3Keys founder Pat Wyman deconstructs the notion of ‘free will’ as it is popularly understood, inviting a new understanding of it that can help to unlock our rational facility to choose in stressful situations.
In working with clients over the years, the topic of “choice” or “free will” has come up consistently. Women come to see me wracked with guilt over things they have done recently or even decades ago. We address and work through those issues in the course of therapy, but it always initiates a discussion on the matter of “choice”.
Most religions and legal systems are virtually rooted in the concept of free will. All cultures are permeated with values based on free will. Every criminal justice system is based on it. Religions leave no room to question it. We have little pithy sayings such as: “do the crime; do the time.” and “you made your bed, now lie in it”. But after many years as a psychotherapist, I don’t think it is quite as black and white.
My model of therapy sees humans as having two operating systems: firstly, that of rational thinking located in the conscious mind, and secondly our defense mechanisms located in our subconscious.
Rational thinking is governed by a person’s MBTI® type. That is, perception is handled by Sensing or iNtuition, and decision-making is controlled by Thinking or Feeling. That explains conscious, rational thinking, but researchers tell us that only 10% of who we are and what we do is in our conscious control. What is happening the rest of the time?
Ninety percent of who we are and what we do is located in the subconscious. Among the various attributes in the subconscious is our defense system, which is profiled by a person’s Enneagram type. What happens in the subconscious, including the defense system, is not only out of conscious knowledge and control, but also not in the realm of rational thinking.
Think of it as a toggle switch between the two operating systems, your MBTI and Enneagram defense. When your life is going smoothly and all is well, you are making good, rational decisions using your MBTI thought processes. However, if you are ‘triggered’ or someone ‘pushes a button’, the switch is thrown without your conscious knowledge and your Enneagram defense system takes over. That is what causes people to say things such as: “I was simply beside myself,” or: “I just wasn’t myself when I said that.” We have all heard the question, “what was he thinking?” My answer always is that there was no thinking going on. Thinking happens on the rational left side of the brain, and rational thinking is controlled by the MBTI. That part was not in control during whatever bizarre behavior was going on. The switch had been thrown and the Enneagram defense system was in control. The defense part of personality is located in a non-rational part of the brain or psyche and has only one main objective: to numb emotional pain. Each Enneagram type has its own methods to accomplish this task. Some methods, such as workaholism, are culturally rewarded. Some methods, such as over-dramatization, are medicated.
How you respond to a situation is tremendously related to how you perceive it. I often use the example of a group of 10 women gathered for a social event. The door opens and a man is standing there. There will be 10 different reactions to that man depending on perception, and ruled by whatever subconscious material may or may not be present in each woman. When you are triggered, especially by something unexpected, a subconscious program takes over. When that happens, perception is no longer in the domain of the MBTI. Perception is governed by a program that was installed many years earlier. If the man in the doorway is the husband of the hostess, she maintains rational thinking because she recognizes him and knows it is reasonable and acceptable for him to be there. Suppose another woman had previously been in a shop when an armed robber came in – her internal toggle switch would be thrown and she would be out of rational thinking and under the control of her Enneagram defense. The only methods of responding to the situation would be governed by the earlier program and the coping skills of her particular Enneagram defense.
We can consider a parallel in quantum physics which dictates that an observer is an integral part of what becomes “reality”. When the door begins to open, there is an infinite realm of possibilities available. It takes an observer to collapse the probability wave into what we would call reality. When the door opens and a man is standing there, one observer sees her husband, another sees a possible assailant, another sees a handsome man hopefully available, another will see someone who is strikingly similar to a childhood perpetrator, another sees someone who is interrupting the event, while another sees someone who may enliven the event, and so on. Believing is seeing. It takes an observer to narrow the infinite possibilities down. When there are two observers in each person, a rational observer and a programmed lens, then the reaction by each individual is going to be governed by which observer happens to be in charge.
Being tossed out of rational thinking and landing in a subconscious defense system is out of conscious control. It is just as automatic and out of conscious control as is stepping on the brake when a child runs in front of your vehicle.
Culturally and personally, we don’t like to think that we are not in complete 100% conscious control of our actions. Because we can’t explain it or measure it as otherwise, we want to believe that all our actions are freely chosen. We want to believe that people freely enter into destructive relationships, choose drugs or alcohol, decide to kill themselves or others, elect to have multiple affairs, or are not affected by the design of a cereal box. It is too scary to think that 90% of what we do is out of conscious awareness, as scientists insist.
So we can read about that and accept it intellectually as interesting, but we are unwilling to accept and apply it to ourselves and others. We would rather believe that a man would actually choose to take an automatic weapon to a schoolyard and kill a dozen small children. That way, we can punish him and feel we have some degree of control.
If we could begin to see people as being controlled by subconscious programs, we would stop asking “why?” and start asking “what is going on here?” What would cause a person to act like that? When someone jumps off a bridge due to some temporary emotional crisis, we can stretch enough to understand that that person was troubled. It is harder when the violence is directed outwardly. However, understanding that the majority of decisions we make each day are out of rational thinking and conscious control can help us to understand ourselves better and then to understand others. If you want a good example of a group of people governed by subconscious programming put in place when they were very young, just look at the current US Congress.
So, as a therapist working with women who have made bad “choices”, I have to always ask: “what was going on?” and “who was in charge?” We always find out, after delving into the subconscious, that there was a program that controlled her behaviors, not a conscious “choice”. For instance, consider a woman who is self-disparaging due to staying in an abusive relationship for years. She insists that she “chose” the man and she “chose” to stay with him even when she had been advised repeatedly to leave.
Who is doing the choosing? Would any rational person, regardless of which MBTI type, freely choose abuse? No. Additionally, those who tried to talk her out of it were talking to her rational self because that part has language capabilities. They were preaching to the choir. However, the governing program and defense system are located in the subconscious, which no amount of talk can reach because there are limited language capabilities there. In a therapy session, I can move her from one operating system to the other and back again. With each move, she will reverse her decision to stay or leave, depending on who’sin charge. The real work is to ground her in rational thinking so she can make the best possible choices for herself.
None of this is to excuse bad behavior or erase responsibility. On the contrary, I believe we are all charged to Know Thyself. It is the responsibility of each of us to recognize our own irrational behaviors and emotional responses and to address them. That takes work and often some assistance. However, the alternative is to continue to sleepwalk through life and wonder why we do what we do; why we’re attracted to inappropriate people; and why we stay in situations that keep us miserable. The answer is to stop asking why and to find out what is going on.
By Pat Wyman