Have you heard of systematic desensitization?
It’s a concept psychologist use to cure people of phobia’s, and other mental disorders. The first time I heard of it, was in primary school. The teacher was going through a list of facts, I thought I was never going to use.
Then, she said, “If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But, if you put a frog in cold water, and slowly boil it. The frog will sit inside, till it dies.”
I was intrigued. “Why would the frog sit inside till it died?” I wondered. The reason why, was systematic desensitization. And it’s the same with humans.
As animals, we have feelings. We feel pain, sadness, joy, anger and grief. These feelings are signals. Signals from our environment. They protect us. They help us navigate our environment safely.
For example, fear arises when we’re threatened. We become alert and attentive, as we search for any dangers in our environment.
Whereas anger, protects us. Its arises when we feel wronged. It’s the fuel we need to stand up for ourselves.
However, just like the frog, our warning systems can be manipulated. They can be short circuited, reprogrammed, and made to harm us, instead of protect us.
Systematic desensitization, refers to the gradual increase of exposure to emotionally provoking stimuli. For example, people who fear snakes, are shown pictures of snakes. Then, they are gradually exposed to something scarier, like a toy snake.
Eventually, they are shown a real snake.
However, the gradual increase of exposure, reprograms their response to it. And like a frog, instead of jumping out, they sit in the boiling water.
This is called exposure therapy.
Psychologists increase the effectiveness of this therapy, by teaching their clients ‘soothing’ techniques, that they can apply when they face their fears.
Unfortunately, this works both ways.
We can programme ourselves to become functional, or dysfunctional.
Abuse, much like therapy, follows procedures. Its systematic. From the outside, the red flags look obvious. We can see the water boiling. But from the inside, it feels normal, because, we’ve been desensitized.
Psychologists, treat phobias by teaching people techniques, to calm their emotions.
Abusers do the same thing.
They start with something small, a back-handed compliment. We respond, with fear, anger or sadness. Sensing this, the abuser comforts us; with sweet words, gifts or anything we enjoy.
However, what we don’t realise, is that we’re being taught how to deal with abuse. Slowly, they turn up their level of abuse, soothing our emotions every time. We observe, and we learn how to deal with our feelings, through them.
Eventually, we internalize the process. We comfort ourselves, when the abuser fails to do so. We respond to trauma, with apathy. We handicap our ability to protect ourselves. And we sit, in that toxic, boiling pot of a relationship, till we die.