I was recently listening to one of my clients talking about how she keeps taking the same actions over and over again. She described how she felt it wasn’t her the one deciding, or at least, not being able to control her choices. Maybe, by now, you are already asking yourselves, what does she mean by that? Did someone cast a spell on her? Is she being manipulated by someone else? The response to those questions, although not literally, is: yes…YES?! Let me explain what she was talking about, before I answer why she may be suffering from all of the above:
When she was talking about constantly repeating some behaviours, she was describing how she always ends up being in the same kind of relationships: friendships, couple’s relationships, relationships with colleagues, etc., where she feels she is always used by others. She was talking about the different characteristics that she sees in these people, but only after she realizes she has been used and sometimes even abused.
“Why am I not being able to see those traits at first?!” she screamed in my office while scratching her skull with both hands.
“It is quite simple”, I explained, using this phrase somehow sarcastically. “You´ve been allowing your “automatic - pilot” to make some of the important decisions in your life”, I continued.
“Automatic-pilot?” she asked, “What the heck do you mean by that now?”
Throughout our lives we create a package of ideas; it starts when we are young, usually influenced by our parents, teachers, schools, religion, culture and some of our own life experiences. We adopt all of these ideas and we start owning them, using them to go live life as simply, and easily as possible. The problem with this “package of ideas” is that we are not the same person at age 6, or 15, or 34; and certainly our experiences aren´t the same either. But still, we subconsciously keep using the ideas that we used when we were kids because we learned 20 or 30 years ago (or more), that in that moment, it gave us good results, it worked. So, if we are not the same person as we were when we were 15 why do we keep using the “strategies” that worked well at that time? There may be different answers to this single question. For example: we got used to it, or we keep thinking it may work now.
The one I decided to focus on with my client was: because we are not aware of what is going on with our thoughts, with our minds. It is, as if we put the automatic - pilot button on several years ago and never turned it off. So, every time we find ourselves in the same situation, the automatic - pilot takes over and commands our ideas, thoughts, behaviours, etc.. We expect to have the same positive result than the one we had at one point, even if the last few times we got the opposite result. The problem here is that, when this happens, we are not consciously making any decisions.
So, going back to the initial questions: are we manipulated, or under a spell? Yes, under the automatic - pilot spell; manipulated by it and our lack of awareness.
As Ram Dass said, “As you look at many people´s lives, you see that their suffering is in a way gratifying, for they are comfortable in it. They make their lives a living hell, but a familiar one.”
How to change this? How stop living that “gratifying suffering?” Here are 6 ways to start taking back control of your own decisions:
1. Acknowledge - recognize that in certain situations or behaviours, you have been living on automatic – pilot, and that is OK.
2. Accept it - Do not judge yourself for it. Accept that it is OK in a gentle compassionate way.
3. Flags - identify signals of behaviours that keep repeating and actualizing themselves in different situations or relationships.
4. Awareness - bring awareness to your actions. Start small, while brushing your teeth or shampooing your hair, bring all of your attention, all your senses to those 2 or 3 minutes that you spend doing that. Then start expanding them to other behaviours and even thoughts.
5. C & P – there are two keywords that I always try to use for my clients and myself: be consistent and patient. The results will come if you stick to the changes and wait.
6. Choose - start deciding, consciously deciding, how and what you want to live. Pick your thoughts and actions.
My client, an intelligent young woman, is still currently working on some of these steps, while starting to enjoy the results of banning “her automatic - pilot” from operating in her life - most of the time.
Do you identify yourself? Are you allowing your automatic - pilot to govern your life?
José Briones is a registered psychologist and psychotherapist located in Montreal, Canada. He started his career in Mexico City working for Health and educational institutions, and in private practice. He also has experience in the employee and family assistance program industry. José currently provides psychotherapy in private practice mostly with adults, and in a local college with adolescents and young adults.
José writes on a weekly basis in his blog: 'Just Shrink About It!' and enjoys being with his three kids and his wife as well as playing football and other sports. You can read more from José on his blog or get in touch with him via Facebook or Linked In