re-wiring thought patterns – hidden beliefs exposed – part four

Once upon a time, it was believed that our brains were wired by our early experiences as young children and then hard-wired by the time we reached early adulthood.  We bought into this with our exclamations of

I can’t help it, that’s the way I was born.

I’ve always been this way.”

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Neuroscience research has now discovered that our brains are much more adaptive than that.  Based on new experiences, the brain can create new neural pathways and revise current, outdated ones that are no longer useful. The discovery has come from the study of the brain’s plasticity or neuroplasticity.

 

Six-Million-Dollar-Man-six-million-dollar-man-659509_346_259

 

This not some “We can rebuild him. We have the technology” cyborg science like the Six Million Dollar Man show from the 70’s.  And it is not magic.  And it’s most certainly not the power of positive thinking that allows our brains to change and adapt.

With the discovery of the brain’s adaptability and a commitment to self-awareness, you can actually re-wire a thought pattern that is no longer useful for you into one that is more beneficial. New experiences can be elegantly integrated while old patterns are woven out of commission.

 

Re-wiring Process

1. SET THE INTENTION

Get crystal clear on your intention to re-set an unhealthy thought pattern. Clarity is key. Cloudy intentions lead to cloudy results.

2. MAKE TIME TO PAUSE

Meditation.  Take intentional tech-fasts.  Take deep breath breaks. Courageously notice unhelpful thought patterns.

3. PROCESS FOR RE-WIRING

Name the thought
Name distorted thought pattern(s) from part two of this series
Consider how and when it became anchored
Name the underlying belief
Sit with the emotions that are tied to the belief
Write out the worst-case scenario if belief didn’t change
Challenge the belief with reason, evidence and support
Consider what the new belief would need to be
Visualize new belief and write out the best-case scenario
Verbalize – repeat the new belief to rewire it into your belief system

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Does this seem like too much work?

 

 

It is work.

Unremarkable hard work.

But consider the impact of NOT doing this work.

Unexamined thoughts mean unconscious beliefs are running the show.

 

 

Sample process:

Start small.  Take a less significant pattern to put through the process.

Thought: “I must finish this book I started reading even though I’m not enjoying it.” 

Distorted Thought: Is an “all or nothing”distorted thought pattern feeding this thought? Do I have a ‘black and white’ rule about this?  Dig deeper.

Underlying Belief: Is there an underlying belief that good, strong, responsible people finish what they start?  Is there a belief that finishing something is proof of my worth?

Anchor:  Is there a childhood root in not being able to move onto something new until the first thing is finished?  Was I taught that?

Emotions:  Is there any shame attached to being “mature enough” to finish what I started?  Was there significant adult pressure in childhood to finish things?

Worst-Case Scenario: What’s the worst-case scenario if I am compelled to finish everything I start without reasonable consideration of its current benefit to me?

Challenge the Belief: Now, as an adult, is it reasonable for me to finish reading this book?  Do I have a valid reason to finish or it is simply because it is the way I was wired as a child?  It was absolutely helpful for me to learn responsibility as a child but now, as an already responsible adult, can I choose to start and finish things for a valid reason for me now?

New Belief:   As soon as I notice myself acting out of compulsion to finish something, I will re-evaluate the “why” of doing so. If it based on old, no longer useful pattern then I will begin the re-wiring by choosing a new response that I will verbalize.

Visualize:  I see myself making choices for me now, not for the much younger me who first created this thought pattern.

Verbalize:  “I am free to choose and am responsible for my choice.  There is no “must” or compulsion to do so”.

 

Making Evaluation a Habit 

1.  Start small.  Big things happen when you start with little things.

2.  Keep a record.  Recording the process creates a new anchor in the present.

3.  Start today.  It is easier to change a pattern today than it will be next year.

4.  Be reasonable.  Patterns have taken a lifetime to make and take time to re-wire.

5.  Be grateful.  Life is full of abundance and hope.  Notice the positive!

 

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the voice behind the choice

How’s your summer going?”

A variation of this question was posed to me three times, in quick succession, one afternoon very recently. I had not yet left for the summer and was working steadily to finish all the tasks left to do before I could begin my break.

