Rejoining Joy

Ways of living

From Automaticity to Authenticity

Dealing with the Hidden and the Forbidden

Automaticity in behavior protects you from (a) past problems that are too difficult to face, (b) stresses in the present that are overwhelming, and (c) the need for too many changes in your usual behaviors because of changing contexts or times. Automaticity in behavior does not refer to putting aside your psychological and social life as you complete tasks that are important for your day, such as at work, in school, or with your children. Rather, this refers either to distancing yourself from emotions, hurts, and paths in the past that have left indelible marks on you or to overwhelming stresses or demands for change in the present that are too difficult to confront.

However, in the short run, in all these cases the loss of flexibility in behavior could hinder your ongoing adjustment. Moreover, in the long run, they could do serious harm to how you confront problems and stresses, which could have important implications for your psychology and your personal life. When you are out of touch with your internal feelings, hurts, and frustrated hopes and goals, they fester like internal psychological sores and can do further damage.

There are many ways that you protect yourself from extreme psychological problems, whether they come from your past or your present. You might use psychological defenses such as putting a psychological barrier around yourself so that you do not feel the hurt or the stress. This might be a useful strategy in certain ways, but there are costs to you, as well, such as not getting fully involved in the situation or trying to resolve it.

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In fact, things might slip further out of control despite your best efforts to gain control. For example, if you have lived a lifetime this way because of abuse or the like in the past, the emotional distancing might be quite strong. However, your blocked emotions could also leak out unexpectedly in situations and, moreover, what leaks out might not be very adaptive and could be too negative.

Therefore, you might deal with problems by trying to ignore them or to not deal with them directly, and this could lead to long-term patterns of letting things go. In the end, this type of reaction leads to the problems and stresses dominating you and to having you adopt a passive strategy when they appear.

Or, your typical reaction might be not to let things go but to overreact and let nothing go. If you act too strongly against problems and stresses, when that type of reaction is not called for or only makes things worse, you are really being passive rather than active, in the sense of the problems controlling you and how you react to them.

If you go the opposite way and wear your emotions on your sleeve, so to speak, your emotional reactions might be too strong, misplaced in the context, or even the opposite of what you should be doing. If you might lash out and get too involved, your behavior will be nonproductive and discourage finding solutions.

The examples provided might be describing you very well, and one way of summarizing them is that they reflect automatic reactions to problems and stresses rather than more flexible responses. The more you are automatic in how you deal with problems and stresses, the less you are able to respond well to them and the less you are able to foresee them and to head them off with good strategies and plans.

In contrast to behaving with automaticity, you could behave the opposite way, or with authenticity. I have called having a full and free flexibility in behavior authenticity because when you act without automatic chains to past behaviors that do not fit the present problem or stress, you increase the chances of finding the best solutions.

When you avoid habitual reactions that are inflexible and automatic in situations and behave instead in the opposite way - with responsive actions that seek solutions to the problem or stress in a controlled way - you increase the chances of adjusting better to the situation. Also, other people will be more likely to perceive you as more free and genuine instead of chained to past habits and inconsiderate of them. By acting with authenticity rather than automaticity, positive cycles in behavior and social interactions could develop rather than negative vicious circles.

However, changing behavior so that it has less automaticity and more authenticity might be a long, hard struggle. For example, when you move a psychological rock holding you back, what if you find buried under it hidden traumas or forbidden secrets that hurt? As a child, you might have experienced major abuse and you had to put aside its harmful effects in order to get on as best you could at school and at home.

By starting the change process in moving toward authenticity from automaticity, you will have taken the first steps in regaining an active approach to living rather than a passive, reactive one. The benefits in taking steps to move away from automatic reactions to active authentic actions greatly outweigh the costs involved. Moreover, in confronting the past hurts and harms, help is at hand in people around you, resources that you consult, professionals who might be available, and readings that you can begin.

When the hidden and forbidden become open to exploration and help, gradually you will feel a greater inner peace and a calmer way of dealing with people. Dealing with secrets frees the chains of automaticity and the freedom of authenticity.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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