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Problems come from your past, not your present

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Dawn Walton

Summer 2016

Problems Come From Your Past, Not Your Present


You’re not really here. You’re rarely really here. You are off in your head somewhere. Maybe you’ve just read something that is making you think of the past. Or maybe a song just came on the radio and you are smiling to yourself.

The subconscious is in charge at least 90% of the time. This means we spend very little time in the present moment. We are either thinking of something that went before or trying to second guess what will happen in the future.

Children are better at living in the present moment than adults. Have you ever tried to persuade a child to leave a fun play date on the basis that they can come back another day? Did it work? Of course it didn’t. To the child you are saying “leave this really fun thing that you are doing now because you can come back at some undefined point and do the fun thing again” It just doesn’t make sense.

The pattern matching is normal. We all do it all the time. You could call it a trance state; not being present, only half paying attention. Ever driven through a set of traffic lights only to worry about whether they were actually on green when it’s too late?

Pattern matching is a part of being human. It’s not a problem in itself.

The problem comes when, as part of the pattern matching, you come across a thing I call an Alert Point. An Alert Point is where your subconscious perceives that something is about to hurt you. The subconscious is primitive and emotional and works on a set of rules that come from the caveman days. If something hurts you, it will potentially kill you. Being hurt should be avoided at all cost! Unfortunately, your brain has not evolved in the same way as your body. As far as your subconscious is concerned, there is no difference between emotional and physical hurt – they both result in death.

When you reach an alert point, instead of simply pattern matching, a signal is sent back. The signal disengages the thinking brain (cognitive thought is slower than instinctive reaction and slow is bad for survival) and instructs you to take evasive manoeuvres. You think, behave or feel differently, to prevent the risk of getting hurt. Once the threat has passed, you are given your brain back. At which point, the first thing most of us do is beat ourselves up for being out of control. It’s not really fair is it?

Where do Alert Points come from?

As we grow up, we are learning lessons from our parents that the subconscious can use to keep us safe as adults. In the same way as a baby animal learns how to hunt and sleep safely, we learn how to survive once we are out in the big world on our own. Whilst the basis for these lessons is slightly more complex than those of animals, they are still pretty primitive and still based on avoiding get hurt because hurt equals death.

There are 7, 363,228 minutes that we experience by the time we are 14 years old. Any one of those minutes can be taken as a lesson opportunity by our subconscious. This then forms an Alert Point once we are adults. The thing is, it doesn’t tend to be the big things that become Alert Points. There is nothing to be learnt from the really rubbish stuff. It’s the smaller, more subtle moments, which create the lessons.

There are three core rules that lead to the formation of alert point. 

Rule 1: If something hurts you, then you will die.

As discussed, your subconscious is looking for things as you grow up, that hurt you. Being hurt should be avoided at all costs. Maybe you got accused of doing something you didn’t do. Maybe a teacher singled you out in a lesson and made you feel stupid. It really doesn’t matter what the scale of hurt is, your subconscious will establish an alert point for anything that vaguely resembles the situation that led to the hurt, and it will keep you away from it at any cost. It does this using the fight, flight or freeze response. Think about it; your heart rate increases, adrenalin courses through your body, your breath becomes short. This is a response designed to help you escape attack by sabre-toothed tiger. Yet every single one of us will be able to relate to those sensations. You might call it nerves, anxiety or even panic.

Rule 2: If your parents don’t love you, you will die.

We are programmed as children to make everything about us. We look to every action taken by parents and grandparents and work out if we are loved more or less as a result of how they respond to us. We then try and learn how to correct our behaviour to ensure we are loved.

For example, getting a poorer score on a test than you expected. You tell your dad and he tells you that it’s a shame, and that you could have done so much better if you’d worked harder. To your subconscious, this is your dad telling you that he doesn’t love you as much because you didn’t do very well. If your dad doesn’t love you then you will not be cared for and you’ll die. So you try and change to please your dad. The problem is, we can’t time travel. You can’t go back and do things differently. Which means you are only ever the best version of you that you can be right now. It creates an impossible lesson. “My dad doesn’t love me because I didn’t do well, and I tried my best which means nothing I do will ever be good enough”

Problem is, most of the time we can’t change. You are who you are. Also, a parents’ love is not contingent on behaviour. And parents are adults and adults are not perfect. You don’t know any of this as a kid, so you end up with a bunch of meaningless Alert points that affect how you see yourself.

Rule 3: If you don’t fit in, you will die.

In the caveman days, you didn’t have much chance of surviving without your pack. This affects us most when we get to high school. It leads you to compare yourself to everyone around you and, try and change to fit in.

For example, someone says you have an ugly face when you are 11 years old. You can’t change your face so all you can do is be aware that someone things you are ugly. Because you can’t change, the only way to keep you safe is to keep you away from people. That way they can’t spot that you have a problem. As a result, you have an alert point that keeps you away from social groups. You always feel like an outsider.

Again, the problem here is that you can’t read minds. And everyone is screwed up. So you can only be the best version of you that you are. You end up with Alert points that make you feel like you don’t fit in. You worry too much what other people think of you.

How an alert point affects your day to day life?

In the exam example, it can lead to feeling like a failure as an adult. No matter what you achieve, you only focus on those things where you think you could have done better – because your subconscious has an Alert Point that constantly takes you back to the memory of letting your dad down. Or maybe you procrastinate a lot because it’s easier to believe you failed because you didn’t try your best, than to believe you are not good enough.

Simple moments lead to Alert Points. Alert Points are designed to protect you from death. But there is something that your subconscious has missed.

You are not dead.

So whatever basis that lesson was learned on was wrong. There is no risk of death here. In fact, it’s because your dad loved you so much that he wanted you to reach the potential he could see in you. This wasn’t about love. It never is. If your parents love you, they love you no matter how you behave. If they don’t love you, they don’t love you no matter how you behave. Behaviour and love are not connected.

This is true of all the lessons. We are not caveman any more, things hurt us emotionally and not physically and that does not lead to death.

What can we do about it?

So the alert points are obsolete but we still all have them. They interrupt our pattern matching and make us think, feel or behave differently. Is it totally out of our control?

The first step is to realise what’s happening. You need to stop believing your thoughts. This is easier said than done when your brain is switched off! The problem is not the thought, it’s what you do after the thought that really causes the problem. If you are able to recognise a thought and not let it stay, then the Alert Point has no power of you.

Try and remain in the present as much as possible. If you are aware of a thought, try and prevent it from staying in your head. Michael Neill says thoughts are like icebergs – they feel solid and real. But if the temperature changes a couple of degrees the iceberg ceases to exist.

Remember, you can’t travel in time so what has gone before doesn’t matter. And you can’t predict the future, so what happens next doesn’t matter either. You can only ever be the best version of you that you are right now.

Dawn Waltons TEDX Talk “The Caveman Rules of Survival”