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Whilst there are many unhealthy subconscious behaviours, there is one trait we humans display that probably ranks most highly in locking us into our old patterns. It is one of our natural abilities that can either help or damage us. That is, our ability to choose automatically between alternatives without being aware of choosing. This works really well for the majority of our lower level decisions - the ones where we would make the same decision consciously, but when we automate thinking patterns that close down whole roots of thinking without us realising, it can lead to poor decisions. I call it the, "A,B..... therefore Z" pathway or the, "One root" thinking pattern. This pattern occurs when we close down options before we are very clear about the main thing we're trying to achieve. Our thinking follows the emotional focus of our attention and excludes areas outside of that focus. In simple terms, imagine the roots of a tree and that each of the main roots (of which there are 4 in the illustration above), represent alternative options or ideas or solutions to a problem. Without sufficient clarity we can start following a single root of thinking according to our emotional focus and subconscious programming, without considering the alternatives. This automatically leads us to reject the other, possibly better options. If there are 4 main roots which each split into 3 sub-roots and these each split into 2 further sub-roots, by choosing 1 main root we are closing down and rejecting without consideration, at least 3x3x2 = 18 alternatives.
An example of the way this translates into behaviour is where someone stays locked in the patterns of the past. Let’s consider a recent case of mine; let's call my client, Emma; her name and some of the details have been changed to preserve her identity, but the important matters have been retained. Emma came to me for help with Crohn’s symptoms. Here is a summary of my initial session with Emma. As usual in my detailed initial session with her, I gathered a comprehensive history to assess whether I felt I could help with her symptoms and to decide whether I will take on her case.
Emma was delightful and engaging and clearly very intelligent. She spoke in a very logical, matter of fact way, speaking about her history of Crohn’s symptoms objectively and unemotionally. When I asked her about her work, she mentioned that she was preparing a legal case against her employers for constructive dismissal. So far she had had meetings with lawyers but had not yet presented the case to her employers. During the first 30 minutes or so, in which her story unfolded I remained silent, allowing her to reveal her patterns of thinking, her mind set and her tapestry of issues. Here is some of the background and the key issues I detected that are relevant to the “One root” thinking I want to illustrate. (I’ve left you some dots to join up).
Emma was a senior manager in a multinational company and she loved her job. She was used to working hard and getting great results. She was highly respected at work where she was recognised as being very able and contributing a great deal. It was clear to me that she thought of her identity and her value in terms of her contribution, not in terms of herself as a person. She pushed herself very hard, putting the company before herself, her family commitments and any social life. She started suffering very bad G.I. symptoms and was diagnosed with Crohn's. When I asked her how she felt when she received the diagnosis she remembered feeling like it was a “life sentence” and that she was facing ” a very bleak future”. She felt that this was the only realistic and pragmatic view. She reported how her boss and colleagues were “very understanding at first”, allowing her to work from home, but that when the pain and feeling drained meant that she submitted work late, “things began to go downhill very rapidly” and her boss began to allocate work to other people. After that her colleagues and boss called increasingly less often and then stopped calling altogether. She started to feel invalidated as a person, feeling unable to contribute as she had previously. She felt forgotten, abandoned and resentful that all her past contribution meant nothing. She felt sure the stress of work had “contributed massively” to her symptoms and now that she was unable to work at the same level she was being "discarded".
Her need to be valued and to contribute, combined with her work ethic, her need for job satisfaction and independence led to her dwell on her predicament; thinking was something she had plenty of time to do now she had little work to do, trapped and imprisoned by her symptoms. She started to think about how hard she'd worked for such a long time under difficult circumstances. She thought of all the sacrifices she’d made for them and how this stress had contributed to her condition. She thought of all the times her willingness to “go the extra mile” had been assumed, hoe she'd postponed holidays, allowed people to call her when she was on annual leave, worked evenings and week ends, and so the resentment built.
I asked her some more in depth questions to test my theories that some of her emotions were linked to her symptoms. We demonstrated to our satisfaction that certain feelings exacerbated her symptoms. These included: feelings of not being valuable, and that she was not valued, feelings of victim-hood, expecting bad things to happen to her, and the threat of losing her independence. There were a number of other relevant issues, but these are sufficient to demonstrate the point.
Afterwards I asked her a question:
What is it that you hope to achieve from this legal action?
Emma’s demure, expression cracked instantly as she realised in an instant the truth she’d been denying; that this new “project” she had embarked on, of suing her company would never give her what she was looking for.
As I asked, and she answered more questions she realised that she was looking for engagement in something that was valuable, something that would give her satisfaction and recognition. She wanted to retain her status and independence and respect. Most of all she was angry: She wanted to blame them for her Crohn’s. In reality she knew that Crohn's wasn’t their fault. She realised that a lot of her stress had been of her own making by not setting boundaries and by not discouraging people to rely on her too much.
On the face of it, suing the company would give her a lot of what she wanted. What it wouldn’t give her was a future. Pursuing this action was cementing the problems of her past into the present and inevitably, her future: By blaming the company for her condition, she could deny to herself that there was anything she needed to change; instead she was reinforcing her issues into her identity. Even from her experience of preparing the legal action, she realised that dwelling on these events was feeding her issues and worsening her symptoms.
I asked her, “What other options was she closing down by expending energy on this legal case?” Speaking from the new awareness she had awakened, Emma was easily able to list many positive, forward looking options, choices that would nurture her rather than contribute to her symptoms.
After our initial session she felt able to discuss with her boss her plan to return back to fitness.
I did agree to take Emma on as a client. We were able to design a program that would follow up on the indicators we picked up on the testing and achieve what she wanted.
She was a quick learner. After three weeks of her program she was back to work full time. Her boss and colleagues were very pleased to have her back. One of the assignments from her program was to negotiate ground rules with her colleagues and set boundaries that meant everyone respected her time more, especially, Emma herself.
Later, Emma heard accidentally from her boss’s P.A. that whilst she was off sick, her boss had reallocated her work to help her recover faster (as you probably realised). He had called Emma as seldom as possible because, "...for Emma to be off sick she must be too unwell to be disturbed!" Emma's boss and colleagues valued her for herself as much as they did for her work. She realised this now and she felt valued for herself.
With her attention focused on her fears, resentment and blame, Emma had mis-assumed her boss’s motives for reallocating the work and not calling her. She hadn’t called him to discuss it with him as she couldn’t face the inevitable doomsday outcome she’d extrapolated – an outcome that ended with demotion and losing her job. “A, B,….. therefore Z”. Q.E.D.
If there are areas in your life where you are getting results that you don’t like, you might like to check your emotional area of focus and ask yourself, “What options are you excluding?”