The newborn infant arrives with no assumptions and very few skills.  Sucking, grasping, crying and pooping pretty much cover the talents of a newborn.  During the first weeks, months and years of it’s life, the infant has direct experience of the immediate environment that makes up its world.  Since the young infant has no ability to think in the classic sense, this experience is simply channeled into its awareness as “experience”.  (Since thinking is not part of the repertoire of a young child, it is always unfair to criticize a young child for not “thinking before you act”.)

In the initial weeks, months and years of its life, the child is learning what kind of world it lives in through direct experience.  A healthy child born into a family of mature responsible adults who are ready, willing and able to meet the incessant demands of an infant learns that the world is tolerant, nurturing, gentle and loving.  A child born into an impaired family may learn that the world is harsh, unpredictable, hostile and unforgiving. 

As the child gets older, it continues to learn.  The child learns how to tell which shoe goes on which foot and whether the pants zipper goes in the front or the back or the side.  He/she learns (by trial and error) how to hold a glass of liquid without spilling.  The child also learns what to expect when errors are made.  The child learns whether an error means that he is a learning newcomer who isn’t expected to be perfect or that he/she is a foolish idiot.  In some worlds (families) mistakes are seen as occasions to receive punishment while in other worlds (families) mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and accepted as normal for a young growing child.

These things and countless others are all encountered by a child before he/she achieves the ability for high level abstract thinking.  All that learning simply becomes part of the child’s awareness of the world.

As the child does begin to develop rudimentary abilities to think and reason, there is much more to learn.  The child learns to talk and walk and tie his shoes.  As these behaviors are learned and then repeated innumerable times,  they become automatic and no longer require our conscious attention.  Over time, they become unconscious.  Our unconscious is like a big storage room where we file all the behaviors that we’ve learned by heart.  When the situation comes up that requires that behavior, it is called up and delivered from our unconscious file room automatically.  That is why, when driving, we see tail lights come on in the car in front of us and we have our foot on the brake before our conscious brain even registers what is happening.

When you get up in the morning and put on your shoes you tie them without conscious thought.  It’s automatic!

By the time we reach adulthood, the majority of our day to day behaviors have become automatic (unconscious).  The only time that we need to use our conscious brain is when confronted by a new situation for which we may not have yet developed a satisfactory response.

If life is working to our general satisfaction, there may be no real need to examine the effectiveness of our unconsciousness.  However, if we are troubled by the turns our lives take or the roads we seem to be traveling down, then it may make sense to examine unconscious programming. The unconscious can be re-programmed.  It tends to take time and can be somewhat uncomfortable, but it is doable.  The problem is that the re-programming can only be done from the conscious and we are only in the conscious for brief periods of time.  In a sense, when we are behaving consciously, our unconscious is constantly looking for a chance to step in and take over for us.  It is our loyal and faithful servant.

Fortunately, there are techniques we can use to assist us in re-programming.  The hard part is to become conscious about whatever behavior we wish to change.  Several years ago I worked with a family that consisted of a single parent Dad and his sixteen and thirteen year old daughters.  I made weekly house calls and we held a family meeting at each session.  At one such meeting Dad reported that he was at his wits end regarding his thirteen year old daughter.  He stated that his morning chores included getting himself ready for work, preparing his lunch and fixing breakfast for all three of them.  Invariably, his daughter would enter the kitchen and in a very whiny voice she would insist that he brush and braid her hair.  This typically occurred while he had a frying pan in his hand.  I invited him to respond to her next such request as follows:  “Either change the tone of your voice now or return to your room until you can. Either choice is okay with me.”  I asked the daughter if she could work with that and she said she could.  When I returned one week later, both father and daughter reported that mornings were much more pleasant since they had used the new behavior.

I congratulated them both on their success and we went on to other business.  The following week when I arrived, I asked them again how the mornings were going.  Father said that the mornings were horrible and that his younger daughter was about to drive him crazy with her whining.  When I asked if he was still using the program that we had agreed on, he said that he had completely forgotten about it and mornings were back to being stressfully chaotic.  He agreed to return to the program that had been so successful before.  The third week I again asked about the mornings and he again said they had been horrible.  Once more he had forgotten to use the program that had been so successful before.  After inquiring for two or three more weeks and hearing that he’d forgotten each time, I stopped asking.  I don’t know that he ever did use that successful program again. He could not remain conscious of the behavior he wished to change.

Now I would do one thing different.  In order to help my current clients remain conscious of the behavior they wish to change I write down the new response and suggest the person hangs it on his or her bedroom or bathroom mirror where he/she would see it in the morning. The most important tool in re-programming is to bring the new behavior pattern to consciousness.  Next you must find a way to keep it conscious.  Notes or pictures posted prominently on a desk, mirror or computer are a good step toward any desired behavior transformation