The Forgotten Client – Coaching the Unconscious: Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Let’s review some of the key factors modern science is showing best influence your ability to manage the unconscious mind.

Start With Stress – Countless change initiatives are undermined by stress. Individuals may want to change their job, change their management style, improve their relationships or commit to a fitness regime; but if they do not actively manage their stress, little change is probable. Under stress, we default to a fear state. In a fear state, old behaviors trump new ones.

Dr. Richard Boyatzis at Case Western University has illustrated that prolonged exposure to elevated stress levels actually reduces our ability to develop new neural patterns.  This affects our ability to learn, grow or make changes. Remarkably even the everyday stresses of career, relationships, parenting, and money concerns are sufficient to trigger our sympathetic nervous system which can get us stuck in “fight or flight” mode.  Finding a daily renewal routine that stops the thinking mind for at least 20 minutes a day, ideally split into 2 ten-minute intervals, can prove instrumental in reversing upward creeping stress levels. These daily breaks relax you by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system which is a critical precursor for anyone wanting to sustain learning, growth, or change.

One quick way to assess your current stress level, developed by Dr. Tim Lowenstein, is to touch your fingers to your neck. If your fingers feel cold, chances are you are under stress.  If your fingers feel warm, chances are you are relaxed.

If you are like most of us, you are more stressed than you think and would benefit from a daily renewal routine. The key to great renewal is finding something you enjoy that stops the thinking, planning, judging, optimizing mind.  Of the various common approaches for stress management, meditation, yoga, non-striving exercise, gratitude journaling, getting out in nature, and socializing with friends are proving the most effective.  A key to succeeding with any of daily renewals – a foreign concept to many of us Western high-achievers – is to get the necessary instruction and support (like a partner, teacher, class, or coach) to keep you on track.

Cultivating Mindfulness – Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn of the University of Massachusetts describes mindfulness as “moment-to-moment” awareness. More specifically, people with low levels of mindfulness are unaware of what is going on within them and tend to simply react to events in their life. People with high levels of mindfulness are continuously aware of their intentions, thoughts, feelings, and actions. They can routinely exercise a higher degree of choice in how they respond to events in their life. This directly leads to higher levels of joy and meaning.

Mine Your Thoughts – Over 40 years ago Psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck discovered that much of the malaise his patients exhibited originated from negative automatic thoughts. Further investigation showed that many of these automatic thoughts were based on hugely exaggerated and negative assumptions that would not pass conscious scrutiny. In other words, we have a propensity to unconsciously fixate on a lot of unfounded negative imaginings, that then affect our moods and behaviors.

Beck’s work spawned a whole new approach to helping people move past old behaviors. This approach is often referred to as Cognitive Restructuring. It involves being aware of any situation which generates an emotional response. Once aware of the emotion (or its physical manifestation, such as shortness of breath, tightness in your stomach or shoulders), you look to identify and write down the underlying negative automatic thoughts that are giving rise to the emotion.

Once brought into the light of conscious scrutiny you can assess if this thought is indeed true (not wildly exaggerated or unduly negative) and whether it serves your intention. Typically you would then replace the faulty negative thought with one that is true and empowering. Better thoughts lead to better feelings which lead to better action.  (Resources on Cognitive Restructuring include the books; Loving What Is by Byron Katie, and The Ancestral Mind by Gregg Jacobs.)

Feelings Really Matter
In working with the unconscious mind, feelings are of paramount importance. It seems our unconscious has a very simple decision-making process; it moves towards things it likes, and away from things it doesn’t like. If a plan doesn’t have the power to inspire or move us, change is doubtful.

Change initiatives solely focused on the intellect are highly vulnerable to being undermined by the veto power of the unconscious mind. More integrated coaching approaches to change, ones that actually explore and align intentions to feelings, logic to behavior, are required.   Approaches such as somatic, body-centered, or process coaching that directly connect the individual to their feelings can be far more effective in instances where there might be a conflict between the rider and the elephant. Further, images or thoughts that inspire or prime the mind with positive emotions are also very useful.

Don’t Forget the Peanuts
To the stoic logic of the thinking mind, rewards for progress can be seen as superfluous or premature. “I don’t have time to celebrate small victories, there is so much more to accomplish.”  However, to the feeling-driven, unconscious mind, even a small celebration or reward (actually anything that could be expected to release a little shot of congratulatory dopamine) reinforces the behavior. It seems the elephant loves its peanuts.

Carefully Choose Your Relationships In their book A General Theory of Love, Psychiatrists Lewis, Amini, and Lannon state, “The neocortical (thinking) brain collects facts quickly. The limbic (unconscious) brain does not. Emotional impressions shrug off insight but yield to a different persuasion: the force of another person’s Attractors {established neural patterns} reaching through the doorway of a limbic connection {relationship}.”   We are hyper-social creatures who revise our behavior best through emotional connections to others – not through the power of reason or will. Our emotional fields mingle and influence each other. This points to the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who have the outlook, attitudes, and behaviors we seek to acquire.  We learn best by immersion.

Build on Strengths
We live in a world that focuses on our weaknesses.  It seems millennia of evolutionary struggle has left us with minds that naturally focus on what might go wrong, or where we might be exposed. Unfortunately, weakness-based change initiatives are not very enjoyable to the unconscious mind, so they rarely lead to anything other than mediocrity.  However, Dr. Martin Seligman’s work at the U of Pennsylvania has shown that focusing on developing your natural strengths is a far more powerful and rewarding strategy for change.  It seems the very exercise of one of our natural strengths makes us feel good, and that is very attractive self-reinforcing to the unconscious mind.

Practice Makes Progress – Modern neuroscience is delving deeply into the intricacies of the brain, and what actually helps us create the new neural connections needed to support the new behavior. The bottom line of much of this work is the greater the intensity of focus, and the higher the frequency of repetition of new behavior, the quicker it is learned. If you want to change, create support structures around you that reinforce any new behavior until it is fully owned. (This approach would have helped me overcome my aversion to bouncing baseballs. By simply fielding hundreds and hundreds of balls, starting with slow ones and then gradually increasing speed, I could have retrained my unconscious.)

The bottom line of all this is that there is a great deal more involved in making important changes than getting a new idea or plan, or convincing yourself that some outcome would be good for you. Truly successful change initiatives, and truly powerful coaching, involves aligning and managing both the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds.

You can never afford to ignore the elephant in the room.



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