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Article: Living on Automatic: Helpful and Not Helpful

Much of how we live our life runs on automatic. This is entirely necessary to get by. Routines hold our lives together. Automatic social customs support us all getting along.  Once we learn to ride a bike or ski, we can do it, automatically. Reading, drinking from a cup, typing, making conversation—these are all the things we do without thinking about how.  You drive home from work the same way every day, not thinking about it.

If we were to stop and be mindful of all the individual components of these automatic skills, we wouldn’t be doing them. We’d have to slow down a great deal to notice all the details and the wheels would fall off the capability.

These automatic ways of experiencing are the result of “procedural learning”. We developed the response that best suited the situation a long time ago and we kept it in tact to continue to serve us.
But what happens if we “procedurally learned” something that is not in our best interest, that causes suffering, that yields a bad result in some way? 

As John was growing up, his mother was always seriously ill. He had a sense of the unknown that was filled with anxiety. The family never knew what would happen next with his mother’s health. He never knew if she would be there for him or in what capacity. Many years later in adult life, he would feel anxious about things unknown and retreat from new experiences. He had learned procedurally and automatically that the unknown was dangerous and to be avoided. This resulted in life lived too narrowly to be nurturing, lively and fulfilling.  This painful procedural learning ‘came apart’ in therapy as John became aware of the components of his ongoing experience. Slowing down, he became mindful of his thoughts, sensations and emotions. Instead of automatically experiencing the same anxiety over and over again, he noticed how it was ‘put together’ in his experience and it ‘came apart’ so that it could be replaced by different automatic experiences that were far more rewarding.

Mary grew up in an atmosphere of discouragement. As she was criticized and ignored her body posture slumped and her gaze cast downward. She was a depressed little girl who did not feel hopeful about her life. Nevertheless, because of the encouragement of others, she became a successful professional and married a kind and thoughtful man. Her present time life was really very positive so she didn’t understand why she could frequently feel so depressed. Mary’s way of experiencing had been procedurally learned early in life and was still automatically playing out in her posture, emotions and thoughts. Her therapy involved slowing down and studying the components of the automatic experience that she wanted to change. She was able to feel happy and content, the way that she was meant to feel.

Much of what people work on in therapy concerns automatic patterns that they want to change. Those patterns were created in situations unique to each individual. Even the patterns themselves are as unique as individual snowflakes. Without those painful patterns we are free to be ourselves, to grow and learn in the way we were meant to. With compassionate and mindful attention to how the hurt parts of our lives are repeating the past, there is always hope for positive change.

— Nancy Christie

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Nancy Christie BFA, CYW
Suite 404
170 The Donway West
North York Ontario
M3C 2J2

Certified Sensory Motor Psychotherapist Advanced Practitioner
Member Canadian Association for Psychodynamic Therapy
Member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario
Clinical Member of the Ontario Society of Psychotherapists
"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
—Anaïs Nin