Research has suggested that 40% of our daily thinking and acting occurs on autopilot. That is, it happens without conscious thought. In my experience this percentage is low. Much more of our daily functioning happens when we are “not thinking” about what we are thinking or doing.
This is both very functional and inhibiting. For performance based activities such as playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, or driving a car, doing without thinking is very helpful. While in the beginning of learning a challenging activity, we are focused on how to do the activity and attending to each action we take. With repeated practice the actions on which we are focusing become “learned” in a way that we no longer have to think about them. When you drive a car, you are not thinking about how to turn the car on, which pedal is the gas and which the brake, how to turn the wheel, etc. All these, once challenging, behaviors now operate without thought, which allows us to think about where we are going and making the appropriate turns to get to our destination.
What does this have to do with psychotherapy? What secret of therapy is hidden in the autopilot process?
So often clients want to know, “Why” they or some else do something. The reality is that knowing or understanding, for the most part, does not lead to change. How often have you heard someone say, “I know why I do that; I just can’t change.” In therapy understanding “Why” is a very simple process. A master therapist can help a client to know “why” in a single session.
Here is a quick example of how knowing why or what to do, does not translate into the ability to change. Assume you have been driving in the United States for 5 years or more, and you have become a proficient driver. You drive to a great extent on autopilot without the need to “think” about your driving. You are traveling in London and will be driving. In London, cars are driven on the left side of the road instead of the right side of the road. Suddenly, your autopilot of driving on the right side of the road is interfering with your ability to drive on the left side. You engage your conscious thoughts about driving and focus on how to navigate the streets.
You “know” and can visualize how to drive on the left side, but you lack the ability to translate that understanding into action.
This is exactly the issue with change in psychotherapy. You have “operated” emotionally and behaviorally in autopilot patterns for years and now you are attempting to change your autopilot system. That system is resisting the change because it has already learned to operate in a particular pattern. That pattern is no longer helpful, and you want to change to another more functional pattern, but that change is difficult as your unconscious, autopilot keeps you moving in the same direction you have always operated. Not only is the change challenging, it feels awkward and is resisted by your auto-pilot.
Bear with me and let’s do an experiment. Right now, as you read this, I want you to fold your hands so that your fingers are interlocking. Now, observe which thumb is on top…the right or the left?? How does that feel? Now, change the way your fingers are interlocking so that the other thumb is on top. How does that feel? What was your experience making the change? While most people instantly interlock their fingers in their autopilot pattern, making the change takes a moment and feels awkward. Suppose I was to ask you to interlock your fingers in this new way each time you do so for the next week. My guess is that you would automatically engage your old pattern and then have to change to the new pattern because your autopilot keeps you in the same pattern.
Most clients do not realize that one secret of psychotherapy is that they must work on overcoming their current autopilot patterns that are creating distress (emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally) and replace those with new more functional alternatives. Master therapists know how to help clients make and sustain these autopilot changes.
Changing, performance-based, autopilot, emotions, thoughts and behaviors is challenging, takes time, and requires effort on the part of the client. The therapist knows the process of how to assist the client on this journey, but the client must engage the journey on a regular basis.
We all have, through our lifetimes, collected countless autopilot emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, that, at the time we learned them, were likely helpful for us in whatever challenging environment they developed. However, over the years these, often early learned, ways of being are now no longer useful but remain within us.
Feeling anxious is but one of many reactions that happens when our autopilot reacts to a situation that we perceive as a threat. Our autopilot becomes activated, and we feel anxious which motivates us to take action to reduce feeling anxious. Becoming anxious can occur completely on autopilot, or it can be a combination of the autopilot and the thought process where thoughts that activate feeling anxious become conscious.
Bottom line, we are to a great extent driven by our autopilot and to make psychological and behavioral changes we must learn ways to overcome our current autopilot and replace it with a new more functional autopilot.
If you want to change how you feel, how you behave or how you think, it will be necessary to identify those autopilot patterns, learn new patterns, and practice replacing the old with the new. Psychotherapy is a process that can assist you in this journey, but if you expect that a therapist’s “advice” or your insight will lead to change you are likely to be disappointed. Just like learning any performance based activity you have to practice what you learn in therapy in order for it to stick and replace the current autopilot with your new desired autopilot.