by Max Sirak
There's a reason change is hard. It's biology's fault.
Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write in their book, A General Theory of Love, “Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have heard most often, think just what we have always thought.”
The game is rigged. The deck, stacked. Odds are, despite our best (or pretend-best) efforts, we will continue to live as we always have and do what we've always done. We are designed to repeat our patterns. We're made to continue our habits.
This is how we work. It's how we're wired. To borrow some computer programmer lingo, this is a feature of our system, not a bug. Because our neurons like ruts, “attempting to change” could easily be rebranded “fighting inertia.”
I get it. I mean, I love ruts. They're comfortable and easy, like an old pair of jeans. They're familiar and warm, like a favorite hoodie. However, just like old clothes, sometimes old ruts need replacing.
Maybe we wake up one morning and have an anti-Talking Heads moment. “I don't have a beautiful house. I don't have a beautiful wife. I don't even have a job. How did I get here?”
Or perhaps there's an external cause. Our doctor calls and says the test came back positive. We're on a crash course with a major health risk. There is no surgery. There is no medicine. It's change or die.
Whatever our reasons, whatever our whys, I want to help with our hows.
Yeah, It's Hard
But it's not impossible. That is, unless it's unimaginable.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” Or, put differently, by therapist Thomas Moore, “The difficult truth to learn is that true change takes place in the imagination…”
That's right. The initial step on the path to change is making crap up. Seriously. Imagining new possibilities is the seedbed of transition. Regardless of how we are or where we're at, if we can't brainstorm alternatives, then we're doomed to stay stuck in our repeating ruts. (Thanks, neurons.)
However, if we're capable of conjuring unfamiliar ideas, of seeing things differently, we can then begin to move forward. If we genuinely can't imagine ourselves going to the gym regularly, quitting smoking, eating healthy, or being less angry – then it won't happen.
Innate human creativity is where change starts. From there, we have to find our mind closet.
Discovering Our Depository
Remember how ruts are like jeans and sweatshirts? Well, our minds are like closets. It's where we store all our beliefs. And, just like clothes closets, there's only so much space. We can't keep adding the new without first getting rid of the old.
See, each of us have fundamental convictions about the way things are. We have ideas about what life should or shouldn't be. We have notions about what love is or isn't. We have conclusions about who we are or aren't. We have collected, over the course of our lives, sets of assumptions about how the world works.
The problem is – these assumptions aren't necessarily true. They're just what we picked up along the way. For whatever reason, be it repetition or timing, we chose to believe certain things and not others. Often, when we are young, we overhear an authority figure, or someone we look up to, say something and we decide to agree.
“Money is the root of all evil.” “Everyone who's rich is a crook.” “All poor people are lazy.” “I'll never amount to much.” “Everyone in my family is sick, how can I be healthy?” “I'm too dumb to get a good job.” “I'm not pretty enough be loved.” “I'm a failure.” “No one likes me.” “I don't deserve to be happy.”
These are limiting beliefs. Each one defines a baseline concept about a major life theme. Money. Work. Love. Self. Each one also draws a very distinct line.
We all have limiting beliefs. Ours might not be identical to those above, but know they are there coloring our lives, shading our perceptions, and hiding in our closets.
The easiest way to discover a limiting belief is to ask ourselves a question. “What do I believe about _______?” and then scribble all that pops into our heads.
Once we've discovered the contents of our depository, it's time to do some cleaning.
Uncluttering Our Closet
Essentially, this means facing our demons. It's not a pleasant process. It's painful and shitty. It dredges up a lot of things we'd rather not unearth. But when it comes to changing, clearing away our limiting beliefs is important.
To do this, we flip the script. We get rid of each outdated, stale belief and replace it with a healthier one. Culling our mind closets is a lot like going through our actual wardrobe. Here's how it works…
- 1) Take it out – Write down the limiting belief. (Ex: Being successful means being in a relationship.)
- 2) Try it on – How does believing this make us feel? (Ex: Well, I mean…pretty bad, you know. It makes me feel like I'm failure unless I've got a partner. It devalues everything else in my life. It keeps me constantly focused on what I lack. Etc.)
- 3) See if it still fits – Does it look good on us? Do we like the way it makes us feel? Does it suit us? (Ex: Ugh. No. I hate it. It's ugly.)
- 4) Decide on our style – How would we rather feel? (Ex: When I think about love I'd rather feel like it was a choice, not a requirement. Like the cherry on top of a sundae, not the ice cream. I'd rather feel good about my life if I'm single or with someone.)
- 5) Update our wardrobe – Write out a new belief based on what we came up with in Step Four. Make sure it fits us better. (Ex: My sense of value has nothing to do with my relationship status.)
Now, remember, these are mental structures we've had for most of our lives. They shape our assumptions about reality, which in turn shape us. And, the older we are, the longer we've held these views, the harder they'll be to discard.
It's a daunting task, but it's cool. We've got a trick up our sleeve.
Our trick for making changes stick comes from an unlikely source, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was a pretty impressive cat. Aside from inventing all he did (public libraries, the fire department, bifocals, etc.), and being indispensable in the establishing of our Republic, he was also deeply committed to personal development.
The story goes, at one point in his life, ol' Benny decided he'd like to become a better human. So, he put together a list of virtues he'd like to foster in himself. Next, he linked each virtue to a behavior, something he could either refrain from, or engage in. Then, he made a chart.
He kept it simple. It was pass/fail. The virtues (and their corresponding behaviors) were listed on the left. On top, horizontally, were the days of the week. Each week he'd choose a specific attribute to focus on. Each day he'd do his best to keep that virtue and behavior in mind. Each night he'd track his progress.
The goal was to keep the grid as clean as possible. If he succeeded at cultivating the improvement of the week – the square for the day remained blank. If he failed – he'd give himself a mark. And, even though there was only one virtue targeted each week, it wasn't license to ignore the rest. Franklin graded himself on the untargeted ones too.
After he completed a cycle, he'd start again. Each time through, he did better and better.
The point here is repetition and daily practice. Leadership coach John Maxwell writes, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
Once we have our brand new designer beliefs (don't forget to take the tags off!), it's time to Franklin them up. This means associating specific actions with each new belief and measuring our progress each day.
Using the example from earlier about relationships, the activity related to the belief could be thinking, “Did I fixate on my love life?” Or, “Was I content being single?” “Did I spend time thinking about what's missing from my life?” Etc.
We're complex. So are our brains. Because of the physiology of remembering, changing our beliefs is hard. It's best to remember our Han Solo: “It ain't like dusting crops, boy.” It takes time. We will fail. A lot. And since failure is frustrating for most of us, we're likely to get discouraged and quit. But don't.
Be forgiving. Be gentle with yourself. I mean, up until seven minutes ago you probably didn't even know you had a mind closet.