Have you ever taken a long trip and noticed that you were not aware of parts of the journey? This may be especially scary if you are doing the driving. On some trips I do not remember going through certain towns, or I suddenly realize I do not know where I have been for the last two hours or where I am now. We are able to do this because humans have the ability to perform certain tasks in an automatic mode. For example, I normally do not consciously think about driving, walking, or eating. These are behaviors I normally do without ever thinking about them.
People who play tennis or basketball seldom think about what they are doing when they are doing it. In fact, it will detract from your ability to excel in sports if you have to think about every move you make. When people practice a sport for a long period of time, they usually get to the point where they do not have to give thought about each move they make. This is a wonderful example of humankind’s ability to learn a behavior and then repeat it without having to think about it again. These behaviors are not really automatic but are the result of a long process of prior thinking and learning. So, when we perform certain behaviors, like driving a car, we are responding subconsciously to our previous learning experiences. This allows us to behave without having to consciously think about every behavior.
At times, our feelings and emotions can appear to be automatic, but they are really responses to our thoughts and experiences. People who become angry, anxious, bitter, or depressed seldom realize that these feelings are not automatic, but it is a misconception to think that these feelings bubble up automatically. Yet, many people are convinced there is no way to know why they behave or feel the way they do because they do not recognize subconscious thinking. This does not mean that we cannot become aware of these thoughts, and many times it is helpful to know what we believe in our subconscious thinking. For example, many people have subconscious beliefs about driving that cause them to have accidents.
Many people overcorrect the steering of a car if they get too close to the edge of the road because they falsely believe that overcorrection will solve the problem. Instead of helping, however, overcorrection can cause an accident by making the car spin around or turn over. Although overcorrection appears to be an automatic response, it is actually based on the false belief that this is the correct thing to do. Once people become aware of the possibility of overcorrection, they learn not to correct beyond what is needed in the situation. This is an example of how a belief can remain in the subconscious until it is suddenly seen in a behavior that appears to be automatic. Driving a car without having to think about every move is good because it creates efficiency in both thinking and acting, but the subconscious belief that leads to overcorrection is bad because it is usually results in harm. The goal should be to uncover the subconscious belief about overcorrection and replace it with a better belief about how to maintain control of a car.
The analogy of driving a car is similar to what takes place in the thinking processes of everyday living. Many of our emotions, feelings, and behaviors are based on cognitive distortions that exist in the subconscious mind. A cognitive distortion is a mistake in the thinking process, and because a cognitive distortion can be in the subconscious mind, we may not recognize the real cause of our feelings and behaviors. So, when problem feelings and behaviors appear to be automatic, it is important to identify their true cause.
Thoughts can also appear to be automatic. They seem to flood in our minds instantly when something happens to us. For example, if we walk in a room where other people are present, automatic thoughts may come in our minds about how we perceive the situation. We may think, “I am about to make a fool of myself,” as we look around the room. If we give these thoughts reality, we may feel uncomfortable, depressed, or anxious. If we are puzzled as to why certain thoughts seem to be automatic, then we must examine the subconscious beliefs that may be causing us to have these thoughts. For example, the automatic thought, “I am about to make a fool of myself,” reflects a negative self-image (see chapter 2) hidden in the subconscious mind. A positive self-image would have produce a different kind of automatic thought, such as, “I look forward to meeting these people.” This thought reflects confidence in oneself and is likely free of cognitive distortions that lead to negative thinking and feelings.