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:
- 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?
- 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!
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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!
- 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!
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