Why your unconscious brain hates you.

Ever wondered why it’s so gawd dang hard to change?

To quit smoking,  to start that gym routine, to stick to that healthy eating plan, to just say no to drugs, alcohol and/or sex? (All three perhaps.) The answer is simple: Your unconscious brain hates you.

Well, maybe hate’s a strong word. But if you had a friend that constantly ignored you, wouldn’t you start to hate them a little bit too? Well it pays to know your enemy so here are a few bits of information I’ve found out about the unconscious that may be of interest.

Your unconscious brain’s main two concerns are to protect you and keep you alive and to give you more of what feels good. It doesn’t care how those ends are achieved, only that are accomplished. This may seem contradictory when you are trying to change negative patterns in your life as all the changes you want to make are good for you, and some of the things you want to stop doing are clearly bad for you.

Take smoking as an example. Everyone knows that smoking can kill you in the end, but as far as the unconscious is concerned, the danger is not imminent. The other thing that makes it so hard to drop all those unwanted bad habits and behaviours, the one thing they all have in common, is that they offer the unconscious brain instant rewards. Short cuts to feeling better, well worn paths that have been etched from years of use exactly because they are a short-cut to some desired end. Why take a longer route when that short-cut is so temptingly efficient… And your unconscious brain is nothing if not efficient.

In neurology there is a saying, neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you repeat something, the more adept your brain will become at executing that function.  If something has worked to date, and by ‘worked’ I mean in the most primitive sense, then your unconscious brain, also known as your ‘reptilian’ brain co-incidentally, will see no good reason to change.

Scientists surmise that our unconscious brain is responsible for 90 – 95% of what we do, our conscious brain – what we think, reason and supposedly make rational decisions with, accounts for only about  5 – 7%. So guess what, if you want to change something, then forget trying to talk yourself into it, forget reasoning with yourself, will power, forget all that. You have to get your unconscious on side and working for you, instead of against you. And you can only do that by learning to pay attention to what your unconscious is trying to tell you.

Freud, great grand-daddy of psychology likened the unconscious to an ice-berg. What we can see (our conscious mind) is only the top. The bulk of the iceberg lays beneath the surface.

Ice berg image metaphor courtesy of Mind Talk.

According to NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) and attachment theory, the unconscious brain has some funny ‘quirks’ and these could be responsible for some of the reasons why you find it so hard to make those changes you say you want. (For more on attachment theory see this previous post).

Some weird things you may not have known about your unconscious brain:

  1. The unconscious brain is kind of lazy. O.k. lazy is a bit harsh however, its motto is: If it ain’t really that broke, why fix it? It’s quite happy for you to get by on ‘good enough’ because as far as it’s concerned if it’s worked for you until now, what’s the big deal?
  2. The unconscious brain is super-protective. It’s main aim is to keep you alive and safe, so that’s why it perceives any negative emotion, trauma or stress as a danger – which is what is behind many anxiety issues. Thing is, your unconscious brain doesn’t know whether the danger is real or imagined and it doesn’t care. All it understands is, danger, danger! Like the robot from Lost in Space. (I am so showing my age right now!) So it re-directs your energy away from unnecessary processes, such as ‘thinking’ and puts it into what it perceives as more important; blood flow to your heart, limbs and lungs so you can make haste. Cue: Stress and anxiety!
  3. The unconscious brain is not reasonable, it is 100% pure emotion. It thinks in symbols and its language is the stuff of dreams. All non-verbal communication is handled by your unconscious brain, and according to body language experts about 80% of all communication between humans is non-verbal.
  4. The unconscious brain does not understand negatives, which may sound like a positive thing but if you say, for example – I don’t want to be poor, all it will understand is ‘poor’.
  5. The unconscious brain will believe whatever you tell it. Literally. So be careful how you speak to yourself. CBT spends a lot of time talking about ‘automatic thoughts’ and ‘core beliefs’. Narrative Therapy talks about ‘meta narratives’. The messages, beliefs, unquestioned and accepted things we tell ourselves that are, for the most part pretty negative. When you stop and take a moment to actually listen to the things you say to yourself, well…no wonder you’re reading this blog right now!
  6. The unconscious brain is like a seven year old child. It just wants more good feelings, and less bad. Kind of what Freud called, “the pleasure principle”. It doesn’t understand that sometimes, you have to experience a little discomfort in order to achieve a greater goal. It will try to stop you from doing things like, working out, going to a new class, or making that dreaded telephone call because in the interim there will be some pain involved. And pain, all pain, is bad.

