What on Earth Am I Feeling?
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal
Disconnecting the autopilot is the practise of noticing when you’re distracted and then actively bringing your attention back to the present.
But there’s a problem. It’s called turbulence. (Namely, your emotions.)
This is what happens when a pilot takes the autopilot out. For reasons only known to God, the ride gets much worse. (I swear it has nothing to do with my skills.)
The same thing happens when we remove all the distractions from our lives. The ride gets rather bumpy!
This is why meditation – which is essentially the practice of staying present with your immediate experience – freaks many people out. Why some people would rather electrocute themselves!
Because we are forced to deal with all the icky sticky emotions we’ve been bottling up for most of our lives.
Therapy achieves the same thing.
You sit in a room – sans distractions – with someone who gets you to talk about the painful experiences you don’t want to talk about, while guiding you back to all the emotions you don’t want to feel until you capitulate into a big blubbering mess. (It’s a barrel of laughs.)
The Benefits of Disconnecting Your Autopilot
So what’s the benefit of doing this?
Well, when we repress one emotion, we kind of repress them all. Acknowledging and letting them go enables us to feel the full kaleidoscope of experience.
Of course, what we feel about things = who we are.
This is what people mean when they prattle on about finding themselves or going on a spiritual journey. They’ve allowed themselves to start feeling again.
For those who have been bottling up their emotions for a long time this can be eye-opening.
Maybe you realise, “Holy shit! I’ve been pretending I’m some badass macho man when, in reality, I’m really sensitive.” Or that you’re really competitive, but that was beat out of you during childhood.
A surprising emotion that came up for me in the wake of my depression was anger.
Now, I’d never thought of myself as an angry person. Indeed, I’m not. However, I almost never used to get angry. What I’d been doing was bottling the emotion up. I didn’t even realise I was doing it.
This was partly because I was taught not to get angry as a child. But also because I was bullied for over two years during my adolescence.
Instead of expressing that anger as I should have, I turned it inward.
As you can imagine, this created something of a fire-breathing dragon beneath the surface. It just laid dormant for years.
It wasn’t until I had my first child – whenever he started crying bloody murder – that I found I would get really, really angry. It was intense.
Often I wanted to throw my kid out the window. Luckily I never did this! But I did have to go into another room and cool off.
It wasn’t until I allowed myself to acknowledge said anger (and become clear that it had nothing to do with my child crying) that I was able to manage it more effectively.
The Purpose of Self-Awarness
This is a good example of self-awareness doing me a massive favour – helping prevent me from passing on my own neurosis to my children (or at least limiting the damage).
But it also highlights why flying manually is so damn tricky. We have to reckon with who we really are.
It means acknowledging all the things about ourselves we wish weren’t true – all the ugly unsavory parts of our personality or nature – all our demons lurking deep beneath the surface (that we all have).
Coming to terms with these things can be very difficult – especially if you’re personality is as fucked up as yours truly. The desire is to judge ourselves or blame the world for all our problems.
Of course, this defeats the whole point of self-awareness – that is, self-acceptance.
We only feed the dragon if we refuse to accept it.
Only by bringing these parts of ourselves into the light with compassion and understanding do we stand a chance of integrating the darker elements of our nature in a healthy way.
The Trap of Introspection
While these insights are extremely beneficial for helping us cope when we’re acting like a giant asshat, there is a bit of a trap when trying to understand why we are the way we are.
As it turns out, asking why we are the way we are is a surprisingly ineffective Self-Awareness question. It’s so ineffective, in fact, you really ought to stop asking it!
Research has shown we don’t have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much sits outside our conscious awareness, we often invent the reason why.
Aside from being wrong the bigger issue with asking why is that it never stops. It’s like peeling an onion. Underneath the first layer may be an important insight. But after that, it’s just more onion.
You have to be very careful not to keep peeling in a desperate attempt to try and find the grand cosmic truth for your existence (because there isn’t one).
Most of my issues are rooted in low self-worth. The reason for this is multi-fold based on a series of shit sandwiches I was served in my younger years. The temptation for me is to keep asking why.
Was it because my parents doubted me? Was it because I was bullied? Was it because?..
It’s irrelevant! I understand the false belief that regularly causes my autopilot to fly me inverted straight toward a mountain. I know where it comes from, broadly speaking.
That’s good enough.
If I keep peeling the onion it indicates that I’m not accepting the truth about who I am. As a result, I end up trapped in unproductive thought patterns about the past – trying to unearth some grand cosmic truth that will set me free.
(FYI, this is why frequent self-analyzers are more depressed and anxious and experience poorer well-being.)
The Ultimate Self-Awareness Hack.
None of this is to say you shouldn’t practice a little introspection. However, there is a far far better question to ask than why.
This really is a massive self-awareness hack. It’s so huge, in fact, I will bold it for you. (Mainly because I wish someone had told me this about a decade ago.)
Asking what helps you frame the context of who you are regarding the situation you’re in much better. Put another way, what is solutions focused.
In one study, psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann gave a bunch of undergraduates negative feedback on a test of their “likability and interestingness.”
Some were given time to think about why they were the way they were, while others were asked to think about what kind of person they were.
When the researchers had them evaluate the feedback, the “why” students spent their energy rationalising and denying what they’d learned, whereas the “what” students were more open to learning.
Hixon and Swann concluded that “Thinking about why one is the way one is may be no better than not thinking about one’s self at all.”
To use a personal example, being fatigued is a major trigger for me. Following a long-haul flight, I would often turn into something of a giant asshat. Asking why only compounded my misery.
It wasn’t until I was brutally honest about how depressed I became for days following a long-haul trip that I realized I couldn’t keep doing it.
My body was telling me things my heart didn’t want to hear. Eventually this reached a tipping point where I felt the pain no longer justified the reward.
It was a major reason why I quit my job.
This, ultimately, is the whole point of asking what we are: To figure out what we should do about it.
- Disconnecting the autopilot is the practise of noticing when you’re distracted and then actively bringing your attention back to the present.
- Flying manually (practising mindfulness) helps us understand how we feel about everything.
- Asking why we are the way we are keep us trapped in unproductive thoughts about the past.
- Asking what kind of person we are is solutions focused. It frames the context of who we are regarding our situation much better.
This is part 3 of a series of posts on the topic of Self-Awareness:
Part 1: The Automation Paradox
Part 2: The Three Areas of Self-Awareness: What on Earth Am I Doing?
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