No Willpower Needed: We Must Treat The Deeper Mind!

By Douglas Schooler, Ph.D

paper with different emotions attached to sticks

Where do our thoughts come from? Why do we feel the way we do? Why did we make that “choice”? Why did I have that dream? The answers are to be found in the deeper mind. Yet the deeper mind is a mystery; it’s the not-conscious, the subconscious, the unconscious, yet it affects us every second of every day, influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behavior in ways that we are often conscious of and frequently quite surprised by. Yet much mental health and substance abuse treatment ignores the deeper mind and instead targets the part of the mind most available and easiest to reach.

A Mind Divided- A Mind United

The human mind is the most complicated mind of any animal on the planet. This obvious fact has implications that are not always so obvious. The conscious mind has the power of logic and voluntary control. The deeper mind has the power of emotion and automatic control. They don’t always work together harmoniously. When someone enters a recovery treatment program they are essentially saying: My logical mind realizes drugs are bad for me, but my deeper mind keeps me using anyway.” A mind divided. No other animal would react or think this way. When a wolf sees a rabbit he doesn’t have to motivate himself to chase it. He takes action right away.

When a crow sees another tree that has a better perch she flies there. Period. Simple. A mind united. Desire and behavior are linked directly. No guilt, no shame, no hesitation, no willpower needed.

People come in to psychotherapy treatment because they want to think, feel, and/or act differently but they haven’t been able to get themselves to do it. Examples: I know I shouldn’t rage at my spouse but I can’t help myself and just lose it! I want to lose weight but I can’t get myself to stop eating muffins. I just can’t stop myself from thinking about my ex, even though I’m with someone else now. I can’t get myself to stop drinking even though I know it’s killing me.

In each sentence it’s useful to realize that the “I” refers to the logical, conceptual, conscious mind and “myself” refers to the deeper, primitive, powerful, non-logical, emotional, and largely subconscious mind. The subconscious or deeper mind is in charge of automatic, involuntary behavior and what is addiction and habit but just that. Knowing this, the direction of treatment is clear. We must treat the deeper mind.

If the mind of a person in recovery worked like the mind of a wolf, he might say: “Drugs have lost all appeal, I’m repulsed by the very thought of them, they’re poison and using is out of the question.” Mind united. Thought, emotion, and behavior connected and congruent. But we don’t often hear that. Instead we hear the opposite. “I know I need to stop but I don’t.” Treatment then is all about causing the mind to be united and congruent, so thought, emotion and behavior are on the same page. How does one accomplish that?

The fields of psychotherapy, psychology, psychiatry, and drug treatment have evolved a whole host of approaches. Even though they claim to be scientific and “evidence based” (such a popular term lately) their prevailing view has been predominantly moralistic. Much of psychotherapy addresses the conscious mind, attempting to motivate and strengthen willpower. It is based on the notion that if one has insight into the origins and “causes” of his problems, willpower will be strengthened and motivated by guilt and regret, he will make better choices. And that has some limited value. Willpower can be trained and improved. But it is no match for the power of the deeper mind. So we need to do much more than that. The conventional paradigm has proven woefully ineffective. People often receive traditional psychotherapy for years with hardly anything to show for it – except for perhaps knowing that someone they look up to understands them and their suffering. That is not enough.

We need to step back and rethink what we are really trying to do. We’re essentially trying to get our patient’s minds to work like the mind of a wolf: See what’s of value and do it. No hesitation; a mind united. The human mind does have the capacity for unity of purpose. How much willpower do you need to stop you from eating a bowl of dirt?

The new paradigm is based on advances in neuroscience. Recent discoveries have severely challenged the idea of free will and choice. The evidence shows that our minds are thinking for us, and that’s all happening below conscious awareness. Do a search for “free will” and you’ll find the details of research that shows that brain activity is occurring milliseconds or even seconds before a decision or choice is made. It seems as though our brains decide what’s next for us slightly before we are conscious of it. The new view is simply that the “subconscious mind” is running the show and it’s the therapists’ job to influence and adjust it. Not an easy task by any means, but that is where we must start. And we do have the beginnings of a technology to do that. Hypnosis in all its multitude of varieties, relaxation techniques, energy therapies, imagery and visualization, even behavioral approaches, all these have the potential to dramatically influence the subconscious mind. Even conversational speech, properly structured, can do so.

Addiction professionals must at the outset of treatment target the subconscious mind, both on the clinical and program development levels. Yet we must not fall into the trap of telling our clients that they or (or their minds) are their own “worst enemy. “ We need to abandon all aspects of moralistic thinking and the labels and judgments that go with it. Making people feel bad in order to get them to do good has proven ineffective. Scientific thinking must replace moralistic. We must use the tools we already have (they work!) and develop new ones. We have to laser focus on our objective, which is to get the deeper, subconscious, primitive and emotional mind completely onboard. That is the job of the treatment provider. Keep that target clear in your vision and you have a good chance of hitting it.

Dr. Doug Schooler is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified Master Practitioner of Rapid Resolution Therapy. He maintains an independent practice of psychology, The Center for Rapid Resolution Therapy, in Boca Raton, providing treatment to all ages since 1985 ( Before coming to Florida he taught psychology at Eastern Michigan University. He graduated from Queens College in 1964 and received his PhD in psychology from the University of Rhode Island in 1976.