Back on the Horse
Our subconscious minds look out for us. At least they try to. They take signals from the environment and, in response, predispose our behaviours, our aversions and our preferences. For example, you are bitten by a dog (the signal) and thereafter you avoid dogs (the predisposition). Sure, there is a conscious element to this. I now know that dogs bite so I choose to avoid dogs – common sense. But it goes beyond this because there is an emotional response involved. Because I have been bitten, I am now afraid of dogs. One does not choose what one is afraid of. These emotional responses are, as it were, programmed into us.
The effects of these ‘programmes’ can be profound and can embed emotional responses in one’s psyche that will remain for a lifetime. Most of our programming gets laid down when we are children because that is when we are at our most susceptible and suggestible. We have to learn a great deal about the world very quickly. In our pre-civilised state, our survival depended on it. The term that is often used with regard to children and learning is that they are ‘sponges’ and this is an apt metaphor. Children soak up environmental signals but, unlike adults, they are extremely naive and exercise little discrimination. A child’s psyche is, by definition, in its formative stages and so they have little or no protection against bad and even damaging programming.
As any therapist will tell you, the worst and most intractable neuroses tend to be those from childhood. Bad parenting creates problems that individuals can carry to the grave, possibly blighting what could otherwise be a fulfilling life. Being told you are useless or stupid as a child can make you a useless and stupid adult. Of course, actual childhood abuse is the very worst programming a person can have.
As adults we have greater protection and our wide-eyed childhood gullibility has usually been dispelled by some of life’s reality checks and disappointments. Our more jaded, adult conscious minds provide a firewall, if you will, against mind viruses. But if it’s a firewall, it’s a pretty poor one that could do with a few updates. If a signal from the environment is particularly potent, through intensity or repetition, it can install a bad programme in the wiliest of adults. Here, think of someone who has suffered a terrible trauma which infects them with depression and anxiety, such that they can no longer leave their home.
But to call this a bad programme is misleading. Yes, a traumatising experience is an assault to the system but it’s actually the response that our subconscious generates that can create the real issue. It often miscalculates and draws inaccurate inferences from traumatic situations. Think of a case where someone has been sexually abused by someone who wears a particular cologne. The victim in such a circumstance can end up having an intense reaction of fear in the presence of that fragrance - even if they can no longer remember the abuse itself.
This is a theme explored in the Hitchcock thriller, Marnie, where the eponymous protagonist has a phobia of the colour red. Only at the end of the film does her mother reveal that Marnie was responsible for killing a sailor when she was a child – a memory that she has completely repressed. All that remains is the powerful emotional charge surrounding the colour of blood.
The point is that, in both these cases, the subconscious has made a basic error in associating the smell or the colour with the threat, when in fact these are incidental. It makes associations quickly using rough rules-of-thumb rather than a more rational analysis and, in most cases, it does the job well enough. However, there are considerable exceptions.
THE LIMITATIONS OF THE AUTOPILOT
Nobel prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, explores the tendency for this ‘fast’, automatic, subconscious cognitive system to make poor judgements in his ground-breaking book Thinking Fast and Slow. The everyday preponderance of this clumsy, intuitive, associative thinking, which is rife with error, is quite frightening – Kahneman argues that it actually governs the vast majority of our thinking and choosing. The conscious mind’s slow, analytical and rational cognition, which is more evidence-based in its interpretations and determinations, is deployed sparingly because, frankly, it is so resource-intensive. Who has the time? This means, for the most part, you are virtually flying on autopilot. One cannot help but think of Nietzsche’s scepticism of human Free Will.
To its credit, the subconscious auto-pilot is trying to navigate us away from dangers. It manufactures intense feelings of aversion as a kind of self defence. However, though its true that there are terrible things out in the world, avoidance is not necessarily the best strategy. If people push you around, why not quit your job, stay at home and close the blinds? You can’t argue with the logic – people are not going to push you around now. The danger has been dealt with. But it’s just not practical. One can hardly flourish when hiding away from life. In this way, the subconscious mind can actually do more harm than good. Sometimes fear is appropriate, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes even when it is appropriate, it is not helpful to give in to it and flee.
Just one bad experience can be enough to put you off something for good. The important thing is, if the thing that is scaring you is valuable, desirable or necessary, you’ve just got to get back on the horse.
Say, you ask someone you are attracted to out on a date. They say ‘no’. Once bitten, twice shy you conclude. What? You’re going to spend the rest of your life alone?
You apply for a promotion at work. The interview is a shambles. They say ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ Are you now going to give up and resign yourself to career stagnation until retirement?
Failures must be learnt from but then we have to find a way to shrug them off. You must voluntarily put yourself back in the situations that you fear most, and you must do it repeatedly. You must fly by the seat of your pants. Refuse to submit to fear, even if you can’t rid yourself of it. Let it be your unwelcome companion. Compete. Take risks. Sometimes fear is its own signal, telling you that you are pushing hard against the boundaries of your comfort zone. That’s how growth happens. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science:
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!”
He exhorts us not to “live hidden in forests like shy deer!” Do not yield to fear. Baby steps are sometimes necessary, but nonetheless one has to move forwards not backwards. Even standing still becomes stagnation ultimately.
READY TO FAIL
Being bold is no guarantee of success, of course. You will fail. You will embarrass yourself. You will be laughed at. You may be vilified. You might even acquire a few bruises or even broken bones. Nothing worth having is easily obtained. How many failures must one bear for a single victory? How many graceless belly-flops for the championship dive that takes the gold medal? Thousands, surely.
Through constant repetition in the face of fear, you can embed newer, more helpful programmes over time, while learning from every failure. Be proud of failing, because it is evidence of having made the attempt. Ready yourself for a coming bounty of failures. Re-programme your subconscious mind. At the very least, you can teach it that you are not the kind of person to let fear stop you moving forward. As long as you keep getting back on that horse.
Next time: What doesn’t kill you…
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