These are just of the unconscious brain’s quirks that make it such a mysterious ol thing. Bless its cotton socks!

However you shouldn’t go dissing your unconscious side too much as it really does do a lot for you. Is your heart beating right now? Good. Well, it’s not like you have to wake up each morning and ‘kick start your heart’ now is it? (Even if the members of Motley Crue might do.) It’s not as if you have to remember to ‘set your heart alarm’ each night before you go to bed. No. Your unconscious mind looks after all of that. Your breathing, sight, digestion, all of that. Imagine how exhausting it would be if you had to tell your body what to do to digest food. You’d get nothing much else done!

Another thing your unconscious looks after is memory. It stores every single memory you’ve ever had and organizes those memories for you. You can only really think of about 5 – 7 things at any one time. You might not remember the name of your third grade teacher off the top of your head, but your unconscious does. It remembers everything. IN DETAIL. Your unconscious also decides what memories are too traumatic for you to deal with and suppresses those until it decides you are ready for them. Yes, your unconscious is one mean, lean, ripped, pretty powerful entity so… it might not be a bad idea to be on good terms with it now would it

So, if you are struggling to change something in your life, maybe it’s time you had a talk with you and asked yourself, well your unconscious side of yourself… So, what’s it gonna take for us to get along. Huh? How can we work on things together so that we are both happy?

Well, I’ve give you some answers to those questions soon. Promise!

Sources / Further reading:

http://www.simplypsychology.org/unconscious-mind.html
http://www.mindtalk.co.za/unconscious_mind.html
http://www.nlpacademy.co.uk/articles/view/understanding_your_mind_conscious_and_unconscious_processing/
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/focus-forgiveness/201307/conscious-the-unconscious
http://www.psychologistworld.com/bodylanguage/
http://www.nlpinfo.com/prime-directives-of-the-unconscious-mind/
http://www.psychologistworld.com/bodylanguage/

The positive side of addiction – or how to turn ‘bad habits’ into your best self

This morning I was having breakfast with a friend and the conversation turned to the topic of obesity. A rather large lady had sat behind my friend and he had no choice but to move his chair closer to our table and found himself wedged in somewhat and unable to enjoy the rest of his meal in comfort. (As is the case with most cafe’s in Sydney’s inner west, adequate space between tables to allow for people of all shapes and sizes is considered an unnecessary waste of valuable real estate.) The question was asked, Unavoidable health conditions aside, what makes some people go from merely overweight, which let’s face it most of us are, to being dangerously, uncomfortably and in some extreme cases, morbidly obese?

I posited this response, Perhaps for some people who struggle with weight, there gets a point where they feel that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they are never going to be as thin, or as perfect or as whatever as they think they ought to be and at some point they lose the battle or give up fighting and think, What’s the point in trying? I may as well just eat whatever and not give a f&^%k. And before they know it they have gone from merely overweight to obese.

Or for some people, perhaps it starts with their relationship to food and eating. They turn to food as a source of comfort, as way to self-soothe and regulate emotions. When you feel sad, depressed or hopeless, that 4 litre tub of ice-cream can seem like a true friend. Nothing like a bit of self-indulgence to make yourself feel better, at times. However, when it becomes a regular thing rather than an occasional indulgence it can become a problem.

And the problem with too much self-indulgence, whether it be food, drugs, alcohol, sex or any habit forming, mood regulating behaviour is the little hook of dependency, (When you start to depend on your self-soothing behaviour too much, or as a way of avoiding dealing with unpleasant, or uncomfortable realities). And the fact that too much of a good thing can easily turn bad. The human body/mind is a delicately balanced conscious/unconscious machine and it doesn’t take too much to throw it off kilter. So while eating food is something we all need to do and is essential to our health and well being …too much food, or too much of the wrong types of food will make us overweight, feel sick or just plain unwell and in some cases, obese.

