Caught in the Act: The Problem with Automatic Pilot

Pattern recognition plays a fundamental and critical role in our ability to learn. Recognizing that a particular set of letters, ordered a particular way, teaches us to identify words and their attached definition. Mastering enough of these patterns and cultivating sufficient confidence in our ability to read then enables us to stretch our capacities to decipher words we don’t know by identifying patterns of letters and meaning within them, etc. But sometimes, we jump to conclusions about how a word is spelled or what it means because we’ve gone too fast, glossing over or ignoring exceptions to the rules we have already mastered. A slightly different take on this same theory is reflected in muscle memory. Regular DR readers know that I spend a fair amount of time at the gym where we’re taught that the body adapts to whatever exercise we’re doing and learns to execute a series of motions more and more efficiently, which is why it’s important to interrupt these patterns so that the body is forced to learn a new way to move (thus, burning up more calories while developing new strength). Each of these examples ties into today’s theme about automatic pilot and why we need to develop a heightened awareness whenever we’re kicking into this mode.

So for my birthday, I flew out to Santa Barbara and am spending time with friends and family. Birthdays are always a time of self-reflection for me, and doing so while visiting with relatives I haven’t seen for awhile can trigger an emotional bonanza of sorts. This can be good, but it can also involve a certain amount of anxiety. This year, however, I am determined to manage things differently. And the first step in such efforts requires me to recognize when I am shifting into automatic pilot around people who can set off an internal (and often subconscious) cascade of feelings. Easier said than done.

Who sets off an emotional chain reaction in you?

We all have people in our lives who evoke strong reactions within us. We may like them or we may not. We may see them often or years go by with minimal contact. But what is for sure is that as soon as we start even thinking about them, we shift into a particular mindset or stance. It is this internal reaction that signals our automatic pilot—we have pre-set channels when it comes to this person or situation and everything we observe gets sorted through this filter. Talk about emotional muscle memory! The closer they are to us, the more knee-jerk our response.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to board the runaway locomotive that can be Chrisanna. I’ve ridden those rails for so long that I’m sick of it, and as much pleasure as it may give me to blame the other party for all the Trouble, I’m the chief engineer of my part, so it’s up to me to pull on the brakes. It’s a colossal drag to summon a measured and logical response, and far less colorful than the typical show to which I am accustomed, but I’m the only one who can do it. I want to break this pattern. This emotional eddy is one I wish to escape.

These past few days here in sunny, sensational CA have been spent identifying those conversations and wordless exchanges where I’m already primed to react a particular way. As a determined re-booter, I put on my observational hat and entered the ring with my friends and relatives, reminding myself to monitor my thoughts. Boy oh boy, I didn’t realize how FAST I shift into automatic pilot! It’s like I have a set of go-to reactions no matter what they are saying or how they’re behaving. Talk about thoughtlessness! I had no idea I was this far gone! Geez. Two steps forward, three steps back…

In my family,” a friend confided, “I’m used to having difficult, substantive conversations that reliably end with fireworks. So, when my spouse just sat there and remained calm, I didn’t know what to do. (Pause.) Afterwards, we ate dinner and watched a movie. I’m not sure what to think. I guess it’s good. The whole thing feels really weird.”

When we’ve been conditioned to a certain set of reactions, it can feel enormously unsettling to experience something else or have that pattern interrupted. So, it’s understandable that asking ourselves to stop doing what we’ve always done leaves us feeling incomplete or weird with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It’s really, really hard to break old patterns—even when doing so will make things better.

How often are you aware when you’ve shifted into automatic pilot? When was the last time you tried to change how you think about a situation that cuts deep? Why do you think you react the way you do with this person? Do you feel put down? Angry? Afraid? Used? Fed up with their irresponsibility or need to control everything? Something else entirely? What is that thing for you? Can you articulate what it is that you’re reacting to in this person?

We might have known this individual all our lives or simply for a short while, but the commonality is 1) the intensity of our underlying connection to them and 2) some manifestation of judgment. In my mind’s eye, I can see the barriers being erected between us, the coats of armor being donned. Emotional muscle memory like this doesn’t happen overnight; it requires layers and layers of experience to form—that, or we’re using this person as a substitute for somebody else.

Any of this sound familiar?

Given that today is my birthday, I figured the very best present I could give to myself in this campaign to re-boot would be to try and WISE THE HELL UP. At times, I can be a super slow learner, but being old and dumb ain’t no way to go through the ranks—especially for someone who gets on her soapbox and honks on all the damn time about re-booting and striving to live a more thoughtful and authentic life. So my first, best, and most important responsibility is for me to force myself to think more clearly and logically about what it is I’m doing (especially when it comes to the people I care most about) and how it is that I’m living my life. Recognizing my missteps is a good place to start. If I don’t see it, I can’t do anything about it. Right? Right. How about you?


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One Response to “Caught in the Act: The Problem with Automatic Pilot”

  1. Jim Patterson Says:

    Happy birthday!!!

    Sent from mobile carrier


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