BEHAVIORAL CONDITIONING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was an anxious child. I’m convinced that my father had a serious anxiety/depression disorder, which I undoubtedly inherited. From early on, I had nervous ticks, anxiety attacks, learning problems, and psychosomatic stomach problems. I was also a bed wetter and a chronic worrier. I obsessively worried about everything that could possibly go wrong in any situation. The world seemed dark and scary to me. I often felt overwhelmed, beyond my ability to cope.

Me at about six or seven

When I was 40, medication became available that helped me conquer my inner demons. Decades before, my mother decided to train me out of my worry addiction. She used behavior modification techniques that she learned about in her training as a psychologist. I owe her a tremendous debt for the effort she put into reconditioning me.

My mother stopped me whenever I started ‘awfulizing’, a great made up word that means seeing the dark side of any situation and making it worse. “Don’t bleed until you’re cut” she would say. She reminded me that I would have plenty of time to worry, be upset and even get hysterical if and when the bad thing actually happened.

“Why waste time now agonizing about something that might never happen?” She asked that question over and over and over.

Me and mom when I was seven or eight

I saw the logic in what she said. But initially, I couldn’t stop my mind from anticipating problems. My mother was relentless. Whenever I started to worry about the future, my mother stopped and redirected me. This often happened several times every day. Eventually, the Pavlovian conditioning began to work.

I was still an anxious person, but by my teen years, my anxiety acquired a veneer of optimism. I worried, often excessively, but only about real things in my life, like upcoming papers and tests. I was often paralyzed by my anxiety. But I stopped being anxious about things that might happen or could go wrong. I topped assuming the worst possible thing that could happen, would happen.

Me at around thirteen

Since my mother trained me out of my pessimism and worrying, I’ve prided myself in being rather easy-going. I always assume that I’ll be able to drive after the snowstorm — until I try and fail (or it’s really bad out). I assume medical tests will come out normal or not too bad — until they don’t. I’m an optimist now. The glass is half full and I believe things will turn out okay until it’s proven otherwise.

Mom when I was about thirteen

The problem has been for many, many years, there were legitimate things that kept me worrying much of the time. Things like mental illness in my immediate family. Financial problems. A cheating husband. The thing is, I bled over the real crises, rather than over the imagined, possible ones which might be lurking out there for me.

A few days before she died, my mother asked me what I felt I ‘got’ from having her as a mother. She wanted a final report card on her role as mother. I told her that, above all else, I was grateful to her for training me out of my destructive worrying and pessimism. She saved me from years of self-inflicted anguish. Watching my dad, I saw how painful and unrewarding life could be if you always ‘bleed before you’re cut.’ I am relieved that I didn’t have to experience that every day, as he did.

Me and Mom a month or two before she died in 2002

My mother was surprised but very pleased. I also told her how she gave me my sense of fun, humor and silliness as well as my love of theater and my appreciation for beautiful things, good food, good friends and good conversation. The upbeat, happy and enthusiastic parts of my personality were all thanks to her. I gave her credit for much of what is best in me.

She died happy, feeling appreciated. I would be happy with that for my legacy as a mother.

10 thoughts on “BEHAVIORAL CONDITIONING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. Really beautiful, Ellin. This made me think about what I got from having the mother that I did…I think it is my independence and my easy laughter.

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    • It was great that my mother actually asked me about what having her as a mother had meant to me. It was one of our last conversations and I think it gave us both closure. I have an old friend who has been telling me about her relationship problems. She is apparently very critical and judgemental with her boyfriends. I gently reminded her that her mother had been critical and judgmental to everyone. She was totally taken aback that she could be anything like her mother. She told her therapist what I said and has realized that she has to deal with this side of herself.

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  2. My mother taught me to love books and love nature. And funny movies. She also turned me into a major league skeptic! Any time I expressed any interest in any religion, my mother stomped it. Flat. I can truly say that this was not typical of the mothers of my friends. They just thought it was weird. My mother thought religious people were not very bright.

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    • Everyone in my family was a religion skeptic. I was brought up believing that religion is an intellectual creation made up by man to help him explain the world around him. Religion is a social projection. You can tell a lot about a society by it’s religion. So I never had anyone around me who believed in anything religious or superstitious. Just science and facts.

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    • Good for your mom! If you can teach that to kids at an early age, it saves them years of angst. I hope it worked with you. Your mother was wise.

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        • I have definately tried to pass my mom’s wisdom down to my kids too. They are both serious worriers so it’s always been a battle to get them to stop anticipating bad stuff and focus on what’s good now. It’s hard to watch my kids suffering from the same anxiety issues that plagued me most of my life. I do what I can and I think just being there for them is a big help. They know they have a safety net no matter what.

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