We all make thousands upon thousands of decisions every day, while only being aware of a tiny fraction of them. This is absolutely normal, and essential to avoid our being overwhelmed by choices. If we all had to actively decide where to place every step we take, for example, it would take forever to get where we need to go.
Bigger, more important decisions can also happen out of our awareness, however, which may cause problems. If you’ve ever had thoughts like “Not again!”, “Why does this always happen to me?”, “Why do I keep doing this?” or “How the Hell did I find myself here?”, it could be due to decisions you may not even realise you’re making. Knowing when, and how, to take control over our decisions is important. For a soldier in a mine field, or a mountain climber, where to place each step can be a matter of life or death.
The aim of this post is to have a look at how “out of awareness” decisions are made, how that can sometimes cause problems for us, and how counselling can help us take back control of those important, at times life changing decisions.
What is “Out of Awareness”?
From the moment we’re born, we’re constantly learning based on our experience of the world around us. This involves forming connections, or pathways, between the billions of neurons in our brain. In simplified terms, the more often a behaviour or pattern of behaviour is experienced, the stronger those pathways become.
Eventually, when those pathways are established enough, we no longer need to think about what’s involved in that activity. Picking up a cup is actually a highly complex task involving countless fine motor skills and micro decisions. Watching a toddler trying to do it shows how much effort is involved. Eventually, it can be done without actively thinking about it, but all those decisions are still being made. They’ve just moved out of our awareness.
How can this way of learning cause problems?
How we learn actions like picking up a cup is the same process we use to learn everything. It all involves building neural pathways. This includes bigger questions like how we need to be in the world to get our needs met, to be safe, and to receive the love and attention we need. These decisions can also move out of our awareness once they’ve become more firmly established.
Again, most of the time this is extremely helpful. “Look both ways before you cross the street” is a rule drilled into us as children. It keeps us safe. It’s useful. We might learn not to touch a hot pan from burning ourselves on one. Or we might learn by being told “don’t touch hot pans or you’ll be burned”. Either method works, and keeps us safe. It’s hard to imagine even asking ourselves “should I touch that hot pan?”. It becomes something we avoid without even thinking about it.
However, some of the thousands of similar “rules” of life we pick up might make perfect sense as small children in the environment we grew up in, but cause problems for us as adults.
Imagine a young child whose mother regularly shouts at her to go away and stop bothering her whenever she asks for something she wants, but is praised whenever she’s “Mummy’s little helper”. What that girl might learn from this is “I’m bad if I want things for myself, I’m only okay if I help other people”. As a child, this decision keeps her feeling safe, loved and helps her avoid painful rejection.
Many years later she is still making this decision. She looks after everybody, her friends, parents, her own children, her husband. If anything needs to be done she feels responsible for it. If someone tries to do something for her, she gets a horrible knot in the pit of her stomach. The same horrible knot that appears when she tries to help people, but can’t. When her children move out of home that knot becomes almost permanent as she feels increasingly anxious about them. She doesn’t consider they might want, and be able, to look after themselves. And in all these years the one person she has never helped or looked after is herself. If she does ever buy herself something nice, her feeling of guilt is so overwhelming that she returns it, telling herself she didn’t really want or need it. The same thing she told herself as a little girl. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
How can counselling help?
This is just one example of the many types of messages we can pick up as children that can prevent us from living the richer, more fulfilling lives we deserve. Another example could be a boy whose father tells him off for crying when he’s hurt, but praises him when he gets in fights. Years later he’s arrested for beating a stranger unconscious the night his wife left him. He doesn’t understand why he did it. Very different situations and messages, but the underlying process is the same. Something learned in the past, that causes real problems in the present.
Different counselling approaches have different ways of describing these messages. You might hear or read terms like “conditions of worth”, or “worldview” or “Drivers and Injunctions”. And every counsellor will have their own way of working with them, depending on their own personality, training, and what might be the best match for you. This is why finding the right counsellor is such a personal decision.
Whatever counselling approach is followed, the goal when dealing with these out of awareness decisions is pretty much the same. First, to bring those out of awareness decisions into our awareness, without blame and accepting there’s a very good reason for why we are the way we are. And then to explore and deal with whatever is blocking us from making better decisions. Decisions based on what we are experiencing right here, right now.