Charles Gustafson, MFT

Lic.# 5983

1. PLEASURE PRINCIPLE-- All people always act in ways intended to bring less pain and more pleasure.      

2.    During the first five years of a child’s life parents are almost totally in charge of the consequences of their child’s behavior.  Behavior that brings negative consequences tends to get discontinued while behavior that brings positive consequences tends to be repeated.

3.    Disciplined parents responding thoughtfully to their children’s behavior are able to shape that behavior.

4.    Parental inconsistency, lack of parental teamwork and emotion based reactive behavior undermine attempts at getting compliant behavior.

5.    It is as important to teach children how to think as it is to teach how to act!  For instance,    “This is too hard.  I’m stupid!”  could become “ This is challenging so  I will ask for help!”

6.    Children focus on relatively short-term goals.  Adults can focus on short term or long term goals.  As we age and gain in wisdom, our choices reflect greater maturity.

7.    Although we aren’t in charge of what the world brings us, we are in charge of how we respond to what the world brings us.  Such responses can be informed choices or automatic reactions.  This is very important!

8.    Parental responses to misbehavior that do not uphold the child’s basic sense of value and worth will not lead to healthy future behavior!

9.    Behaviors that enhance the quality of life get repeated.  That’s healthy human nature.

The newborn infant arrives with no assumptions and very few skills.  Sucking, grasping, crying and pooping pretty much cover the talents of a newborn.  During the first weeks, months and years of it’s life, the infant has direct experience of the immediate environment that makes up its world.  Since the young infant has no ability to think in the classic sense, this experience is simply channeled into its awareness as “experience”.  (Since thinking is not part of the repertoire of a young child, it is always unfair to criticize a young child for not “thinking before you act”.)

In the initial weeks, months and years of its life, the child is learning what kind of world it lives in through direct experience.  A healthy child born into a family of mature responsible adults who are ready, willing and able to meet the incessant demands of an infant learns that the world is tolerant, nurturing, gentle and loving.  A child born into an impaired family may learn that the world is harsh, unpredictable, hostile and unforgiving. 

As the child gets older, it continues to learn.  The child learns how to tell which shoe goes on which foot and whether the pants zipper goes in the front or the back or the side.  He/she learns (by trial and error) how to hold a glass of liquid without spilling.  The child also learns what to expect when errors are made.  The child learns whether an error means that he is a learning newcomer who isn’t expected to be perfect or that he/she is a foolish idiot.  In some worlds (families) mistakes are seen as occasions to receive punishment while in other worlds (families) mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and accepted as normal for a young growing child.

These things and countless others are all encountered by a child before he/she achieves the ability for high level abstract thinking.  All that learning simply becomes part of the child’s awareness of the world.

As the child does begin to develop rudimentary abilities to think and reason, there is much more to learn.  The child learns to talk and walk and tie his shoes.  As these behaviors are learned and then repeated innumerable times,  they become automatic and no longer require our conscious attention.  Over time, they become unconscious.  Our unconscious is like a big storage room where we file all the behaviors that we’ve learned by heart.  When the situation comes up that requires that behavior, it is called up and delivered from our unconscious file room automatically.  That is why, when driving, we see tail lights come on in the car in front of us and we have our foot on the brake before our conscious brain even registers what is happening.

When you get up in the morning and put on your shoes you tie them without conscious thought.  It’s automatic!

By the time we reach adulthood, the majority of our day to day behaviors have become automatic (unconscious).  The only time that we need to use our conscious brain is when confronted by a new situation for which we may not have yet developed a satisfactory response.

If life is working to our general satisfaction, there may be no real need to examine the effectiveness of our unconsciousness.  However, if we are troubled by the turns our lives take or the roads we seem to be traveling down, then it may make sense to examine unconscious programming. The unconscious can be re-programmed.  It tends to take time and can be somewhat uncomfortable, but it is doable.  The problem is that the re-programming can only be done from the conscious and we are only in the conscious for brief periods of time.  In a sense, when we are behaving consciously, our unconscious is constantly looking for a chance to step in and take over for us.  It is our loyal and faithful servant.

Fortunately, there are techniques we can use to assist us in re-programming.  The hard part is to become conscious about whatever behavior we wish to change.  Several years ago I worked with a family that consisted of a single parent Dad and his sixteen and thirteen year old daughters.  I made weekly house calls and we held a family meeting at each session.  At one such meeting Dad reported that he was at his wits end regarding his thirteen year old daughter.  He stated that his morning chores included getting himself ready for work, preparing his lunch and fixing breakfast for all three of them.  Invariably, his daughter would enter the kitchen and in a very whiny voice she would insist that he brush and braid her hair.  This typically occurred while he had a frying pan in his hand.  I invited him to respond to her next such request as follows:  “Either change the tone of your voice now or return to your room until you can. Either choice is okay with me.”  I asked the daughter if she could work with that and she said she could.  When I returned one week later, both father and daughter reported that mornings were much more pleasant since they had used the new behavior.