Nursing a deep resentment for still being at work while most colleagues were on the golf course, at their cottage or otherwise relaxing, my reaction to this question each time was to launch into what tasks I still had yet to do and a litany of reasons why it was taking so long for me to complete those tasks, this year in particular.

I saw a similar glazed-over look that was a cross between boredom and disinterest in the eyes of each person as I spoke to them. If we had still been children, one of them surely would have rubbed their index finger and their thumb together in front of my face declaring it was the world’s smallest violin playing and that it was playing just for me.

If it had just been this one day, I could chalk it up to simply having a bad day but it was clear to me that over the past few months Moaning Myrtle was becoming a default persona so I did a little experiment to see how this would play out long term if nothing changed.

 

I’m 85 years old and I’m walking with purpose to the Saturday morning farmer’s market pulling my empty two-wheeled cart behind me. A young woman who lives on my street greets me kindly as I rush by her with my jaw set, my brow furrowed and focused on my very important business that will surely involve bartering the best price for Bartlett pears. As I pass a shopkeeper sweeping the walk in front of his store, he looks up, stops sweeping, smiles at me and asks how I’m doing on this fine morning? So I tell him how much I have to do, how I have to find time to get train tickets for next month’s visit to my son and then there’s that closet I have to get cleaned out and figure out how to the get the contents over to the thrift store. I am also sure to tell him that I didn’t get much sleep last night because the neighbours had guests over for a barbecue and they stayed until the ungodly hour of 11 pm.  As I ramble on, the shopkeeper gets the all-too-familiar look in his eyes. It is the same look I’ve seen in the eyes of my colleagues, friends and family for longer than I care to remember. 

 

Not a pretty picture. And certainly not the future I want.  For me or anyone near me.

Now the work is to look behind the repeated choice to complain and find out what underlying beliefs are informing Moaning Myrtle’s rants. What are my beliefs about hard work, about what I think I deserve and what attention I think I should get based on my perceived competence and productivity?   

And based on clarity of beliefs and tweaking any outdated or unhelpful ones, what will the new scripts be when I’m asked how I’m doing?

 

Since I am now on my summer break, I’ll have to get to that work after I go for a walk or a bike ride, have a cup of coffee on my porch, take a nap and read a book.  Moaning Myrtle’s voice is fading as she has been sent packing on a break of her own.

 

Happy Nasturtiums 2

 

By the way, my summer is starting out to be the nourishing break I needed, thank you very much for asking!

 

 

 

the right tool for the job

 

I have a quirky trait of stubbornly “making do” when faced with a task requiring a specific tool. My resistance rises with even the thought of purchasing a tool when I think that I may have an object that was made for a different purpose but will do in a pinch within arms reach. This approach has always seemed simpler, more practical and oh-so-much-more efficient than the alternative of the time-guzzling acts of browsing, shopping, listing pros and cons of which one is the best to buy, spending money on then cleaning, storing and organizing all the tools until the end of time! Doth she protest too much? Methinks so.

 

Beyond my issues with the traumas of shopping, and my still firm desire to just get the job done effectively and efficiently, I am growing in my appreciation for the wisdom of using the right tool for the job.

Despite our love affair with our minds and the wonders they perform, when it comes to emotions and moods, the mind and its incredible ability to problem-solve external situations is precisely the wrong tool for this type of internal work.

Emotions are not problems to be solved. They exist to be felt. Why then do we feel the need to enlist our minds into action, to swoop in heroically and solve our problem of unhappiness, disappointment, fear, anxiety, anger or depression? The answer is because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable and will numb ourselves to these signpost emotions that we’re off our path.

Instead of feeling the emotions, we question why life is hard for us but so easy for everyone else. We wonder why we can’t seem to just get over our hurt and resentment quickly. We speculate on what we did to deserve the pain. And we ruminate on the darkness of our lives thereby increasing the gap from where we are to where we think we want to be.

Trying to “solve” emotional issues through thinking is like digging the trench deeper. The deeper we dig the trench, the more accustomed we become living in a trench and it then becomes a future platform for the unproductive process of thinking through our feelings.

There is a way out of the self-built trench that may include professional intervention but could also be supported by:

  • Taking our minds off the pedestals
  • Remaining keenly aware of our mind’s desire to be in charge
  • Developing a practice of sitting with overwhelming emotions
  • Noticing when our mind tries to hijack the process

Our minds have their place but our vulnerable yet resilient inner workings deserve the use of the right tool for the job.

