On a run the other morning, I was raking through thoughts on a series of situations I had recently found myself in. I had responded in a particular way which was confusing to me, and I was trying to unpick exactly why I had gone down that route. Was it the right one? Was I ever in control of the situation, able to judge appropriately the situation and pick the right outcome? Might have I even been duping myself of the realities of the situation, failing to understand how I actually felt about it?
Stopping to note in my phone my epiphanies, I realised that life is never about making decisions, but rather acting out a set of defaults that have been built into my subconscious. Neurotemporal studies suggest that by the time we’re conscious of even needing to make a choice, our brain has already selected the outcome and your motor cortex has commenced acting it out. If we want to change the life path that we’re on, we have to find some way of adjusting the defaults that lead to our decisions and behavioural outcomes. We have to build in the right rules to make the right decision long before the event presents itself: if we wait till then, it’ll already be too late.
All our behaviour is geared towards minimising pain and maximising rewards. We suffer most when these two are entangled: we miss out on something great to minimise potential pain, or jeopardise our health and relationships in a relentless pursuit of reward. These two sides of our souls even lie to one another to win out: to have another drink because it’ll make you sleep better; to pick an argument because they haven’t called and you feel the need to punish them, when underneath you just need reassurance that they still love you.
Recognising what pain and reward actually mean to us in our day to day lives and how it unconsciously influences our decisions is one step. Setting clear boundaries for what is healthy and progressive for you is another. Think to the things that are really wrangling your thoughts at the moment and break them down: what’s in them that’s you driving for something better? Where are you trying to manage potential pain?
Out of this balance our mental default is produced — our outward behaviour, the decisions we take. But what really drives the value of both of these sides sits much deeper down in your subconscious. Alongside our most primitive drives of morality, identity and love, we also carry the marks of trauma — mainly life experiences that stay with you, but also the trauma carried for the ones you love, or even inherited from ancestors in previous generations.
We’re told when something bad happens to ‘get over it’ — people feel uncomfortable seeing us suffer, and we endeavour to right ourselves as soon as possible. We focus on trying to get back to normality as soon as possible, resuming daily life as our hard working, radiant selves. The trauma gets pushed down, solidly lodging in your subconscious to influence your everyday in cryptic and unpredictable ways.
To change our defaults and make better life choices is therefore about more than striving to do things better, but going right to your foundations to deal with these ingrained emotional traumas. Taking a true look at yourself and everything you have been through can be exceptionally pain-generating in itself, and a common reason that people avoid it. But as with most things: no pain no gain.
The analogy I like to think of is a sports massage. You’re aware of a knot in your neck which means you can’t lift your arm properly, and it’s beginning to cause other issues elsewhere in your body as you compensate. You go to a masseuse with really pointy elbows and she jabs away at the knot. You pull faces and want to run away and tears gather in your eyes. But, bit by bit, it seems to disappate. You get up, and everythings a bit looser. In fact, you feel great.
Understanding our defaults in this way helps to comprehend how some people experience radical change overnight after enduring life-changing experiences, such as near-death experiences, religious epiphanies or psychedelic therapy. Although these can end up creating trauma of their own, they can also counterintuitively take us into a space where the trauma reveals itself to the conscious, and the individual is forced to deal with it head on. This is followed by an intense and profound sense of connection with a greater power which facilitates acceptance of the trauma, allowing the life story to be re-written to fundamentally change the default. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous uses this to great effect and healing*: power and control is surrendered to a higher power above the self, and everyday life becomes an ongoing study of your trauma and how it impacts others.
Sometimes trauma can be very deep and very old, warping over the years into something incomprehensible. Despite feeling incredibly well and happy on a day to day basis**, I have always been aware that there are some parts of me that aren’t quite right — everything feels smoothed over, but there are big bumps underneath waiting to strike me down at an opportune moment.
A rather incidental series of events recently acted to jab right at my most vulnerable trauma knots (underpinned by some needy inflammation sickness behaviours caused by an illness). The emotional fear that arose out of the eruption was so vivid it was like reliving the episodes all over again — and several all at the same time. It was scary and weird, but thankfully by being with the right people it became incredibly useful. In some kind of third person reflection, I could better understand how I’d assimilated certain traumas into the story my psyche tells itself to determine my everyday experience. It was like an emotional excavation — scraping down through all of the layers to understand more of the ruins beneath.
So, sadly, becoming better versions of ourselves is about 1000 times harder, grittier and messier than the Instagram quotes which tell you its about dreaming big and working hard. It’s about meeting our worst fears, evil demons and shadow-selves to battle it out. But once you’ve made it through the woods (and make sure you surround yourself with good-hearted wonderful people for the convalescence), everything will be a little easier from that point. Rather than wondering why the life of health and prosperity you’re trying to build keeps sagging and crumbling from a foundation of emotional rubble, you can finally find firm ground on which to start again. The impact will touch everything in your life for the better.
*The link between AA and psychedelics was actually explored by the co-founder of the movement, Bill Wilson, in the 1950s. Alcoholics on the programme needed to have a spiritual epiphany in order to keep progressing, but some were unable to achieve it by themselves. After an experience himself on LSD, Wilson considered in private letters whether LSD have the potential to induce spiritual connection more easily and promote healing. In field studies roving into the depths of the internet today, there appears to be a substantial volume of self-reports demonstrating a reduction in problematic alcohol consumption after taking LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms).
**Exceptionally so — I had actually told a few people before the incident that I considered myself to almost be ‘the opposite of depressed’. My smugness was ripe for a demolishing.