arouse strong emotions in us. Then reality falls away to our emotionally conditioned role and our conditioned emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We enter into marriages in which emotions, and not reality, are the guiding force. The result is conflict and struggle.

Divorce is easier to obtain than in prior generations and more people resort to it. There are thousands of dating sites and much advice for the newly divorced. I found people should understand their prior difficulties in marriage before entering into marriage again. In this way they can prevent repetition of the same problems.

Deconditioning Therapy

myDoqter: It sounds like “deconditioning” our emotional conditioning may be a really important component of therapy. Can you discuss the basics of how you approach psychotherapy and “deconditioning” in patients with relationship issues?

Dr. Adams: Most people coming to see me arrive with depression and anxiety due to relationship conflicts with spouses, children, or other family members. I recognize that, for them to be depressed or anxious, their coping mechanisms must be overwhelmed in some way. Coping becomes overwhelmed when the routine way of conducting relationships no longer works. A person may not be able to get a mate into treatment for substance abuse. Or, a mate not be able to meet family obligations due to physical illness, and the partner gets depressed and anxious instead of picking up the slack for the family.

No one is normal, I tell my patients. My first goal is to help them discover their conditioned role learned in childhood. This aids them in understanding how they conduct their relationships.

The second step is to help them discover what needs to change for their emotional illness to improve. The change lies in the way they manage relationships, the support imbalances and the conflicts.

Deconditioning Psychotherapy helps patients move out of their emotionally conditioned roles and managing relationships on autopilot. I help them to increase their skills of observation and of thinking instead of reacting to other people. I encourage them to think about and observe who says what and when. What are the circumstances of each interaction with a person you are in conflict with? Who gives to whom and who receives in the encounter? How is the ‘giving support’ and ‘taking support’ unbalanced between you? I help them slow down their decision-making until they have sufficient time to think. Thinking removes the emotionally conditioned automatic response to others.

People in deconditioning psychotherapy improve their ability to think logically and not subvert logical thought to reflex emotional conditioned responses. People then can decide what is a reasonable way for them to conduct themselves in the situation with another person. Patients learn to base their decisions on evidence rather than by emotional persuasion. They no longer pursue a narrow, emotionally conditioned stereotyped role. Their worldview is broader. They heal their emotional illnesses.

myDoqter: In closing, are there any final thoughts on your extensive research and clinical career that you feel help in our understanding of relationships and the interplay with childhood experiences?        

Dr. Adams: I want to explain how we did the research that is in our book, Living on Automatic––How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships. Over eighty combined years, my mentor, Homer B. Martin, MD, and I worked with thousands of patients in long-term dynamic psychotherapy. People ranged in age from preschoolers to people in their nineties.

People think the personality cannot be changed. But we discovered deconditioning psychotherapy could make significant changes in the personality, enough to heal emotional illnesses and relationship conflict.

The ideal for preventing emotional suffering and illness is to begin with prevention, with young parents learning about how they will emotionally condition their children unless they take steps not to.

To learn more about Dr. Christine B.L. Adams and the topics discussed in this article, please visit:




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