Most of us think we are in control of our thoughts, desires and aspirations, but science begs to differ. Our conscious mind—which we actually do have control over—makes up only about 5% of our behaviors. It is our unconscious mind, which we are unaware of, that controls 95% of the things we do, say, feel and think. (1)
In the tender and formative first six years of life, we received much of our brain’s programming. These childhood patterns of behavior and beliefs become the driving force of our adult behaviors. All of the positive and negative impressions formed from childhood experiences with our parents, siblings, classmates, environment and community are responsible for unconscious aspects of our personality. We all too often carry these impressions into our lives as adults. (1,2) Sadly though, because most of the impressions were survival mechanisms, the unconscious behavioral patterns we carry into adulthood are mostly limiting, negative, and based on illusory fears that may have protected our feelings as children, but no longer serve us as adults.
Home for the Holidays
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how childhood impressions have become emotional patterns that affect you as an adult is to watch your behavior when you go home to visit family during the holidays. All of a sudden, you start acting like a four-year-old again. Your parents are telling you how to cook, how to live your life, how to raise your kids. “You should really re-finance that condo and invest in a 401K.” “Why don’t you get rid of that old car of yours?”
In short order, you find yourself playing the same role, reciting the same unconscious protective lines you did as a child. If, as a child, you became the perfectionist or the pleaser, as an adult, you may find yourself unconsciously perfecting the place settings and flower arrangements, or being there to set-up before or clean-up afterwards in order to please.
If, as a child, you never seemed to get enough approval or attention, as an adult, you may find yourself holding tightly to protective emotions. You just keep working at whatever it is, unconsciously thinking that if you just jump through that ever-higher hoop, they would eventually fully appreciate you.
Sound irritatingly familiar? It doesn’t need to be this way; there’s hope! It starts with unraveling the unconscious behaviors that we’ve hardcoded into our interactions.
Is it possible that our minds never felt completely satisfied with the amount of love and attention from mom and dad, so we’ll listen to music or play video games for hours on end, in attempt to satiate our unquenchable thirst for reward-based satisfaction? Without realizing it, we can slowly become addicted to getting our satisfaction through outside stimulation.
Dr. Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist and the author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment, describes the complex neurochemistry of retail therapy and why it works so well. When you go shopping for shoes, for example, your dopamine levels start to rise. The promise of satisfaction peaks as you find the perfect pair of shoes, and dopamine floods the brain. Once you take them to the register, pull out the credit card and swipe it, your dopamine levels come crashing down. The reward—the anticipation and excitement of new shoes—is over. (3,4) Your brain, now divested of satisfaction, pulls out its “how-to-get-happy” menu and browses through all of the possible locations in the mall that could potentially deliver a comparable reward. The menu maps the quickest route to the food court, and the next thing you know, you’re steering your friends to the nearest Cinnabon. Then, once the reward route has been set and you head in that direction, dopamine levels begin to rise yet again.
Take a moment and list your go-to stress-relieving activities. List all of the ways you seek satisfaction from outside of yourself. Is it having a glass of wine, or watching a movie and checking out for a couple of hours? Is it working, shopping, eating, coffee, sugar, or browsing through your social media feed? Do you call or email a friend or loved one?
We can also stimulate ourselves in healthy ways to de-stress, check out, or pump up our reward hormones. Getting addicted to the feel-good reward chemistry from healthy activities can sometimes get out of hand as well, like over-exercising, excessive yoga, and being overly concerned about eating only the purest, healthiest foods — now a condition called Orthorexia Nervosa. (5)
The Joy of Giving Fully from the Heart
In the end, it is our ability to live life consciously, without the excessive need for reward or approval that offers us the promise of a healthier mind and body. In fact, medical science has indisputably shown that actions grounded in optimism, giving, caring, and love carry their own reward. (6,7)
We know that when we make a choice to be positive, giving, loving, and kind, our genes react in a positive way, the good microbes in our gut flourish, and the body produces a hormone called oxytocin, one of the secret ingredients of prerequisite to our conscious behavior. (6) Oxytocin has an unlimited supply, unlike dopamine, which becomes more difficult to produce as we stimulate it. The more we love, give, and care for others fully, the more oxytocin we make. Oxytocin delivers a whole host of health benefits including building trust, increasing generosity, encouraging intimacy, healing wounds faster and, of course, a longer, happier life. (8-14)