The Immense Power of the Automatic Self

“Dogma is what you believe, whether you believe it or not.” (Dallas Willard)

A Life of One’s Own: Part Six
I’ve been writing a series of essays based on Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, she published her findings.

In this post: We may be ignoring important information residing in our own minds.2

The Automatic Self and the Deliberate Self
Milner describes our mind working on two levels. The “automatic self” flows with an abundance of seemingly scattered thoughts. The “deliberate self” analyzes and carefully thinks through information. We assume the deliberate self trumps the automatic self in effective thinking and decision-making. Not necessarily. For even after we give our “deliberate self” considerable time to make a careful decision, we can, a short time later, find ourselves changing our minds, moving a different direction, or become more confused than we were prior to thinking things through.

Milner says, “I seemed to have two quite different selves, one which answered when I thought deliberately, another which answered when I let my thought be automatic. I decided to investigate further the opinions of the automatic one, to ask it questions and write answers without stopping to think.”

Understanding the automatic self is important because: (1) The automatic self controls more of our lives than we realize. (2) When we understand the automatic self better, it has a power of it’s own that can be used to propel our lives forward.

We Don’t Always Believe What We Believe
I heard the late Theologian and Philosopher Dallas Willard speak on a number of occasions. He said: “Dogma is what we believe whether we believe it or not.”3 We have a set of beliefs we say we believe (and believe we believe). We have another layer of beliefs controlling our lives whether we “believe” them or not. (I give a couple examples of this in the footnotes.) 4

Milner asks herself: “What is the good of imagining I accept what the scientists are saying about the nature of the universe if all the time part of myself is believing something quite different?” She further notes: “Might not these apparent beliefs of my automatic self, although I had no notion of their existence, possess the power to influence my feelings and actions? And was it not important that I should find out how to control the beliefs of this part of myself, since they seemed to take so little account of what my deliberate self thought?”

While it’s important to think through things, there’s another part of us, a very powerful part of us, that doesn’t care what our “deliberate self” thinks or concludes and then moves us in a different direction entirely.

The Problem
Without coming to terms with our automatic self, we find it difficult to know what we want and what we think. When it comes to making decisions, we don’t make up our mind or we constantly change our mind – confusing others and ourselves. This puts us at a significant disadvantage in life.

“For this discrepancy between the views of my deliberate and automatic selves gave me an idea of what might be the reason why I found it so difficult to make up my mind what I liked or what I thought about a thing. For as a rule I had tried to make decisions without stopping to hear what my automatic self had to say, assuming that my deliberate opinions were all that mattered or even all that existed. So my decisions were made on a basis of only part of the facts, with the result that I never felt quite sure of my conclusions and was liable to reverse them on the slightest provocation. Dimly realizing this, I began to use this free writing of my thoughts as a means for making important decisions.”

It’s not that we should ignore the deliberate self, it’s that we should quit ignoring this powerful automatic self that’s saturated with information and controlling much of our life. When we ignore or reject “part of the facts” (provided by the automatic self), it leaves our minds challenging or undermining our “deliberate” decisions. This is not about making impulsive decisions, it’s about tapping the wisdom of your automatic self and making better decisions.

Finding Clarity
Milner says, “The more I had tried to find the facts [of my life] the more I had become convinced that my own mind was something quiet unknown to me. I decided therefore that my most urgent need was to become more familiar with its habits. And since it was my mind I needed to understand, not mind in general, I did not search in books, but began to try and observe what happened when I wrote my thoughts freely without any attempt to control their direction.”

This leads us to writing. Milner is not technically providing us writing exercises (although, that is what I will call them). She said “free writing” of her thoughts allowed her to tap the automatic self as a source of guidance. The goal here is to allow your automatic self space to express itself. Milner noted “every attempt to formulate desires, however incoherent, is a step forward.” She also noted, “On reading this through I was once more surprised to find how different my thoughts were from what I expected.”

Free Writing Exercises to Release and Better Understand the Automatic Self
1. Things I hate.

2. Things I love.

3. Things I want.

She then moved to “not just the things I wanted or liked, but whatever came into my head. This I had found difficult at first, because I was obsessed by the feeling that it was no use, that If I did not guide my thought it was just a waste time.

4. Write what every comes to mind. Milner noted in this exercise how “only the first sentence or two were concerned with the present and then I had plunged into memories of things fifteen or twenty years ago . . .” Milner goes on to say “It seemed that I was normally only aware of the ripples on the surface of my mind, but the act of writing a thought was a plunge which at once took me into a different element where the past was intensely alive.”

5. What are you afraid of? Start the sentence with I am afraid . . . and then write.

6. Make a list of anxious moments through the day.

Milner notes that the fears and anxiety are typically much bigger than the actual situations causing the fear/anxiety: “Again I was a little surprised, for I wondered why my fears, which sometimes felt like a heavy weight upon me, were so much too big for the kind of situations which appeared to arouse them.”

7. Write out the details of a dream. (not evaluate – just write)

8. Start with the word “God” – and start writing what comes to mind.

9 Start with the phrase “I believe” and start writing what comes to mind.

Milner says, “Although my glimpses of the inhabitants of these deeper waters of the mind were rather disquieting, suggesting creatures whose ways I did not know, I had found the act of writing curiously calming, so that I had gradually come to use it when I was over-burdened with worry.”

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.

2This particular post is based on Chapter Three of Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own in a chapter she titled this chapter Exploring the Hinterland in which she deals with the uncharted territory of the mind.

3The late Dallas Willard was a professor at the University of California’s School of Philosophy. He was also an accomplished author and theologian.

4 For example, someone can understand the psychology of shame. They can say all the right things and even counsel others. Yet, their own lives are still driven by shame. They may not even notice how disruptive and controlling this is in their own lives. Another example: Someone can talk about a loving God, yet live in fear of judgment. There’s the God they say they believe in (a gracious and forgiving God) and then there is the God they really believe in (retaliatory and never satisfied). They believe they believe in the God they say they believe in, but they don’t.


Jesus Follower, Blogger, Public Speaker.

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2 comments on “The Immense Power of the Automatic Self
  1. Steven Broad says:

    Start with the word “Baseball” – and start writing what comes to mind.
    Baseball never included orphans, because they couldn’t find home.

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