Override Your Autopilot

Do you make the same mistakes over and over and over again?  You may be relying on your inner autopilot instead of thinking through the problem.   Clinical Psychologist Al Bernstein, Ph.D., joined us to talk about this habitual issue we all face at one time or another.

For more information, visit Al's website.   Here is an article by Al Bernstein, Ph.D.,on "Overriding Your Autopilot":

You’ve done it again, even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t.  What was it this time?  You said yes when you should have said no?  You blurted out more than you wanted to say when you were angry?  Or maybe you put off saying something you needed to say until it was almost too late.  Maybe it was all of the above.  Inside, you’re beating yourself up because you know better.  You hope that next time it will be different, but you fear that you will keep making the same mistakes over and over.
Though I’d like you to believe you have just read a spectacular demonstration of mind-reading, I must demur.  Forty years of doing therapy has taught me that we all have this kind of internal conversation, and that even after a sound self-scolding, we usually do go out and make the same mistakes again.  The problem is not stupidity or moral turpitude; it is faulty programming in the autopilot we use to fly through our lives.

We do not think about most of what we do; we just do it. By the time we are adults, we have developed a fully programmed autopilot that consists of habitual ways of perceiving and acting that either came in the box with our brains, or that we have learned from experience. Most of the time, an autopilot is a good thing, especially for doing familiar, repetitious tasks. We could not drive a car without a mental template that keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel every time we get behind it.

The problem with autopilot programming is that in emotional situations it usually makes poor choices.  The higher the level of arousal, the more likely we are to revert to the oldest, best learned responses.  In stressful situations, unless we do a manual override, we tend to act like children, or even like creatures lower down the phylogenetic scale.  Throughout this book you have seen the effects of faulty programming in other people.  Now it’s time to think critically about how your own autopilot handles stressful situations. The rule of thumb that will keep you from making the same mistakes over and over is simple:  Never go with your most immediate response in an emotional situation.  This rule applies everywhere, but is absolutely essential at work.

Many of our ideas about how to deal with emotional situations came pre-loaded in our brains, or were learned in childhood.  They may have helped our ancestors to survive in the primordial jungle, or kept us from being devoured in our families of origin, but today at work, they are likely to get in the way or get us in trouble unless we are able to shift to newer, more adult behavior patterns.  To do this we have to know how to switch off our autopilot before we crash and burn.  Here’s what to do.

  • Recognize emotional situations by your level of arousal     If you are to avoid your most immediate response in emotional situations, you have to know when you’re in one.  The most reliable cue is physiological arousal.  If your heart is perceptibly thumping, or your muscles are tight, you can be sure that something is setting off an alarm.  Before you speak or act, you need to know what it is.  Another reliable cue  is repetitious thinking.  If you keep running the same thoughts over in your mind, you know your emotions are trying to tell you what to do.  The more they repeat themselves, the more likely you are to obey them.  Another cue of emotional arousal is blanking out.  If you know a situation is important, but you find yourself unable to think about it, that means your autopilot has done a disconnect.  Don’t allow yourself to shift to some mindless activity, like eating, watching TV, surfing the net or playing computer solitaire.  Tuning out does not relieve stress, it only delays it.  If you can’t think, do something active to bring down your arousal level and keep trying to reboot.
  • Slow down       Most autopilot programs are designed to get our level of arousal down as quickly as possible by escape or by transferring it to someone else.  Unless a tiger is approaching, your most immediate response is most likely to be wrong.  There is always time to stop and think, especially when you think there isn’t.  Before you decide what to do next, take a few deep breaths, walk around the block to burn off the excess adrenaline, or talk things over with a cool-headed friend. 
  • Make sure your goal is realistic          The beginning of any effective response is knowing what you want to happen, and that it actually would improve the situation.  Once you’ve slowed down, ask yourself.  If the answer is something like “I want to kill this SOB” or “I need to escape” or “I just want to feel better”, ask again.  Keep asking until you come up with a goal that is possible, reasonable, and that does more than merely get you out of difficult circumstances.
  • Beware of habitual traps            Certain autopilot programs have a way of overriding the override by convincing you that your emotional response is indeed the correct one.  You autopilot can be very persuasive, especially if it is injecting you with performance-enhancing drugs as it talks to you.  Watch out for these patterns of thinking, because even as they’re steering you wrong they feel so right.
  • Blame       Figuring out whose fault it is encourages punishing the perpetrator rather than fixing the problem. When you allow yourself to become a victim in your own mind, that is all you can ever be.
  • Anger         Anger tells you to fight for the sake of fighting rather than for a goal.  If you have a goal, fighting is not usually the best way to achieve it.  Most forms of anger are at their root an irrational refusal to accept reality.  Life is not fair, people don’t do what they should, incompetent managers can tell you what to do, and the road is full of idiots who don’t know how to drive.  Deal with it, or if you are going to fight, pick a battle you can win.
  • Avoidance         Your autopilot will tell you to stay away from what you’re afraid of or what you don’t want to do.  Don’t listen.  People grow by mastering what is personally difficult or frightening.  If you run from them, your fears will grow big enough to take over your life.  Success at anything depends on the ability to make yourself do what needs to be done, whether you want to or not.  Regardless of what your autopilot may tell you, there is no easy way.
  • Being overly nice          Your autopilot may try to convince you that if you are undemanding and do everything people ask, you will avoid conflicts and your generosity will be reciprocated.  It never works out that way. If you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get it, and if you don’t say no, they will keep piling on the work.   Eventually, resentment will poison your relationships, and create much bigger conflicts than the ones you were trying to avoid.  
  • Perfectionism       Perfectionism is a vice that masquerades as a virtue.  Nothing destroys perspective quicker than obsessive concern about the one detail that is out of place. And nothing is more effective in alienating the people you are trying to inspire.

If you recognize these cues in yourself, wake up.  Recognize that in difficult situations your autopilot may give you faulty information.  Turn it off and think manually before you run into something.


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