Another kick in the shins is when we realize that we are using our ‘little indulgences’ to feel better a little too much and find that it’s not so easy to stop the behaviour just because we decide that we want to. It’s not that easy, because a habit has been formed. By the point you consciously realize that, Hey I can’t fit into any of my clothes, is that really me in that photo?! I really ought to eat better/less exercise more…. I’ll start tomorrow. Your brain, your unconscious brain more specifically, has formed some deep, well worn, neurological ridges and short cuts to feeling ‘better’ and it doesn’t see any good reason to stop or change just because you say so.

Using food as an example, however, this can apply to any addictive or habit forming behaviour, let’s say you have decided that you want to lose weight and have decided to cut out all junk food, from today! You do fine for a couple of days, and then on day three you have a particularly bad day. You forget to set your alarm, so you sleep in and run late for work. Then, you have to give a presentation and you find that because you were so rushed that morning, you have left your notes at home and so the presentation doesn’t go all that well. Your boss calls you into her office and has a serious yet well meaning chat with you about it. The rest of the day you are feeling down and just pissed off with yourself and by 3pm you are really starting to think about venturing over to the vending machine for a chocolate bar to go with your afternoon coffee. You somehow resist the urge and make it through to the end of the day without caving in. You are feeling pretty proud of yourself and positive until you get a text from a friend cancelling your dinner plans. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except this is the third time in a row they have cancelled and you suddenly get the feeling that they don’t want to see you anymore. You feel hurt and rejected and what you really want to do is call them up and ask them what the hell is going on? But, instead you slump home and make yourself dinner, it’s healthy because the day before yesterday when you decided that you were going to change your eating habits you threw out all your junk food and bought healthy, fresh food to make real dinners with, rather than the ready to eat meals in a box and snack food that would normally fill your pantry. After dinner, you feel unsatisfied. You are craving chocolate. You are craving chocolate so bad you can’t sit still. You try and take your mind off it but even your favourite TV show is just not making you laugh as much as it normally does. Your mind keeps thinking of chocolate…an ad for Cadbury’s comes on and that’s it. A sign! You can’t take it anymore. You get in your car and drive to the convenience store…

It’s not until you are sitting, staring at an empty packet of Cadbury family size chocolate, the purple wrapper sitting there on your coffee table looking crumpled and defeated, that the reality of what has just occurred sinks in. Oh no… you think. Why couldn’t I stop at just a couple of rows like I said I would. Why did I have to eat the whole thing! So the comfort once experienced has now turned into self-loathing, shame and defeat. You go to bed feeling worse than before. The sweet, indulgent treat that was once your source of comfort and escape has now turned on you and you feel enslaved to its destructive charm. Laying in bed you start beating yourself up (figuratively of course!) and reminding yourself of what a failure you are and how, No-one will ever love me and what’s the point in trying anymore, people are all f&*^k anyway and will only let you down in the end. It’s all too hard and too much to think about now and anyway, it’s time for bed. You feel so tired. May as well call this a bad day and think about it tomorrow.

And so the cycle continues…

So how to break this cycle? Well there are ways…. And the good news is the same way you got yourself into a sticky situation is largely the same way to get yourself out of it. The difference is taking control. Instead of allowing your unconscious brain to just do what it thinks it needs to do to keep you safe, (and that’s emotionally and physically safe) you need to consciously take control of your own life… The bad news is, it’s not the easy, familiar route to just ‘feeling better’ that you have become used to. It involves making some conscious, and at first un-comfortable and un-familiar choices that will eventually create new habits, new ways of being and relating to yourself and others. It involves facing those realities, or those painful memories and/or unresolved traumas that you have avoided for so long. It also involves forgiveness. Forgiving yourself, and anyone else for those hurts, slights, misguided actions, un-thoughtful words and sometimes even unspeakable acts that may have been committed against you in order to free yourself from the burden of unexpressed anger and resentment.

It’s not as easy as eating a block of chocolate, or taking a hit of heroin, or drinking yourself into numbness or losing yourself for days and days watching internet porn or staying at home, ‘working’ instead of going to that party, or spending hours in front of a poker machine or maxing out your credit card on online psychics, pornography or prostitutes or whatever it is you do to make yourself ‘feel better’.

It’s not easy to face the void, not easy at all….but, remember, no-one said you have to do it alone.

If you have trouble kicking any addictive or unhelpful behaviour remember help is available, all you have to do is ask…

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Thanks to Mr R Buesnel for his valuable contribution to this post, for his insight, encouragement and generosity of spirit.