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Running on Automatic

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. - Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s words resonate strongly for me.

So much of our lives we are running on automatic. Take, for example, the way we get home after a day of work, or the way we put our dishes away in the cupboard. These behavioural patterns are so ingrained that at times we find ourselves driving home when we were planning to run an errand, or we struggle to find where to put the cups after we decided to change the way they were organized. Automatic is easy and simple, and it is wired into our brains to make life easier and simpler, to free up energy and effort for other things. But sometimes what is automatic is not in service of what we want. And when what we want involves change from our automatic tendencies, that change takes energy and effort.

The day to day tasks of life such as dishes and driving are not unique in their susceptibility to automatic tendencies; they are just more obvious. We also run on automatic in our ways of being in our relationships. We develop habitual ways of responding, of coping, often times rooted in learning from our earliest relationships. These response patterns may include thought processes, beliefs, perceptions, expectations, and even feelings. So deeply rooted are these patterns, that we unconsciously follow them in the present, until someday we realize that the path we are on is not what we want. We have a sense that something needs to change but we don’t know what, we don’t know how, and we don’t know where to begin.

While it can be easy to see how certain habits of living impact our lives, it is much more difficult to see how unconscious processes impact our lives and our relationships. We need to be in a position to actually see, or bring to light, these unconscious processes that happen so quickly, as well as to determine how they affect us and those around us. In relationship, the clash of these deeper ways of thinking, perceiving, believing and feeling can get in the way of the connection we long for. Like rocks in a tumbler, when we share space with someone these rough edges are more likely to bump into each other. And when we are under stress, these bumps are more likely to emerge. How we cope with these bumps, typically with our automatic responses, often leads us into further distance and separation.

As a therapist, I see the space that Frankl speaks of in any moment where we take pause, reflecting on what we are doing, thinking, feeling, perceiving, believing. In so doing we make space for alternatives and conscious choice. Therapy itself, is very much about taking that pause in our lives. In therapy we step away from our lives, we slow things down, we reflect upon and are offered new perspectives, we build new awarenesses, and we process our life in a way that we don’t when we are in the middle of the busy-ness of living. The therapy room itself, and the therapeutic relationship, become that reflective space between the stimulus and response of our lives, as we slowdown, step out of our regular context, and make space for something new. In that space, we become conscious of the automatic patterns that are running our lives, we expand our perspectives, awareness and possibilities, and we take that change into our lives outside of the therapy room. It is through this process of deepened reflection and connection, that we find our power and our freedom.

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