Book review: New understanding offered of personality development


Rarely does someone come along who has new insight into behavior, someone who conceptualizes with such clarity that we wonder why we never saw it before.

Homer B. Martin, MD, was such a man. Over the course of 40 years’ psychodynamic psychotherapy work as a psychiatrist, he pieced together a concept of how we are emotionally conditioned in the first 3 years of life and how this conditioning affects us throughout our lives. Conditioning forces us to live on autopilot, creating inappropriate knee-jerk emotional responses to those closest to us.

Dr. Martin’s protégé, child and adolescent psychiatrist Christine B.L. Adams, MD, contributed her own 40 years of clinical practice as a psychodynamic psychotherapist to Dr. Martin’s new concept of emotional conditioning. Their findings are published in the award-winning book “Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes our Lives and Relationships” (Praeger, 2018).

The authors aim to help both therapists and patients out of the quagmire of conflicted relationships and emotional illnesses that result from emotional conditioning. They propose a new understanding of personality development and subsequent relationship conflict, which incorporates work of Pavlov, Skinner, and Lorenz, along with techniques of Freud.

Dr. Martin and Dr. Adams discovered that we are conditioned into one of two roles – omnipotent and impotent. Those roles become the bedrock of our personalities. We display those roles in marriages, with our children, friends, and colleagues, without regard to gender.

Each role exists on a continuum, from mild to severe, determined by upbringing in the family. Once you acquire a role in childhood, the role is reinforced by both family and society at large – peers, teachers, and friends.

The authors unveil a new conceptualization of how the mind works for each role – thinking style, ways of elaborating emotions, attitudes, personal standards, value systems, reality testing mode, quality of thought, and mode of commitment.

The book has three sections. “Part One, Understanding Emotional Conditioning” describes the basic concepts, the effects of conditioning, and the two personality types. “Part Two, Relationship Struggles: Miscommunications and Marriages” examines marriage conflict, divorce, and living single. “Part Three, Solutions: Psychotherapy and Deconditioning” presents steps we can take to decondition ourselves, as well as the process of deconditioning psychotherapy.

To escape automatic living, Dr. Martin and Dr. Adams endorse the use of deconditioning psychotherapy, which helps people lessen their emotional conditioning. The cornerstone of deconditioning treatment is helping people turn off automatic responses through replacing emotional conditioning with thinking.

Dr. Judith R. Milner

Dr. Judith R. Milner

In undergoing deconditioning you discover how you were emotionally conditioned as a child and how you skew participation in your relationships. You learn to slow down and dissect the automatic responding that you and others do. You discover how to evaluate what the situation calls for with the involved people. Who needs what, how much, and from whom?

This book is written for both general readers and psychotherapists. Its novel approach for alleviating emotional illnesses in “ordinary” people is a welcome addition to the armamentarium of any therapist.

The book is extraordinarily well written. It offers valuable case vignettes, tables, and self-inquiry questions to assist in understanding the characteristics associated with each emotionally conditioned role. The authors also suggest reading materials and movies for viewing.

Dr. Martin and Dr. Adams have made the book very digestible, intriguing and practical. And it is a marvelous tribute to the value of a 30-year mentorship.

Judith R. Milner, MD, MEd, SpecEd, is a general, child, and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Everett, Wash. She has traveled with various groups over the years in an effort to alleviate some of the suffering caused by war and natural disaster. She has worked with Step Up Rwanda Women and Pygmy Survival Alliance, as well as on the Committee for Women at the American Psychiatric Association and the Consumer Issues Committee, the Committee on Diversity and Culture, and the Membership Committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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