The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.
-Carl Jung

Imagine this.

A little boy feels sadness because his toy just broke, and begins to cry. His parents feel rattled by their son’s crying, turn to him with anger, and yell “Stop crying! You have so many other toys to play with. Enough is enough!”

The little boy experiences fear at his parents reaction, chokes back his tears, and forces himself to stop feeling sad. The child’s response is a survival mechanism; it is a necessary behavioural adaptation to a threatening environment.

Repetition Begets Habit

Now imagine that this child experiences the same scenario hundreds of times throughout his early life, and in every case, he demonstrates the same behavioural adaptation.

By the age of 18, the boy has developed a habitual response of adapting his behaviour in the presence of a threatening environment, by instantly suppressing his needs.

This adaptive response has served him so well during his formative years that it has now become an unconscious behaviour.

This is supported by Graybriel (2008), who found that repeated actions and experiences reinforce certain neural pathways, solidifying habits.

Our Unconscious Burden

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
-Carl Jung

Many of our unconscious behaviours are helpful. For example, if you mirror the body language of the person you are speaking to (without thinking about your action), then you are using an unconscious behaviour to build rapport. The simple act of looking both ways before crossing the road is another unconscious behaviour that benefits our life.

However, there are many examples of unconscious behaviours that are harmful to our lives and performance as human beings:

  • Desensitisation. When someone habitually cuts off emotions that need to be expressed, they are engaging in desensitisation. The boy I referred to at the start of this article developed an unconscious habit of shutting down his sadness.
  • Deflection. When someone frequently answers intimate questions in an indirect or off-topic manner, they are deflecting. The underlying reasons are usually the fear of connection with another person or the shame of being seen. These emotions can stem from childhood, when the child’s direct and honest responses to questions were repeatedly punished or ridiculed by her caregivers.
  • Projection. When someone frequently assigns negative qualities to others, but never themselves, they are essentially disowning their own thoughts and projecting them onto others. The underlying reasons are usually the shame or fear of “owning” a negative quality. These emotions can stem from childhood, when the child was regularly punished or ridiculed for demonstrating aspects of his personality.

How to Make the Unconscious, Conscious.

Our adaptive responses helped us survive when we were children or teens, but as adults, they can be disruptive to our lives. Unconscious habits can harm our personal and professional relationships, cause us ongoing rumination and withdrawal, and prevent us from meeting our best selves.

If we are to thrive as human beings, we must take 4 actions:

  • 360 Degree Self-Reflection. We can start by asking for – and being open to – others’ feedback about our behaviours. We must also be willing to step outside of ourselves, and view our behaviours as if we were a third-party observer. This dual reflection process enables us to “see” the unconscious habits that are impacting our life.
  • Give Voice to Emotions. If we are to break our unconscious habits, it is critical to identify the primary and secondary emotions that have underpinned them since childhood, and give them voice. Emotional awareness leads to greater self-regulation and improved interpersonal engagement.
  • Visualise New Behaviours. A powerful way to adopt new ways of being is to visualise each of them in “walk-through” detail. And to ensure that we reinforce our new behaviours for the long-term, we must validate each of them against our core values.
  • Use Simulated, Experiential Environments. One of the most effective ways to launch new behaviours is to practise them in an experiential, simulated environment that recruits our cognitions, emotions, and behaviours simultaneously. For maximum results, I recommend the psychotherapy model of Chairwork that is summarised in this article.

Next Steps

It is important to note that every person’s unconscious responses are unique and complex, and shaped by many factors including personal history, individual emotional processes, communication style, and environmental stressors.

To that end, the insights above are for information purposes, and should be used only as a starting point for exploring your adaptive responses.

Personal change can be a challenging and complex process that requires time, energy, and professional support. If you find any of these insights relevant to your own behaviour, I strongly recommend working with a psychotherapist who is skilled in awareness-raising and new behaviour construction.

I hope you find this helpful.

References

Graybiel, A. M. (2008). Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 31, 359-387.

Tom Skotidas is a Psychotherapist and the director of Intermind. He helps individuals, couples, and families overcome their mental health and relationship challenges. Tom is also a Workplace Psychotherapist and Mental Health Educator.

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