Thoughts?

 

 

 

a mindful student’s guide to stress relief

 

Mid-term mania is sweeping through high school hallways like a mid-autumn tropical storm.

Research shows that the adolescent brain is not quite done ‘baking’ yet and is very much still in the developmental stage, so teens cope with stress much differently than adults.  Add an over-commitment to activities in and out of the classroom, teacher and parental expectations for consistently self-regulated behaviour and the increasing pressure on teens to figure out their future plans and you’ve got the makings of the perfect storm.

Fear not, oh overwhelmed adolescent!   Not only does it get better as you get older, there are strategies that can help you weather the high winds and choppy seas of high school life.

 

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NAME IT

Name what is actually happening.  Don’t rationalize, blame or give the power to change your situation over to anyone else.  Stand up.  It’s your choice.

Right now, I choose to procrastinate. Instead of taking even a tiny step forward, I am distracting myself from the discomfort of having too much to do with other things like friends, electronics, music or just zoning out to temporarily help me create the illusion that I have nothing to do.  I choose a temporary fix over a long-term solution.

My expectations are much higher than is reasonable and is rooted in my need to please everyone, to be accepted and to prove my worth to those around me. I choose to keep thinking in this concrete way even though I know, at some level, my value is not connected to how well I perform.

I am attached to this heightened level of panic because it is what I know and I am only  comfortable when there is some drama and chaos.  Plus, it also gives me an excuse as to why my performance and achievement is well below my capability.   

Naming it may not be pretty.  But it is potent and is always your choice.  By taking responsibility for what is really happening and not blaming others, you will become free and more empowered.  Since you are responsible then you can not be a victim to an external source.  Taking responsibility give you all the power to change things and make a difference.

 


NUMBER IT

On a scale of 1-10, rate your current stress level.  We all know a little stress is okay and, for the most part, manageable. But how much is too much?

Level 10 would be the hyperventilating, off-the-charts panic mode when the sound of your heart beating wildly in your ears drowns out all other noises.  Overwhelming anxiety, irrational fears and phobias showing up, and being mentally frozen or unable to act could be possible signs of this level of stress.  Save Level 10 when your life is danger.  In my experience, no one has died writing or even failing a math test.

Level 7 is not a bad place to be during times of evaluation like tests, exams or a performance of some kind but it is definitely not a desirable place to live, work and play every day.  Staying at this level consistently could easily lead to emotional, mental and physical dis-ease.  You need to go lower.

Level 4 is quite comfortable, bordering on relaxing, but with just enough energy to get things done.  This is more like it.

Level 1 is like a quiet, restful slumber that seems to only come when you are on summer holidays and you know you have no tests or assignments due the next day so can sleep in as long as you want.

Notice your stress level throughout the day and become aware when it begins to crawl ever-upwards.  Once you know where you tend to live, you can intentionally level out to a healthier, more functional place.

 

Student in Starbucks, Fremont Seattle

 

LEVEL IT

The best strategy to help you to quickly bring down your stress level to a healthier number is deep, belly breathing.  You can also try other relaxation techniques that work well for you, exercise, yoga, meditation or calming music. The benefit of focused, deep breathing is that is accessible wherever and whenever you need it.  It so simple to do and the results are powerful, predictable and grounding.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take deep, smooth, belly breaths.  Evenly inhale and exhale allowing your lower belly to expand like a balloon and contract with each breath.  Do this slowly 3-5 times.  Check in with your level.  If you are still floating up to any number beyond 5, then repeat.  Practicing this type of calming breathing regularly in non-stressful times will make it more automatic and have a greater impact during times of stress.

 

RE-FRAME IT

Visualize yourself stress-free and living large at a Level 4.  What does it look like?  How do you feel?

What is working in your life right now and already fits with that picture of what you want your life to look like?

Are the thoughts that you are having true and useful?  Is your thinking distorted with over-generalizations, blaming or catastrophizing?  And which thoughts are cleverly distorted to match the story you keep telling yourself where doom is the only outcome.

What steps have you tried already to change the situation from stressed and striving to calm and thriving?  Did they work?  Why or why not?

Where else could you go for support?

