I was in a business development group a few years ago when a woman came in who was stuck in a job that she hated and wanted desperately to leave. Within several minutes I knew that she was fighting an unconscious trauma from her past that she was not ready to address.
Over the course of several weeks I watched other members of the group all attempt to coach her out of her fear so that she could transition into the life she really wanted. As people spoke, she nodded her head, said she understood, went back and forth, gained hope, lost it, and then fell back into offering excuses for why she couldn’t quit.
From the outside, it didn’t make sense. People were exasperated. Eyes rolled. Some participants, I could tell, just thought she was plain stupid. But I knew this wasn’t true and that something deeper was at play. From the very beginning I could see that this transition point in her life was triggering a significant trauma from her past that was creating a powerful, undeniable emotional signal within her that screamed: “Stay put, and suffer in silence. Because if you don’t, the consequences will be worse.”
What is to be done?
Logically, of course, we could all see that nothing was stopping her. From a “conscious” perspective it simply didn’t make sense. And there were moments when two very skilled consultants walked her through a series of questions that eventually led her to the clear-as-day conclusion that her life and prospects would be dramatically better if she simply summoned the courage to hand in her resignation and quit. And yet, as her conscious mind said “yes,” we all watched as something far more powerful within her continued to say “no.” She was stuck.
But this is the way it happens. And I see it every day. Over and over again. With career blockages, chronic health and relationship problems. The unconscious mind is the Titan of your psyche. You cannot fight it. You can only dive in, pull back the curtain, understand why it is limiting you, and from that place, begin to heal.
After several months she agreed to meet with me. I began by explaining my thoughts. But like many, she didn’t really believe in all of this “unconscious nonsense.” And yet, even as she spoke, she knew something was going on that she didn’t quite understand. Because if she had, she would have already changed her life, all of which simply compounded her feelings of helplessness, with shame.
After all, who likes to admit they don’t know why they behave the way they do? But our relationship with our unconscious is like this. Without integrating it, we risk behaving like split personalities, thinking one thing, but feeling another, repeating self-sabotaging actions over and over, while constantly generating seemingly rational explanations for them, even though, deep down, we are unaware of the truth — that we are being powerfully and unconsciously guided by events from our past that are calling out to us to be healed.
So after a short conversation to orient us around the issue, I guided her into a hyper somatized state and then introduced the fear of not being able to quit her job. Within a short period, a 40-year-old memory bubbled to the surface. I could tell she was shocked. The incident was uncomplicated and, to some extent, predictable.
In the memory, she described a long-forgotten event from her early childhood in which she had defied an authority figure in a way that had almost cost her her life. As with most unconscious beliefs this is how they are created. In the midst of trauma the amygdala scrambles to create a principle that will prevent the trauma from ever taking place again. But the amygdala is fallible. The beliefs it creates in early life are always overly simplistic, and in time, often counter productive.
So what was hers?
It was simple: “Standing up for myself is dangerous. Saying ‘no’ in the face of authority is life-threatening. Never do it.”
And her career and personal life reflected this.
Although brilliant and hard-working, she had constantly struggled to stand her ground. Over time, she claimed to feel like a doormat. But there was no criticism or condemnation here. When hardwiring is at play, there is simply an early, usually overly simplistic, defense mechanism created by an experience that has been long overdue for an upgrade.
Over all these years she had simply been diligently following her own defense mechanism. The problem with these mechanism of course, is that they have been created with the mind of a child. Instead of being context-specific, they are general; instead of being rational, they are emotional and completely closed to logic. In time, they can become
all-pervasive. And indeed, within a few short years, this defense mechanism had quickly begun to influence all of her relationships in ways that not only didn’t protect her, but that actually deeply disempowered her.
All hardwired beliefs, although innocent and overly simplistic reactions to events, are nonetheless expressions of our own human, entirely fallible intelligence. For this reason it is never appropriate to frame the hardwiring of the past as wrong or foolish just as it is inappropriate to consider the programming of early computers as wrong or foolish. For the time and the place in which they were conceived, they used the resources that were available to them. Upgrading hardwiring is not a question of rewiring, but of untangling. It is not a problem to be fixed, but an existing solution that simply requires greater nuance, context and sophistication to develop.
Within only a few years, hardwired beliefs created in the first 10 to 15 years of life quickly become obsolete and some of our greatest impediments to growth.
Before I offer some case studies, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to consider.
What You Can Do
- It has been scientifically proven that the vast majority of our awareness is subconscious and unconscious. And yet as far as main stream culture is concerned it doesn’t matter. “I know myself.” “I know why I do what I do.” But do you really? Unless you’ve done the work of illuminating at least the most fundamental of your unconscious hard wiring then – you don’t. It’s that simple. Lift the veil on your unconscious and you will literally illuminate the architecture that has given rise to your entire life. From that place, and that place alone, you will finally have empowered yourself to transform.
- Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re able to work on your own unconscious issues alone. It’s impossible. Like trying to see your own blind spot. Find practitioners who are literate in this work and have a track record.
- Identify areas in your life that you have been unable to change. That have stubbornly persisted despite your best attempts to transform them. Do you feel resistance that you believe isn’t simply your own laziness or lack of motivation? This is one of the simplest ways of identifying unconscious hard wiring at work. It feels like a struggle that easily thwarts your own attempts to change.
- Look at your parents, your siblings, your peers and partners. What are the struggles that you see in common? We will often repeat the patterns of our parents, band together with peers who struggle with the same ones, and find partners who literally mirror (in an inverted way) them. This is the way life works. It literally conspires to show you where you need to heal.
- Finally, if you’re interested in developing your consciousness, if you’re actively leaning into your own evolution, if you are a go-getter interested in improving your performance, your health, your happiness, then don’t be content with simply being aware of the most superficial level of your being. Be curious to know all of it. You are a miracle with powerful resources within you. The more you know yourself the more you will know this to be true.
(All identities and issues have been heavily disguised to preserve anonymity.)
1. “Why am I always angry at women?”
I began working with Jeremy because he had begun to realize that he was always angry with his partners. He had had many over the years and now in his mid-40s began to realize a pattern in his life that he had been unaware of
previously. All of his relationships had ended in an unpleasant breakup instigated by his own resentment toward them. When he finally contacted me, he was in a relationship that he profoundly wanted to make work but was beginning to feel the old feelings of frustration and anger toward his new partner bubble up once again, right on cue, with a single important difference: This time he understood that his frustration wasn’t simply circumstantial. His partner wasn’t simply doing something that irritated him. Something else was at work, and it was coming from within himself.
I began the session by asking Jeremy to share his feelings for his partner. As he spoke, I waited for his body to provide me with the unconscious signal that was calling out to be addressed. When he said the words, “I feel furious at her,” I watched his body flush.
Although there are many moments in a session in which an individual will enter emotionally charged states, there is a very palpable kind of charge that indicates a pre-deterministic hardwiring seeking to be resolved. With practice it becomes easier and easier to identify them because, most importantly, our hardwired beliefs that have brought us pain in life want desperately to be uncovered. They hide in plain sight to anyone with eyes to see them. In fact it is a common occurrence for an element of hardwiring to struggle to express itself while the client struggles to hide it. The exercise is usually one of futility that makes the hardwiring only more obvious. In these cases the individual simply requires more assurance that she is moving in the appropriate direction, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel.
We slowly follow the emotion down to its root until Jeremy begins to recount a story from when he was 5 years old, one that he had not re-called for years, in which he had been the victim of a sexual assault by another man. As we continue to follow the story, we begin to realize that the most charge is not contained in the incident itself, but in the reaction of his mother following the event. She had said nothing at all. Soon the words that he originally expressed for his partner reappeared for his mother. “I was furious at her.” But you did not say anything? “No, I did not.”And so it becomes clear.The resentment was kept in and had never been resolved or processed, and so the anger directed but withheld towards his mother in childhood, was later projected onto his partners in adulthood.
As we continued with the session, it became clear that the belief created in this moment was “she doesn’t care.”
Being such a painful conclusion (and snap judgment reaction) from his place of childhood innocence, a second belief was created to protect himself from it: “If that’s true then I don’t need her.”
In this way, Jeremy had created a belief of empowerment to resolve his feelings of dis-empowerment, one that he would later consciously forget but unconsciously re-engage when a woman began to take on as significant a role in his life as a partner.
Hardwired belief: Females in my life do not truly care about me, especially when I feel ashamed.
Result: Unconscious anger toward women.
2. “Why am I afraid of having an intimate relationship?”
When Sarah came to me, she was unable to enter into an intimate relationship despite the fact that she desperately wanted to. She was able to have sexual relations, but the moment that she began to feel an authentic emotional intimacy toward another man, she would find herself over-come with so much anxiety that she would end the relationship immediately. As we went through the process of uncovering where this powerful emotional impulse to remove herself from moments of potential love had originated, we quickly uncovered the peak moment of her young life: the death of her father. As we looked at her emotions somatically, Sarah began to recount the event in more detail than she had been able to previously. Finally the energy within her body rose to a peak as she explained the anger that had become co-mingled with the pain of seeing his body, a natural mechanism of empowerment to avoid feeling the pain of losing him fully. Within that anger the belief had been created: I will never put myself in this situation again. I will never make myself so vulnerable again. In this moment, Sarah carved a hardwired belief into her psyche anchored by an extremely powerful experience. The result was that every time she began to feel her heart open, she would be immediately overwhelmed with the sensations that accompanied this original event: fear and a conviction that if she does not escape she will likely experience a pain that is so unbearable, it may even lead to death.
