When you sit down to enjoy a cuppa, do you remember putting the water in the kettle, switching it on, getting a tea bag from the tea caddy and putting it in your mug? Waiting for the kettle to boil, filling the mug with hot water, taking out the teabag at just the right moment and adding the perfect amount of milk? Do you even remember whether you had to wash your mug first, or did you grab a clean one?
Chances are, if you’re like most of us, you don’t recall doing every minute action to make that cup of tea, you did them automatically. But perfectly safely.
And yet there would have been a time when you had to consciously think about every manoeuvre. You would have taken extra care because of handling boiling water and you would have concentrated hard on keeping the mug level while you carried it to the table without spilling any.
So, how did you reach a point when you’re so unaware of the process that it’s almost as if the tea appeared from nowhere.
The answer is repetition. You’ve made tea tens of thousands of times, so the pathways in your brain that represent ‘tea making’ are nicely embedded. The connections between the nerve cells are so strong, they fire automatically once you initiate the sequence.
And it’s the same with any task that you do over and over again, driving, brushing your teeth, using the phone, drying your hair. You’ve done these things so many times you don’t have to apply any conscious effort. They have become subconscious habits.
There’s a very good reason for this. If we had to apply our conscious attention to every waking action, we would have no capacity for learning something new. So, once something’s been repeated often enough, we can do it automatically.
And that frees our conscious mind up for learning new skills.
The same principle applies to how we respond to situations. If we have developed a habit of caving in when someone is being unreasonable, or getting angry when the traffic makes us late, or feeling anxious in social settings, then these responses are as automatic as making a cup of tea or brushing our teeth.
So they feel ‘natural’. They feel as if they are the right thing to do in those circumstances.
That’s fine, if your responses work well for you. If you have peace of mind and feel like you’re leading an enjoyable, fulfilled life. If you get to the end of the day feeling nicely satisfied and looking forward to the future with optimism and enthusiasm.
But if you’re stressed, anxious, angry, feeling down or lonely, maybe your automatic responses are not serving you well.
So, what’s to be done?
Well, changing your automatic thoughts is just like learning any new skill. At first you have to apply some conscious effort, just like you would do if you were learning to play a musical instrument.
But if you apply yourself and repeat the new behaviour regularly and consistently it will become an automatic, subconscious response.
And when your default reaction to situations is one of ‘I got this’, life becomes so much more enjoyable.