Do your thoughts chronically keep you up at night tossing and turning? Are you unable to turn off the chatter in your head? Do words pop out of your mouth you wish you could take back? In hindsight are there things you often wish you hadn’t done?
If your answer is yes to any of these questions, it suggests your mind is running on automatic pilot without your personal wise guidance.
The human brain is amazing but it cannot be left entirely on its own to run amuck without having lots of unpleasant consequences. Just like our liver or our heart, our brain can and will work away without our conscious guidance if no one directs its amazing abilities. There are many things it does perfectly well without our help. When we are healthy it does a good job, for example, of regulating involuntary body functions such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, body temperature, and digestion.
The Unsupervised Brain
Unlike our liver and our heart, however, the brain has many other jobs it doesn’t do so well at when left completely on its own without our conscious attention, i.e. understanding why we feel as we do, what thoughts are most useful, realistic and effective, what behaviors we need to develop and when to use act or not in certain ways, how to get ourselves to do what we need or want to do when what we need to do conflicts with we might want to do or how we might feel at the moment and so forth. To do these tasks well, we have to monitor, program, direct and evaluate how our brain functions in its role regarding our thoughts, feelings and actions.
So “who” is this “we”? Who is it that needs to do this job? We are the “who.” Just like we are not our finger or our elbow, we are not our brain, nor are we our feelings and our thoughts. We have them, yes, they are ours, just like our fingers and elbows. They are part of us, but they are not us.” There is something more to us than our thoughts, feelings, fingers and elbows, etc. Over and above all the various parts of ourselves, we have the ability to be “meta” to ourselves. That is, we can be “self-aware
This ability, or aspect of ourselves, is called many things. It is referred to as self-awareness, conscience, the Inner Witness, spirit or soul, wise mind, mindfulness, executive function, “the still small voice within, “gut feeling,” Green/Green, the Inner Compass, and “following your heart.”
By whatever name we call it, with this ability we become aware of and can make choices about our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, including our habits, emotions, desires, what we say to ourselves and others and the images that tumble through our mind. Instead of being at the mercy of whatever habits and random emotions, desires and thoughts “come to mind,” self-awareness enables us to take the reins of our brain when needed. It enables us to pay attention to what’s going on inside our mind and body, interpret its meaning and identify its origins, understand, respond and guide or change our actions to find needed inner peace and contentment.
Without this ability we are like children in need of a parent, a train without an engineer, a plane without a pilot, a store with no one to mind it. As such we are very vulnerable. Without no “self” in charge, we can feel lost, out of control, adrift, depressed, anxious, even “crazy.” With it we know who we are and can be the person we want to be. We can live in, enjoy and influence the world around us instead of getting bogged down in unwanted circumstances, habits, thoughts and feelings.
Taking the Reins … or Not
The ability to use self-awareness develops gradually over our developmental years. As a baby we become aware that we have a nose, that our hands and feet belong to us and that we can direct their movements. A little older and we start to be aware of what is real and what is just imagined. Later we begin to learn how we are supposed to act and not act to fit into our society. Gradually we may also be learning how to understand and manage our thoughts, feelings and actions. Hopefully.
Many things can interfere with developing this ability however. Sometimes our parents or teachers direct us to be like them or their idea for us instead of learning to be like ourselves. They discount, invalidate or even punish us for our newly forming self-observations. They may attribute characteristics to us that are not us. They many define us according to their fears, prejudices or moods. This can be very confusing to a developing child. It may lead us to decide at an early age to not even attempt to develop or recognize our “self.”
Sometimes genetics can play a role in inhibiting the development of this ability. Research has found some people are born with a propensity to develop a certain type of hyperactive brain circuitry that leads to obsessive thoughts. And sometimes at the crucial times in our development we use drugs and alcohol that prevent us from having the capacity to develop self-awareness and/or to use our awareness to guide our lives. Studies now show that excessive drinking or drug use in adolescence alters normal developmental processes in a way that negatively impacts learning and social adjustment into adulthood, especially memory and abilities related to the attention and executive functions needed for self-management.
These roadblocks in our development put us in an especially difficult situation because it takes a great deal of effort to rewire our brain at some later point in time to carry out the functions of self-awareness so we can sufficiently pilot our lives and mind the store of our brain.
But … short of having an organic disease or damage such as dementia or a serious neurological disorder or injury, it is possible to develop this ability at any time in life.
It is the first step in healing most mental illness and behavioral problems. It is first step in taking the reins of our brains to stop the runaway train of thoughts and feelings that haunt us and get ourselves off the emotional roller coaster. Both counseling and at times in conjunction with medication can help us master this developmental task.
We can connect with our spirit or soul, as it is said, take the reins on our brain and become the true self we want and are meant to be.
© Sarah Anne Edwards. 2014