We spend our lives striving for a sense of achievement, and usually one which can be shared. We want to make stuff that we can show to people and say: “See! I am a worthwhile part of this world”.
So what, exactly, is that blocked feeling that can quite comfortably cause us to choose daytime TV over writing a bestseller? And why is it sometimes so difficult to change course, even when it’s clear that we’re headed in the wrong direction?
Avoidance is a fear response and fear is functional. We are afraid of falling, for example, because we know that falling can hurt us. The human mind has evolved to stimulate the unpleasant feeling of fear in order to keep us away from the edge.
Procrastination is avoidance. People think of it as laziness, but it’s not inaction so much as (distr)action designed to keep us at a safe distance from a potential drop. So when we consistently avoid things that could help us progress in life, it’s often (perhaps always) because on some level we are afraid of the outcome.
Does it make sense to fear getting promoted or writing a book? Not really. But it’s not about what makes sense because it has little to do with thinking.
We rate thinking highly. Possibly too highly. We tend to assume that as long as we can prove the steps behind a conclusion — as long as we have reasonable, adult proof — then we can “know” something. This kind of thinking is done by the conscious, rational part of the mind, and it’s what we turn to when we want to understand our own behaviour, but it’s serously limited. It’s the unconscious mental functions that tend to have the most sway.
On my first ever day of training as a therapist, my teacher used the following metaphor to explain the difference between conscious and unconscious thought:
Let’s think of conscious thought like an arrogant ship’s captain; haughty and with delusions of grandeur. He barks orders and takes all the credit when things go right, but he gets angry and blamey when they don’t.
The captain is the one who shouts “do NOT eat that chocolate cake!” right before you tuck in, and then says “I told you so, idiot” when you put on weight.
In reality, it’s the crew (unconscious thought and behaviour) who actually move the ship. They’re the muscle. The first responders to choppy seas and unpredictable winds. They’re also the ones who’d have to fight off any chocolate cake pirates who might try to get on board.
So does the captain really have the control he prides himself on? No. Our conscious captain doesn’t truly sail the ship.
The unconscious mind handles the way in which we feel, and it’s how we feel that actually determines the way we act.
Unconscious response is instantaneous. It has to be in order to keep us safe. It doesn’t have time to listen to adult reasoning and it doesn’t wait for commands. It simply feels based on what it already knows.
So it uses learnings from experience and the voices of people in our past to determine our behaviour.
Childhood messages — unconscious training
If parents, teachers or childhood peers communicate that you aren’t good at maths or writing or sports, or just that you aren’t a winner in general, then those messages get learned. Tell a child she can’t do algebra enough times and she’ll start to believe that it’s true.
These are the rules we live by without necessarily knowing it, and they are the training to which the crew adheres without question. It’s this stuff which can evoke the (sometimes subtle) emotions that keep us away from challenge. We fear the failure we’ve been taught to expect.
ut it’s not really that we’re afraid of losing a game of tennis or failing an exam per se, it’s that we’re afraid of what these things have meant in the past. We want to be loved above almost everything else, so if something threatens to take that love away, it gets earmarked and logged as dangerous.
Furthermore, these simple lessons get exaggerated and generalised by a young mind which doesn’t yet understand the nuances of life. What starts with “I lost a tennis game and Mum is disappointed” becomes “I am a failure when I lose… and that means I am unloved (or worse, unloveable)”.
If that were true, it really would be a reasonable thing to sail away from fast. Of course it’s not true, but the truth is irrelevant.
The bigger picture
And it’s not just the those usual suspects (Mum, Dad and Mrs Angry-Teacher) who can inform our self-beliefs. The world teaches us these kinds of limiting ideas too.
If society has conveyed that people of your race, gender, sexual orientation, height, weight or any other “type” aren’t successful at a certain thing, then your unconscious may well strive to keep you away from it. And it’ll try to do that no matter how strongly you think those stereotypes are not, or should not be true.
Sobeliefs form the edges we are urged to keep a safe distance from lest we fall. And the maps which define these edges aren’t usually of our own making.
But beliefs are not destiny. Just because you grew up being taught that girls aren’t good at engineering or boys don’t have the capacity to nurture, doesn’t mean you have to continue believing that. You don’t hit a certain age and just stop learning. You’re learning right now.
Awareness means you can challenge old beliefs and change your behaviour, it’s just that barking angry orders isn’t the way to achieve this. Frustration is no more productive than procrastination. In fact, it’s likely to reinforce the negative feelings of failure that your unconscious thought it was steering clear of… Essentially, getting angry with the crew is more likely to cause a mutiny than redirect your ship.
Instead, you should be kind to yourself like the parent or teacher who would have had a positive influence whilst you developed.
Choose education and retraining over domination and punishment. Ask yourself what you are really trying to avoid when you’re headed in the wrong direction, and then gently question that thing’s veracity. If any of it reminds you of a specific childhood event, then consider what you’d say to your younger self to help him or her put things back into perspective.
With enough exploration you can draw up new maps to navigate by, and your crew might even end up taking you somewhere you never thought possible.
Originally published here.
For an exploration of the psychology of self-sabotage (and how to take control), take a look at my book, Fight: Win Freedom From Self-sabotage.