Reflection 26: Our Primary Emotional Tapes – A Case Study

It had snowed in Philadelphia the night before. When I arrived at my office, shortly after noon the next day, the driveway and parking areas were unplowed; no access.

With my first client due to arrive in less than an hour, I called the landlord but got no answer. I then called the people that clear our driveway at home. They arrived about 45 minutes later and got enough plowing done to make the office accessible.

Minutes later, the landlord arrived, prepared to clear the snow. He yelled at me (something he apologized for the next day) and remained angry throughout an exchange of emails over the next 24 hours or so.

So here is a brief, unpleasant, but not unusual interlude between two people who otherwise have an entirely friendly and cooperative relationship. Why do I raise it? Because it offers an excellent example of how, throughout our lives, key emotional systems, internalized in childhood, deeply affect our psyches.

In this Reflection, I offer a case study of this phenomenon, with me as the example. Doing so, my premise is that I am an utterly typical human, “just another bozo on the bus” as my teacher, Nedra Fetterman, would reassuringly remind me.

While the story I tell is unique to me, it is emblematic of who we are as humans. We all carry around our own set of primary emotional tapes. Understanding their influence allows us to better manage their unwanted consequences, freeing us to be more decent to others and to ourselves.


Two key pieces of neurobiology provide the context for this discussion. The first is Hebb’s Theorem: “If it fires together, it wires together.”

When, for example, an infant – baby Jeff, for example – is startled by a barking dog, a chain of synapses fires. Then, because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to a similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood of a repeat firing is even greater, and so on. In other words, my brain – like every other brain – is wired to do in the future what it did in the past.

Hebb’s Theorem influences virtually every aspect of living. But there are certain patterns of behavior that overload the baby’s system, thereby activating his or her fight or flight brain. These patterns – the ones I refer to as primary emotional tapes – exercise a special power over us because of the peculiarities of that part of the brain.

As a key physiological mechanism for dealing with danger, fight or flight clicks in quickly and powerfully.

Moreover, it wouldn’t do for an evolving species – intent on survival – to forget the danger presented by a crouching lion months or years later. As a result, this part of the brain never forgets. When an event triggers an old fight or flight pattern – even decades later – the emotions and bodily reactions we felt back then come flooding back, full force. It is as though time stands still.

Notice, importantly, that we are dealing with danger as an infant or small child perceives it. So, while primary emotional tapes are often generated by an obvious danger – physical or sexual abuse – they may also be the product of much more subtle patterns: Dad’s cutting looks, mom’s self absorption at moments of crisis, even the smell of grandma’s apartment. The key is that the child’s system is overloaded, triggering his or her fight/flight response.


So how does this relate to the conversation I had with my landlord? Well, my mother was devoted and loving – and very angry. Warm and funny she could turn dark in a heartbeat, screaming and berating whoever was in her line of fire – me included.

Each of her children dealt with her temper differently.

Me? I fought back.

From infancy, I was a screamer. Until I was 10 or 11, if she yelled at me, I yelled back, with our pitched verbal battles often continuing to the point of emotional exhaustion. In the end, I would retreat to my room, sobbing and forlorn. Eventually, I would slink back downstairs, rejoining the family but still feeling wrong and humiliated; a jumble of unresolved emotions.

A big part of my healing and growth as an adult has been (1) to understand this pattern, so deeply burned into my psyche, and (2) to create a more adult script for dealing with anger and conflict. I have made progress to the point where people will now remark – always a bit of a shock to me – on my calm and soothing nature.

But make no mistake, my struggle with this old pattern continues. So when my landlord yelled at me – 6 decades later! – the old tape reactivated, just like that. My body tensed, I instantly felt tightness in my throat, chest, and shoulders. My brain was on hyper-alert, ready to defend and counterattack.

At 5, or 10 or 40 I might have done exactly that. But over the years, I have slowly learned to behave differently. So in this situation, emotionally catapulted back into my old tapes, I was still able to interrupt the pattern. Instead of yelling back, I retreated to my office.

This growing ability to interrupt my programmed responses is a real plus. It has minimized the practical consequences of my temper. It has also been integral to the deeper emotional healing I have experienced; a growing understanding, at a gut emotional level, that angry attacks are not my mother reincarnate.

But the incident with my landlord was a reminder that, while the old tapes are muted – and, now, largely invisible to the outside world – they continue to powerfully affect my emotions, my physical state and, albeit in more subtle ways, my behaviors.

First, the behaviors: While I didn’t yell back at my landlord, I was literally impelled to communicate to him in writing, explaining in detail the reasonableness of my actions. My wife, who is also my business partner, reviewed these emails and confirmed their polite tone.

But my compulsion to write them belied my intentions. I was battling back, showing the landlord I was right and he was wrong. Using my adult writing skills to mask my true identity. I was really a traumatized child, reliving my primary emotional tape – yet again.

Not surprisingly, my physical and emotional state also reflected the reassertion of these old tapes. The tension in my body persisted. A week later, I could still feel its residue.

Emotionally, try as I might, the incident – the “injustice” of the landlord’s position – my detailed defenses – continued to infiltrate and dominate my thoughts. Even knowing how minor the incident was, I still felt powerfully at risk and desperate to “prove” I was right. The old, all too familiar feeling of being that wronged little boy, an outcast – so integral to the old tapes – was back.


One lesson I draw from this incident has to do with the relationship we have with our primary emotional tapes. Our control-oriented culture focuses on overt behaviors, implicitly telling us that our work is done once we have learned to manage the visible consequences of our primary tapes. But, as important as more functional behaviors are, that should not be our ultimate goal.

Instead, we should be aiming for habits of healing and growth that allow us to live with greater ease, vibrancy and self-mastery. Rather than simply controlling our old tapes, our goal should be to move through and beyond them.

This run-in with my childhood tapes provides an excellent example of the pay-offs that can occur when we persist in pursuing this larger goal. After years of self-reflection – and long after I was “cured” of my temper – you would think that the healing and growth that could occur from my continued attention to these old patterns would be small. But you would be wrong.

In the days following the incident, I employed my usual healing strategies: Support, self-talk, self-soothing, distraction. Then, with my wife’s support, I tried a less tested approach: An unqualified apology. To my surprise, it resulted in an immediate and perceptible easing of my pain.

In retrospect, it makes sense. My traditional healing strategies do little to challenge the highly conflictual – and painful – system my primary emotional tapes activate. And “winning” actually perpetuates that pattern, the only difference being that I become the (temporary) victor. But when I apologized, I was far better able to walk away from the old pattern. I was no longer fighting, no longer defending.

Needless to say, this healing moment did not cure me. But the hopeful lesson I take from the incident with the landlord is this: If, when the old tapes reassert themselves, I persist in doing my healing and growth work, these kinds of moments – when I am able to embrace new behaviors and more comfortable ways of “being with” my old tapes – will accumulate and gain momentum.