How can you break down your tasks to their smaller, bite-sized portions? Checking things off your to-do list is energizing and smaller tasks mean more chances to check!  And how does doing this impact your level of stress?

What itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny tiny step could I do RIGHT NOW to start?  Take three deep breaths?  Make a list?  Ask for help?  Be grateful for what is going well?  Name the situation courageously where you are responsible?  Notice your level as you take one step.

 

GROUND IT

Now that you can visualize what a stress-free ‘you’ looks like, recall a time when it was true.  When was the last time you felt amazingly at ease, comfortable, relaxed and in charge of your own life?  It could be as recent as the beginning of the school year when you vowed to stay on top of things.  Or maybe you have to go back a few years when life seemed simpler.

After you have a mental picture of the way your life looked and how you felt back then, find some token to reflect that important memory. It could be a picture, an object, an action, some music or whatever else will remind you of the experience of being at peace. When you find your stress level inching higher, remember your grounding token. Hold it, look at it, listen to it do the action that reminds you to settle and breathe deeply.

 

Student

 

Stress is unavoidable but managing it is a life-long skill that takes practice and is worth every moment you commit to doing just that.

Start now. Take a deep breath and choose to take that first step to managing your own mania!

 

 

pattern interrupted

 

We each contain within us a multitude of patterns and unconscious reactions. They’re often thinly disguised in thoughts and phrases such as “I can’t help it, this is who I am”.  Or perhaps they come to light in a moment of “Why do I always do that?” or when we catch ourselves consistently and insistently complaining about a particularly annoying person or event.

But what if a pattern is no longer beneficial and even becomes a hindrance to our growth and prevents us living freely, then what?  What if a pattern is trapping us in our own Groundhog Day experience? Or if it becomes a pleasingly patterned yet hard-to-penetrate and limiting brick wall?

Patterns

The point is to interrupt the pattern. Whenever a pattern is interrupted, there is a moment of awareness (often accompanied by a moment of panic). That interruption gives you a moment to see or exercise another possibility.–Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher and writer

Four Steps to Pattern Interruption

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with using these four steps in response to the regular fall-out of my own pattern of staying hyper-busy/ compulsively over-working.

1.  Notice
2.  Uncover
3.  Re-Write
4.  Repeat

Notice
This may be easier for some patterns than others.  For me, the “work” pattern has become clear to me by way of a frantic mind, an oft-weakened immune system and chronic irritation that results when I work to exhaustion.  According to Ken McLeod, interrupting the pattern requires pausing just before the pattern is repeated instead of staying in a trance.  This will be a challenge since my tendency to overwork sort of steamrolls right over pauses.  Meditation has definitely been helpful in disengaging the pause-crushing steamroller and creating more space for noticing.

Uncover
Using the 5 Why’s to uncover the underlying story that informs my pattern has been quite useful for me.  Sometimes I can even rationalize up until almost 10 why’s.

I can’t stop working right now, I’m too busy!
Why?

Because I have this job/ task that must/should be finished.
Why?

Because I’ve already started and it is easier to just push through and finish it before I take a break.
Why?

Because I’d feel better, once I was resting, to not have to see the unfinished task in front of me.  I’d be much more relaxed if it was just finished.
Why?

Because I’d feel guilty sitting down when there’s work still to be done.
Why?

Because I feel valuable when I am productive and get work finished. My value stems from how much I accomplish.

BINGO!

My hidden story is that I believe my value is based on how much I accomplish so my value, in my mind, goes up the harder I work. Clearly there’s a deeper back-story there but, in order to maintain focus, let’s just leave that for when there’s time for self-reflection later and now consider the next step.

Re-Write
The story of “work = value” is an interesting one but is far from liberating and not one that I want to have as a silent director of my actions and decisions. Time for a re-write of that old script.  New script says “Working or not, productive or not, I have value”.  


Repeat
To make even a dent in the ancient story I’ve held to as truth for so long, this new script will need to be be expressed verbally every day until it becomes the new pattern.  New decisions will be based on the freedom of choice, not within the confines of a claustrophobic story.

I’m famously stubborn so this process might take longer for me than it does you.  I already caught myself pushing stoically through to the end of writing this post without taking a break when my mind and body were asking for one.  And this is only one of my patterns!

One pattern, one step at time.