At this very moment, are you confused about an important issue? Perhaps you are overwhelmed by powerful emotions and feelings that replay themselves over and over in your mind? Are their times when you react to certain situations in ways that are completely mysterious and destructive to both you and your relationships? You look back and say: “Why did I do that?”, “What was I thinking?” Or “That wasn’t me at all.”
These types of reactions make us ask the critical question of do I really know who I am, my true Self. To know one’s Self requires deep Self-knowledge, Self-surveillance and Self-effort. Notice, I have included the word Self in all of these characteristics. This is because I believe the most important aspect for living a consistent and free life filled with joy and purpose is to first understand your true Self. Here, when I say Self, I mean the essence of who we are and who we want to be.
If we critically examine many of our emotional responses, many of us will find that we often repeat our worst mistakes despite the fact that they have never solved your problems in the past. In these moments, it feels as if a stranger temporarily takes over our bodies and forces our actions in a certain direction. And when it is all over, we are left to clean up the mess that the other us has just made. I believe it is this critical aspect of being human that led Henry David Thoreau to say:
“Most men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
Let me give you a personal example. One of the traits I love most in people is humility. And yet, I often catch myself bragging for absolutely no reason. I meet someone and before I know it, I am spouting off accomplishments and accolades like I am in the midst of the biggest job interview of my life. Why do I feel the need to do this when I loathe this characteristic in others? Afterwards I feel ashamed and embarrassed knowing that I must have come off like an arrogant ass. Which person am I? Who is my true Self, the one who honors humility and modesty or the loud braggart?
For years, I would simply make excuses (rationalize) for my behavioral inconsistencies, but the older I have gotten, the more important personal honesty and Self integrity has become to me. Perhaps most importantly, I have found that understanding my Self is critical to finding joy and freedom in this life. You see, we may not admit it, but deep within us, we know when the story we tell our SELF is not true.
However before we get too hard on ourselves, I believe we must consider what we are up against when we try to determine who are.
It has been estimated that we humans have 10,000 unconscious thoughts versus 40 conscious thoughts per second. That means 99.6% of the nerve signals in your minds take place without you even knowing it!
Now admittedly many of the unconscious signal control our day to day body functions (heart rate, body temperature, breathing, etc.), but many more are coming from the primitive portions (reptilian brain and limbic system) of our brain. These are our animal instincts that provide emotions such as fear, anger, unhealthy competition, racism (sexism), jealousy and lust, just to mention a few.
Our brains produce an overwhelming number of these unconscious signals that are constantly determining how we feel, and our emotional and behavioral reactions. Worst of all, all this is happening without us even knowing it. These unconscious thoughts can simply overpower us with negative feelings and reactions, and our conscious minds can’t make sense of all the noise in our heads. We are falsely led to believe that there are emergencies everywhere and that most situations we encounter pose a serious threat to our survival. We in turn respond in badly. The same instincts that are designed to protect us are put in overdrive in modern western societies (with their fear-producing 24-hr news cycles and manipulation,) and produce fears, impulses, judgments and reactions that are often not valid.
So what do we do? Are we really just bound to act without thinking leading to anything from simple embarrassment to outright destruction in our lives?
Well, none of us are perfect but being human with our very large, developed brains (neocortex) gives us the critical advantage of not being slaves to our unconscious minds.
This advantage allows us to monitor our feelings, behaviors, and reactions and most importantly to intervene when necessary. We do not have to be a slave to our unhealthy feelings and behaviors or to fear-based manipulation from modern society!
In his landmark book, Strangers to Ourselves, Dr. Tim Wilson compares our conscious mind to the CEO of a company and our unconscious minds its employees. The delicate balance between the roles of the CEO and employees is what makes a company (our lives) successful and meaningful. A company will goes awry if the CEO or employees don’t do their jobs or misuse or neglect their power and positions. For example, if the CEO (our conscious mind) doesn’t know everyone’s (our unconscious thoughts) role, fails to focus and direct, or neglects his/her executive role of vision, oversight and correction, the company (our lives) will fail. The CEO (our conscious minds) must constantly monitor the organization and employees (our unconscious thoughts), know the purpose of the company (our true Self), and understand its purpose. This ensures all components of the organization run work well together and move in the right direction. If, however, the employees (our unconscious feelings and behaviors) rally, take over the company and move it in an unhealthy and destructive direction without the CEO’s intervention, everything is lost.
This illustration helps us understand our role and responsibilities in the control of our own lives. The knowledge of our true Self and the power of our conscious mind can allow us to pause, make sense of all the noise in our minds, and then move forward with liberation, purpose and joy.
In this short blog, I have begun to provide a basic framework for how you might think about your minds to better understand your inconsistencies. Future blogs will focus on how practically to use these concepts in the most important areas of our lives such as our relationships, parenting, reframing tragedy, spirituality, sex and intimacy.
Remember as the great developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said:
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”
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