I congratulated them both on their success and we went on to other business.  The following week when I arrived, I asked them again how the mornings were going.  Father said that the mornings were horrible and that his younger daughter was about to drive him crazy with her whining.  When I asked if he was still using the program that we had agreed on, he said that he had completely forgotten about it and mornings were back to being stressfully chaotic.  He agreed to return to the program that had been so successful before.  The third week I again asked about the mornings and he again said they had been horrible.  Once more he had forgotten to use the program that had been so successful before.  After inquiring for two or three more weeks and hearing that he’d forgotten each time, I stopped asking.  I don’t know that he ever did use that successful program again. He could not remain conscious of the behavior he wished to change.

Now I would do one thing different.  In order to help my current clients remain conscious of the behavior they wish to change I write down the new response and suggest the person hangs it on his or her bedroom or bathroom mirror where he/she would see it in the morning. The most important tool in re-programming is to bring the new behavior pattern to consciousness.  Next you must find a way to keep it conscious.  Notes or pictures posted prominently on a desk, mirror or computer are a good step toward any desired behavior transformation

Verbal and non-verbal messages given to a young child by the parent or other trusted adult are accepted as gospel and stored directly in the storage bin of the child’s unconscious.  Long after the child is no longer consciously able to recall the words of the parent or trusted adult, the message remains in storage and plays subliminally during times of stress.  A negative introject is like a splinter in the soul.

Introjects could be compared to the plant fertilizer stakes that were sold at supermarkets and drug stores.  Popsicle sticks had been dipped in liquid fertilizer until the stick absorbed the liquid and then hung up to dry.  Then they were packaged and sold to the consumer to take home and put in the soil of their potted plants.  Then, every time the plant was watered, the plant stake would release fertilizer and feed the plant.  Every time a parent acknowledges a child’s effort it is like fertilizer to the child.  Years later, during times of stress, that child (now grown) will play that message subliminally and   will feel heartened.  Acknowledgement, praise and messages of love form positive introjects.

Now imagine that Popsicle stick being dipped in liquid poison and dried and packaged to put in your plant.  Every time the plant was watered it would release toxins.  That would be the equivalent of a negative introject.  Calling our children names or yelling at them or generally treating them with disrespect creates negative introjects.

Since children are so fragile and parents are so human, perhaps some negative introjects are inevitable. Even if one’s parents are perfect, there are still Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents and neighbors, teachers and community people to contend with.

Generally, no one gets out of childhood with out some negative introjects.  If they are sufficiently numerous or painful, one can  see a professional who can help remove them.  Negative introjects are removed much the same as wood splinters are removed.   They can usually be located by following the pain.  Once located, they are dug out and removed through counter programming and reframing.   Susan Forward wrote a book that can be very helpful in that regard.  It is called Toxic Parents and I recommend it highly.

A baby tends to experience the world in one of two ways; the world is pleasant and he is happy or the world is unpleasant and she is very unhappy.  There are few gradations or subtle variations.  The child may be either content or in a rage.  The world and the people in it are either good or bad.  This condition continues for years (sometimes for very many years).

This situation is seen with six year old Robert and his friend John.  Robert and John are neighbors and they are inseparable.  Any time you see one, the other is likely near by.  They play together every day and often eat lunch together and sleep over at each other’s houses.  They plan to grow up and be firemen together or astronauts.

One day Robert goes next door to find John.  When John comes to the door he tells Robert that he can’t play with him.  John’s cousin from out of town has come to visit.  He has brought some neat games with him but they are for two people only and so John can’t play with Robert today.  Robert comes home in tears and loudly proclaims John to be a no good ratfink and he will never like John or play with him again.  He hates John!!!  John has gone from being his best friend to his worst enemy.  This is splitting.  The day after John’s cousin goes home, he and Robert are playing happily together again. 

As Robert gets older, he will learn that the world is not so simple. The world is not just black and white.  There are shades of gray.  A classic question relates to the man who steals a loaf of bread for his starving children.  Would it be more wrong to allow the children to starve or to steal the loaf of bread?

Hopefully, adults learn to suffer the inevitable disappointments and unhappiness of relationships without seeing the world or the people in it as “bad”.  The ability to understand other people through empathy and identification is essential to successful relationships.

However, when stressed, anyone can regress to an earlier ego state and engage in splitting.  This is routinely seen in political strife.  Reagan pronounced the USSR as an “evil” empire and currently some in the Muslim world are described as evil.  Those same people describe us as evil.  This is known as “demonization” wherein the person who is seen as behaving outrageously is written off as a bad person.  In a sense, this is a lazy person’s attempt at understanding a problem.  We all want to understand.  Not understanding is very stressful.  We don’t like being “in the dark”.  So we grab at an easy solution. The other person is bad.  There!  That explains it.

The opposite of splitting behavior is to cultivate mature and genuine understanding on a deep level.

About Charles Gustafson

Charles L. Gustafson has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 1973. He offers a combination of interactive psychotherapy and educational information in his approach to counseling.