Being self-aware is not only a virtue, it’s necessary if you want to write your own story in life. For centuries, philosophers, scholars, psychologists, and scientists have debated the existence of free will. With recent findings on the complex nature of the brain, which is a key interface for human behavior (environment being another one), we see that much of human behavior is mediated not by conscious thought, but by sub- or unconscious thought processes. This means that much of our everyday actions are driven by forces which are usually beneath our conscious awareness.
Now, while this discovery in many way confirms the old idea that humans have little if any control over their actions, it also opens doors to the other side of the debate. If many of our motivations, thoughts, desires, intents, and actions are not conscious, then if we can just develop ways to consciously access them by looking deeper into our behavior patterns and thought processes, we create new neural pathways that practice conscious decision-making. It sounds simple, perhaps too simple to some, but in order to make progress we must embrace the opportunity to at least develop this skill and see how our lives change as result.
In this article I will discuss one example of unconscious patterning that can and will affect day-to-day behavior: fighting. I don’t mean physical fighting, but the psychological perception that a battle is taking place and so “I need to fight.” This attitude is prevalent in politics (including peace rallies), law, economics, and many other aspects of society.
Sometimes fighting is necessary, after all, the autonomic “fight” response of the body is designed to mobilize an individual to fight and protect their own life when faced with immediate threat. I refer to this as a balanced notion of fighting, because it’s specifically meant to protect life. Many other “fights” in life are not in response to direct threats, but threats that have been culturally construed or imagined to be immediate and relevant. The problem of fighting something that is not directly threatening your life or liberties is that you focus your time and resources on the act of fighting, rather than creating what you believe in, which may be peace, justice, kindness, or charity. And if you fight against something, you are constantly focused on that very thing which you are against. If you instead focused on creating what you want, without worrying about fighting its opposite or nemesis, you operate from a different mindset altogether.
When someone is in fight mode, or engaging in battle, their physiological and psychological resources are allocated to the pursuit of victory (defeating the enemy), which means they are most likely not enthusiastic about cooperation, negotiation, or collaboration with the perceived adversary. This is important when there is an actual battle taking place and an individual needs to focus on specific objectives for self-defense in order to survive. But in day-to-day life where such battles are not a reality, proceeding in the fight mentality can over time erode those very qualities that are important to any individual: cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration.
I will recount an experience I had a little over a year ago in which my need to fight narrowed my perspective and indirectly prevented me from finding what I was looking for. For the first issue of UC San Diego’s publication of the undergraduate journal The Triple Helix (the site is currently being updated), I wrote an article about the scientific study of emotion and how it is important to society. In my writing, I carried a highly opinionated tone, which painted a picture of society neglecting the study of emotion. While this claim can be substantiated by ample evidence, it is not the entire picture.
One key concept I mentioned in the article was “reappraisal,” which is the act of cognitively reframing an experience so as to regulate any negative emotional reactions that resulted from the experience. In the article I mentioned the need for study in this area, saying that:
“There is evidence that suppressing anger is not very effective, but science has exerted very little effort to forge a link between expressing anger in a safe and healthy way and then formulating a method to reappraise the event or person who gave cause for the anger, so as to motivate one to compassion and resolve their need to perform acts of retribution.”
I still believe we need more research in this area if reappraisal techniques are to become more mainstream. However, one day, weeks after the article was published, I was doing a search in the school library and I discovered that there were already several studies conducted on this subject of reappraisal, and even if they weren’t exhaustive, they were an important start! (Not to mention that there were labs where research was being done to address my very concern.)
At first, I was excited to stumble across them during my search, but then, after I noticed the publication dates, my question was: Why did I not find this earlier? These studies belong in the references section of my article!
After thinking about it more, I realized I hadn’t done an online publication search on “reappraisal,” which I was more than capable of doing. Instead, I had assumed (probably unconsciously) that the search would yield no results. And why might I make such an assumption? I believe this was due to many reasons, the primary one being that I was in “fight” mode.
You see, my direct experiences with group workshops and reading self-help books had made quite an impression on me, and I had had many questions answered about psychology, myself, and how to work effectively with feelings. So as I continued my studies at UC San Diego, especially in psychology courses, I couldn’t help but notice many of the limitations of common knowledge on feelings and processing them.
In fact, I was at many times abhorred at how researchers could make conclusions such as: the expression of anger arouses the nervous system, and so it needs to be “managed” (into nonexistence). I had learned from experience that anger is the perfect fuel for reappraisal and really addressing problems in life directly and effectively. But, my focus in those years of college had been, how could “they” (mainstream scientists as I perceived them) make such mistakes at the expense of good mental health practices? And because my focus was on their actions, the adversary as I had come to see them, my mental resources flowed in that direction. As a result, I had come to believe less in the scientific community, and I indirectly prevented myself from finding the hope I had deeply longed for: scientific support for what I had experienced to be valid and invaluable (which does exist, and is out there and constantly growing).
Now, my purpose for sharing this experience is not to say that what I did was a mistake. It was a process, an unconscious one that I was fortunate to uncover and learn from to improve not only my writing but the issues I had at the time reconciling science and spirituality (which I now view from a more balanced perspective). While my article did provide a sense of hope and positive support for emotion studies, it also had a subtle agenda—it criticized science. And healthy criticism and questioning is essential for the growth of any field, but in my criticism I neglected resources which would have served my claims well and helped me spread my message.
As a result of this experience, I’ve drafted some questions which I can apply to any future writings and academic endeavors:
- Are my opinions or criticisms about the situation or issue substantiated?
- What do I get across to the reader by expressing them?
- Do my opinions or criticisms mobilize readers to think about solutions, or do they only dwell on the problems?
- Where am I making an assumption that someone or some group of people have not done enough or are not doing the “right thing”?
- Am I taking responsibility for what I can do to improve the situation or issue, instead of what others can do?
- Am I fighting against? If so, why do I feel threatened? Am I really threatened, or do I merely perceive it this way?
- Can I investigate this more so that I’m not basing my judgments on past experiences, or unresolved anger or pain?
These are basic questions to promote fighting for a cause versus fighting against its opposite or nemesis. I believe we all can learn more about the battles we are fighting unconsciously, and I believe it is in our interests to do so—because ultimately, when we fight a battle without knowing it, we focus our precious resources on the perceived enemy when we would benefit much more by focusing all of our attention on what we are trying to create.
As you can see in this example, by uncovering what were very unconscious motives and actions, I have given myself an opportunity to create more understanding in myself. And I’ve made a conscious decision to give up the fight against the misunderstanding and invalidating of emotions in the world, so that I can instead further awareness on how working with emotions can be healing.
When you can find your inner fight, you can see if it is really serving your best interests. By doing so, you practice conscious decision-making. I encourage you to find out where it might take you.