Did you really choose to do the things that bring you guilt and regret? Did you have a clear and conscious choice to do something that you knew was going to bring destruction, and pain, to you and others? Were you in full control when you acted to create suffering and feel guilty, and ashamed forever after? Is that true for anyone?
Humans have a nature-given instinct to avoid pain and seek satisfaction and pleasure. We are built to avoid anything that will result in emotional pain, guilt, shame, and regret. Yet most people think that we willingly choose to act in ways that cause our destruction, losing what we love most, and condemn ourselves to psychological suffering. Does this make sense to you?
It’s a fact that our behavior is motivated, and determined, by genetics, biology, our early life experiences, the conditioning that we received from the earliest age, the modeling of important figures in our lives, and the beliefs that became part of our core identity. This is a scientific, biological, neurological, medical, and psychological fact. There is zero evidence of the idea that we are fully in charge of our choices and behaviors. Zero hard evidence that we can freely choose what to do at any time, and any place, under any condition, without the influence of our unconscious. Zero scientific validity. So why do we cling to the idea that we are in full conscious control? Pride and a need to Feel Safe.
Sigmund Freud said, “We think we are living when in fact we are being lived by our unconscious”. This idea is disturbing to most people. People, in general, prefer to think that they can will their way through life. Yet, they constantly recognize and affirm, that other forces outside of their will, or control, are in charge. They call this force outside their control many names: the unconscious, fortune, destiny, God, or, God’s new version, “The Universe”.
They show this belief in their actions. In Alcoholics Anonymous they believe in a “Higher Power”. In Christianity, they pray that “Thy Will be Done”. In Islam, they seek “Submission to the Will of God”. They all pray to something “greater than themselves”. Create rituals to seek it. Make sacrifices for it. This has been true from the earliest beginning of the human race.
But, at the same time, the same people say that everything is accomplished through self-will. The same people that acknowledge a “higher power” in their behavior, follow gurus, motivational speakers, books, and programs that promise complete control over the self. Full control over their thinking and their actions. And, the ability to force situations, and environments, to conform to their will. Are they wrong? Actually no.
They are responding to an unconscious awareness that indeed we have 2 systems in our minds. One system that is unconscious and really drives us. Another system that looks at what we do and makes up stories about it. And, tells us that we are in control so we can feel safe. The truth is that we are really “lived” by the unconscious, and, at the same time, we can understand, manage, and even change some things. But, we cannot will ourselves into being anything we choose. Nor change people, or events, by imposing our will on them. Actually, willpower is a concept that can’t be proven.
How do we know that? Because in psychology we are not guessing anymore. The latest and best-proven research on the human mind clearly shows that we don’t come into the world as a “blank slate”, as some people used to believe. We come into the world loaded with written generic tendencies. The environments that we grow in during our early lives then affirm and harden some of those tendencies, and weaken others. The result of the combination of genes and environment created our unconscious. We did not have a choice over any of that. We all have generic programs running inside. And these programs trigger us to think and act according to their designs, and their purpose. In order to run effectively and very fast, the programs that make us think, feel, and behave in certain ways, run automatically and out of our control. If they would not be outside our conscious control, we would mess with them, and that could be dangerous. Imagine for example if you would be in charge of regulating your blood pressure, or breathing. You probably would not be alive very long.
Likewise, there are programs in the mind that regulate thinking, memory, attention, moods, and millions of other functions that we do automatically, at the speed of fractions of seconds. All outside of our conscious awareness. Some of our unconscious programs run great, some don’t.
Some of our unconscious programs have glitches. People that live with depression, anxiety, addiction, and all the other mental health challenges were born with such unconscious programs. Some unconscious programs are designed to attain goals that fit the society that we live in. These unconscious programs guide people to succeed easily. If you are born a tall extrovert with high intellectual intelligence, you are set for easy success in this culture.
Some programs are designed to attain goals that go against the preferences of the society that we live in. These programs set us up to struggle to fit in it. If you were born an introvert, who is shy and feels anxiety in groups, and in new situations, you are set to be lonely. If you were born a creative person who is driven to solitary creative pursuits, you will struggle to succeed. If you have to live with anxiety. depression, or addiction, you will be at high risk of losing relationships, careers, money, and your life.
Some unconscious programs guide us to an easy life. Some unconscious programs guide us to destruction. Which ones we got reinforced depended on our generic ancestry and the environment that we were born into.
The scientific fact is that we were dealt a generic, and environmental, hand of cards to play. Some hands are winning hands from the start. Some hands are not. The winning hands make it easier to win. To win with the bad hands we have to get skills. We have to become great poker players. But, we can’t change the hand. We have to play it. And, we did not choose it. It was given to us.
So, when you beat yourself up for your mistakes, your failures, and who you are, who are you comparing yourself to? Someone that was born with a winning hand? Someone that did not inherit your genes? Someone that grew up under different circumstances? Raised by different people? Did you really choose any of that?
The scientific truth is that the majority of their success, and your failures, come from the same place. Usually, the people that won the generic lottery boast about how they created their success. The people that didn’t win the genetic lottery punish themselves for how they created their failures. Well, they are both wrong. There is no scientific evidence that supports any of the two claims. No one deserves the full credit. No one deserves the full blame.