Most people that come into my office can articulate the behaviors they are doing that are making their life difficult. They know what they are doing but they don’t know how to change.
They ask me, “How can I change my behavior?” Change is something that continues to allude the most disciplined. Why is this?
Oftentimes when we have a behavior we want to change, we use our conscious mind to consider the reasons we do it, we make a plan for how to change and then we attempt to move away from that behavior. However, when the environmental stimulus comes at us again we find it impossible to not react in similar fashion. What is happening here? And, you may ask yourself yet again, “How can I change my behavior?” And, change it for good?
The conscious mind really only makes up a small portion of the things that help us to make decisions and our ways of reacting to the people in our lives. Most of what creates this is our automatic mind, the mind below our awareness. As a result of this we continue to react in the same way until we start to shift the way we perceive the world. This is how Richard O’Conner sees it in his book, Rewire.
“The conscious self can certainly make mistakes, but it’s our automatic self that usually causes trouble; it’s guided by motives and prejudices we’re not aware of, our own unique frames of reference that are not in sync with reality, old habits of doing things in a particular way, feelings we try to deny.
The automatic self directs most of our behavior, especially spontaneous actions.” (O’Connor, 2014)
Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say the behavior you are looking to change is trusting your partner more. Your conscious mind can’t seem to come up with real reasons why your partner is doing something untrustworthy, yet, time and again you find yourself doubting your partner’s motives. You may wonder if he or she is interested in someone else.
Firstly, we have to look at why there is an issue with trusting others. Why is it difficult to trust others? For someone who grew up with caretakers that were chaotic, self-absorbed and not emotionally available, a child may start to get the idea that people can’t be trusted.
If someone, time and time again, were to be let down by their caretakers they will start to believe that it is hopeless to trust someone.
That same child now has grown up to become an adult. He is able to differentiate between fantasy and reality as all his brain comes online. When this person meets their partner they start to see their partner through a similar lens that they saw their caretakers. The deep unconscious belief may be something like, “people are not trustworthy.”
This belief will then impact much of what this person sees in the world around them. They will layer on reasons to believe this without anything really being there.
The automatic mind is going to be looking for things in the environment that validate the person’s belief. They will see their partner talking to someone of the opposite sex as flirting. They will view any moment of a partner’s lack of sexual interest as evidence they are sleeping with someone else. The automatic mind is organized to create the reality that it believes exists. The partner will find all of these suggestions of unfaithfulness bewildering. They will wonder if their partner is slightly crazy.
The sad reality is that by constantly punishing a partner for irrational actions and blaming them for things that are not true, male partners start to feel abandoned and lonely.
Sometimes those partners will seek intimacy with another. When this happens the conspiracy that the person made through their automatic mind is fully validated. They knew all along that their husband or wife was not trustworthy.
This can play out all too often. So again, “How can I change my behavior?” Here’s my .02.
Unfortunately we cannot rid ourselves of unhealthy beliefs. What we can do is develop new beliefs. In working with a belief around trust it would be important to explorer the pain of growing up in a world where the caretakers couldn’t be trusted.
Although it is impossible to change the events of one’s past the memory of the past is quite malleable.
By discovering moments when these old beliefs were created we can actually modify the beliefs by having a new experience. This experience can allow the inner child to start to believe that they can trust people.
Once someone is willing to see that their reality may have more to do with their past than their present it is possible to help them sort out what is real from what is false. Once we know that we see things through the same lens we can question what we are seeing.
It takes time and commitment to feel the pain and grief of childhood and then to see how this may have impacted loved ones in the present. But over time the unconscious can actually begin to develop new ways of perceiving the world.
The trick in overcoming self-destructive behavior is not so much to strengthen the conscious self so we can “control” ourselves better, though that helps sometimes.
Rather, we must train the automatic self to do things like make wiser decisions unconsciously, ignore distractions, withstand temptations, see ourselves and the world more clearly, and interrupt our reflexive responses before they get us in trouble. Hopefully by understanding the automatic and conscious minds, you can no longer be at war with yourself and positively answer the question: “How can I change my behavior?”
O’Conner, Richard (2015). Rewire: Change Your Brain To To Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior. New York, New York, Avery. (Note: I get a slight percentage of the sale if you click this link, just being honest with you. You’re welcome to click this click and support my site, or head over to Smile and support a cool charity too.) Thank you for reading – Bryce