Learned behaviour is often a result to an external stimulus. For example a child may learn that they will get burnt if they touch something hot. Therefore they learn to avoid touching hot things. As the child grows they learn new things and new behaviours. For instance adults generally don’t be on their best behaviour and be in bed by seven o’clock every December in the hope of a visit from Santa. They may however learn that certain behaviours will bring certain rewards.
Some learned behaviours are deeply ingrained. Ingrained to the point where sometimes the person doesn’t quite understand why they behave the way they do. Consider the following example.
Tom and Ann get married. Tom fancies himself as a bit of a wizard in the kitchen and enjoys making meals for Ann. Every Sunday he cooks roast beef for Ann and she really enjoys it. She watches him preparing the food in the kitchen and sees him every week cutting the ends off the joint before putting it the roasting dish. She wonders about this and asks him one day why he cuts the ends off the beef. “An old family secret.” says Tom, “My mother always cut the ends off the beef before cooking it”.
This doesn’t tell Ann why though, so next time they were visiting Tom’s family she asks his mother. “Tom always cuts the ends off the beef before cooking it, he said that you showed him that. Why do you do that?” Tom’s mother just smiles and says, “My mother always did it.”
Again, Ann doesn’t feel any closer to understanding why cut the ends off the beef until they were visiting Tom’s grandmother. Ann thought now’s my chance and she asks, “Both Tom and his mother said they learned how to cook beef from you. Why did you always cut the ends off it before cooking it?” to which the old woman replied, “I only had a small roasting tin, the beef wouldn’t fit.”
As in the example there are times when the behaviours we learn serve no purpose and only confuse ourselves and others. There are also times when the behaviours we learn no longer serve a purpose and are in fact self-defeating. In some cases where a person is in a co-dependent or in a trauma bonded relationship with a parent the thought of challenging the learned behaviour or indeed learning a new one is terrifying. Take, for instance a teenager who is told that sex is bad and that it is wrong and dirty and they’re not allowed a boy or girlfriend. Imagine that teenager as an adult struggling with intimacy in an adult relationship. That person may feel so conflicted by wanting to be intimate with someone they’ve fallen in love with. They may even feel pleasure being physically close to another person. However the thought of doing something they have been told is wrong (many years ago and in a completely different context) is confusing and frightening. This can be both unhelpful and unhealthy for the person and the relationship.
In counselling you can learn what lies behind current unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You can learn to address what can be causing anxiety and distress. With the help of a therapist you can develop healthier more fulfilling ways of living.
This article was written by sentientcounselling