You probably already know this but I’ll say it anyways; research shows that up to 90% of our behavior is controlled by our unconscious mind. Unconscious behavior is something that we do without consciously thinking about and the majority of our behaviors, impulses and personalities are shaped by unconscious forces.
You have your basic functions, like your heart rate for example. When you exercise or experience excitement, your heart naturally starts to beat faster. You don’t generally focus your attention on your heart and say: “Please beat faster, I think I lack oxygen in my muscles.” or “I see someone pretty attractive, I think I’d like a faster heartbeat now…”
If your eyes remain open for some time and dryness occurs, an irritant gets in there or something fast moves past your eye, you blink. It naturally occurs with no hesitation or thought involved. In fact, you have to try hard to not blink when your unconscious wants you to, dont you?
The unconscious also informs mental processes that involve memory, like those multiplication tables you learned as a kid. If I ask you: “How much is 5 times 5?” The answer 25 pops up right in your head.” It's the same with directions to a place that you know the location of by heart. You don't have to focus on looking for the right street to turn on, your unconscious already knows and provides the directions.
Our unconscious mind also controls both our healthy and unhealthy habits. When you comb your hair, you don't run a step by step process through your mind where you focus on grabbing the brush then run it through your hair stroke by stroke. When you get into your car, you dont think “Now the key goes in the ignition, then I turn it….” These are all rote behaviors. Things so familiar that you can trust your unconscious to handle them quickly, intuitively and easily.
When I work with a smoking client, I almost always see one thing. A reflexive opening of the package, grabbing a cigarette, putting it in the mouth and reaching for a lighter. In fact,because the action is so unconsciously ingrained, I will often have to stop a client from lighting up while we talk about their lighting up!
You see, consciously, everyone knows smoking will kill you if you give it the chance, and maybe take someone else out with you through secondhand smoke. Consciously, you might experience shortness of breath or lose your sense of smell or notice how your friends tend to not be around as much. But that reflex action, that unconscious habit leads your hand automatically to a pack of cigarettes and you smoke anyway.
Because the unconscious mind turns smoking into a reflexive action, when you really want to change the unwanted and destructive behavior and break the smoking habit, you need to fully enlist the support of your unconscious mind. There's no way around that because if you don't enlist the unconscious, it will sabotage your progress and provide excuses to smoke. “I had a bad week.” “I’m under stress and need this, I’ll quit next month.” “This is my last one…..I mean it this time...LAST ONE.” Sound familiar?
So, why is your unconscious mind sabotaging a process as important as quitting smoking? Doesn't the unconscious KNOW you’re trying to save your life? Well the answer is simple. As amazing as the human unconscious is, it has its limits and it’s own goals. The main goal of the unconscious is to help us survive by avoiding disruption to established behaviors. Plain and simple. Reflexive actions are trained into our minds so they become habits. This frees up mental energies and cognitive resources that can be more easily supplied to important tasks. The unconscious therefore treats habitual and reflexive actions as extremely important and will try to enforce habits because it attributes a survival value to them. For example: Some people find that smoking helps them relax or reflect and your unconscious knows the value of downtime and using the parasympathetic response so it assigns value to that behavior. Some people find it easier to speak with their friends when everybody is smoking and your unconscious knows the value of social bonds and their maintenance and, again, assigns value to that behavior.
Your unconscious will do it’s best to maintain a type of emotional and behavioral homeostasis that allows you to avoid disruption of behavior patterns that you have, thus far, survived. Unfortunately, those patterns can be destructive over time and ultimately fatal...your unconscious just doesn't take the long view in some things. Your unconscious is literally wired to form habits to help you survive. There's no way around that fact.
So, now knowing why the unconscious enforces these behaviors, we can look into how to undo them and train your unconscious into better habits. Head on over to the next section of this blog series for the technique itself.