Hardwired belief: Love leads to a pain that is unbearable. Never open yourself up too much or you risk feeling that unbearable pain again.
Result: Never opening up fully in a relationship.
3. “Why do I have such trouble expressing emotion?”
When Noland came to me, he was incapable of experiencing emotion, something that naturally had created enormous difficulties in his relationships. Over the course of 10 years he had been married and divorced, and constantly found himself choosing women that his mind believed were right for him without ever feeling if they were right for him.
Quickly I discovered that Noland was not only unwilling to experience emotion, but almost un-able to. When I asked him if this was true, he did not say that he could not but that he simply chose not to. When I pressed him more, he struggled to come up with a reasonable answer for why he did this, for why he chose consistently not to feel. At this point in his process, he was clearly able to identify his own cognitive dissonance. He was no longer able to fool himself.
When we finally identified the experience that caused this powerful conditioning that he should never, under any circumstances, experience emotion, it made perfect sense. As a child, Noland was punished every time he cried. Among the worst of these punishments was being locked in a cupboard for long periods of time without food or water. The hardwired belief that he had created in one of the most traumatic of these moments was: Expressing emotion isolates me for painfully long periods of time. The irony of this hardwired belief, as with so many of them, was that it caused precisely what it had been designed to avoid. Instead of preventing isolation from others, especially those he
loved, it provoked it.
Hardwired belief: Never express your emotion because you will be punished and isolated.
Result: Never expressing emotions, which creates mixed signals, confusion, resentment and, ultimately, breakups.
4. “Why did I become an accountant?”
When I began working with Jane, she was a successful accountant for a large firm. She made good money, was very skilled at her job, but inherently unfulfilled by it and confused as to how one of her great gifts in life could have propelled her into such an unfulfilling career. The peak experience that we discovered upon investigating her hardwiring was a mathematics competition that she won when she was a child. She had gained so much love and appreciation from those around her that she had created this hardwired belief: If I succeed in math I will be loved.
The result of this was that she had followed the path of least resistance in her career that led her to accountancy. Every time she had begun to question her direction, she had continually felt a powerful emotional undercurrent within her directing her not to question her choices but to simply go with them. In this scenario, even an empowering experience can create a hardwired influence that can act as a propulsion into a certain direction that, when questioned, can often feel completely counter-intuitive to what we might feel in our hearts is in our best interest. In this case, it was not that
Jane needed to abandon her skill in mathematics; she simply needed to be open to it being employed in other ways.
Hardwired belief: Using my mathematical gifts is the best way to gain the love of others.
Result: The persistent pursuing of a career solving the mathematical problems of others does not, in and of itself, reflect my purpose.
5. “Why am I such an introvert?”
Ben came to me as a chronic introvert. After identifying the area in his body that held the greatest charge for his introversion I asked him to become aware of his body and invited a memory from his past to reveal itself. Immediately a powerful memory from his youth appeared. As be began to describe it, allowing the emotions from within his body to guide him, he described an event when he was 6 years old in which he found himself playing outside his house, a location that he described as: the only place I ever truly felt safe.
As the memory unfolded, we discovered that this was a game of hide and seek, and that of all the moments that he enjoyed himself during this game, there was one moment within it that clearly revealed itself as the energetic positive peak. This was the moment in which Ben had discovered a really effective hiding place that confounded the other children. As he described this moment, he began to tap into the emotions of the time that had been lodged into his nervous system. He could hardly stop himself from sniggering, his excitement was so palpable. The enjoyment from
being hidden was clear, and the longer he remained hidden the more pleasure he derived from the experience. When we began to explore other peak sensations within the memory, there was only one other. The moment when his stepfather repeatedly began to call him back into the house. In this moment, he was called out from his hiding place and into the house, where he would have to sit and listen to the other children playing outside. Hiding for Ben had become not only his great pleasure, but his great escape.
When we finished the session, we identified this “triumphant” moment, not a trauma that Ben had programmed himself to avoid, but one in which he had repeatedly found great pleasure and self-empowerment.
Hardwired belief: Hiding is safe and fun.
Result: Deriving a sense of pleasure and mirth from not revealing oneself to others eventually developed into an introversion that distanced himself from others, culminating in a feeling of isolation and loneliness that he felt emotionally trapped in and unmotivated to abandon.
Change is Possible
Unresolved hardwired programs will often continue to influence us over the course of our entire lives. Unless identified, they can go on running indefinitely, and no amount of rational persuasion or strategic consulting will be able to alter them. The overwhelming persuasiveness of the emotions driving them will often be as powerful as the day they were created, even if that time was decades ago and no longer applicable to the present moment. It may sound like a frustrating place to be, but that revelation – that something is taking place that I cannot account for – is the moment that we begin to see what was previously invisible to us. It is the first time we are able to avoid attributing it to external circumstances, or the fault or responsibility of someone else, and take responsibility ourselves.
Image credit: Beautifulviews.com