Why We Can Adopt New Beliefs
To sum it up in one word — neuroplasticity. If there was a second word it would be — survival. Our brains are built to be quite malleable. They have to be able to form new neural pathways responsible for communicating thought and invoking responses from one part of our brain to another. We are built to be able to learn and unlearn ways of thinking, feeling and behaving within a matter of split seconds in order to help us survive.
When we think a thought, there is a physical process that happens in our brain. Neurons, the cells that transmit nerve impulses in our brains, fire off through synapses. Synapses are the points at which the nerve impulses pass between, and are absorbed by other brain cells along with chemicals, called neurotransmitters. When you hear or speak words, your mind fires off neurons and synapses so that you understand what is being heard or
Brain scans show that patterns will form when the same words are spoken or heard repeatedly, meaning the same neurons and synapses are more and more likely to fire off together. You may have heard the phrase coined by Canadian Psychologist Donald Webb, “The neurons and synapses that fire together wire together.” When neurons travel the same pathway in the brain over and over, they begin to transmit faster and faster. They become
automatic with enough repetition. It’s the same reason we would repeat a word over and over to teach a baby to speak, or swing at a golf ball over and over until our swing becomes automatic.
Negative thought processes follow this same pattern. The more we think about, or ruminate, on a negative thought, the more rooted the thought becomes in our mind. The process ends up pulling more neural pathways together, like a magnet. They solidify and become stronger each time. This is why thoughts that stem from trauma, as well as negative and anxious thoughts, can seemingly loop. It's why they keep popping up or replaying again and again — until you consciously do something to stop them. All the while, these negative thoughts can stir up emotional and physiological reactions. If this repetition induces stress, it leads to an overall decrease in wellbeing. This is why obsessive, compulsive, depressive, and panicky thoughts can become habitual enough to create the symptoms of a mental health disorder.
There are many different approaches within therapy and self development devoted to stopping this process. Each intervention is meant to retrain the brain's attention to more positive thoughts. Some examples of therapeutic approaches include:
✦ Psychodynamic therapy which attempts to “process” the thoughts through conversation in such a way that the useful parts remain and the harmful or unnecessary parts discontinue.
✦ Cognitive Behavioral, Rational Emotive Therapies, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Neuro- Associative Conditioning, and pattern interrupting, seek to break negative thought loops using methods like cognitive restructuring, redirecting, state changers and thought stopping.
✦ EMDR stimulates both left brain and right brain processing of distressing thoughts, memories, and behaviors in order to reduce physiological arousal and introduce new ways of thinking and feeling.
✦ Rapid Resolution Therapy is an example of a trauma clearing therapy that uses Memory Reconsolidation and Recontextualization to help the brain quickly unlearn the original emotional experience of a traumatic memory and create an entirely new pattern of neural firing.
✦ Hypnotherapy uses the power of suggestion and guided imagery to naturally immerse you into a state of greater focus and relaxation while invoking your imagination. Intended responses are elicited within you by engaging your senses, emotions, and subconscious mind through the skilled use of detailed, descriptive language. Hypnotherapy is known for being especially helpful for stress management, healing promotion, pain control, performance improvement, positive thinking, and habit change.
Some examples of self development practices include:
✦ Affirmations — they use your consistent daily vocal recitation of positively worded statements to create strong neural pathways and therefore a new belief. This practice can work effectively when your statement meets certain criteria, and you dedicate yourself to repeating it with a strong sense of certainty (while in the best emotional and physical state possible) for at least 30 days. Ideally, you would combine this practice with interrogative self talk (asking useful questions), power posing (positive body language), and other actions over the course of 60 - 90 days for significant and long term results.
✦ Meditation — can help you disengage from negative thoughts and their accompanied feelings. Some practices involve developing the habit of becoming an indifferent observer, or a compassionate observer, of your thoughts. You do this while focusing on returning your attention to your breath, or a mantra you can say or think.
✦ Self Hypnosis — is a practice of focusing on positive suggestions by listening to your own pre-recorded script, or a professional's recording. It has similar benefits to meditation and can also achieve more specialized goals. Along with the use of additional methods like guided visualization, it offers the ability for developing natural pain relief or changing bad habits into healthier ones.
Each of these kinds of modalities may achieve different results depending on the issue(s) you are working with, for what duration, and how effectively and consistently you use a process. These factors can all have an impact on how well you respond to any method of practice.
Point being, there is a lot that can be done to stop distressing thoughts and their resulting behaviors. And there is a lot of science behind the reasons why we can believe, remember, and focus on some things more easily than others. This is one explanation of why some thoughts are harder to change than others.
The following examples are a few of the most common psychological reasons why changing a belief can be difficult in a therapeutic or personal development process.
Reasons For Difficulty When Attempting To
Integrate A New Belief
✦ In the case of using declarative affirmations, we are taught not to lie, so we can have an automatic instinct to resist speaking something or believing in something we don’t think of as true (yet).
✦ For example, try saying out loud two sentences. One sentence that you know to be true like, “I can lift five pounds.” The other sentence is something you know to be untrue like, “I can lift five tons,” and then notice how it feels. Is there a funny feeling in your gut? Did you hesitate saying the second sentence? Did your voice sound the same or different with each sentence?
✦ Potential Antidote — Remind yourself that you are purposefully making something become true for your own good based on neuroscience. You are not lying. Embracing a new attitude, deciding to think differently about yourself, or starting a new habit can all take some getting used to. It’s like wearing in a new pair of shoes — it will become more comfortable and feel
more natural the more you do it! Also, be sure to use interrogative self talk as a way of challenging your old beliefs.
✦ The new belief we are trying to embrace conflicts with a major underlying belief we have about our identity or what it means for us to be moral, accepted, successful, or safe.
✦ For example, I might not try to think of myself as a confident and highly persuasive salesperson if deep down I equate salespeople to selfish, greedy, conmen.
✦ Potential Antidote — Challenge your own perceptions by asking questions that allow for evidence to contradict your assumptions. In the example case, you could ask questions like, “Is everybody who sells anything always lying, stealing, or overcharging for personal profit (unneeded gain)? Is every single exchange of goods and services an immoral act that’s of no value or benefit to the consumer? Can I find a way to passionately and honestly give others the opportunity to buy a product or service I believe in, with integrity, for the good of meeting both of our needs (along with those we care for within our family, community, business, etc.)?”
✦ We have the desire, or tendency, to require evidence before making an effort to believe in something new. Especially if it contradicts something we already believe that feels important to us.
✦ For example, why would I make the effort of trying to think of myself as confident in social situations when I can’t think of any evidence of that being the case? We like to conserve our efforts and not waste our time. We want to avoid frustration and we don’t like getting our hopes up only to be disappointed. When we think is impossible or as highly unlikely to change, it can be harder to actually commit the effort needed to do anything about it. It's not the mindset that's needed to make the change. Lowering our expectations can be a much easier thing to do.
✦ Potential Antidote — Really do your research. Find well rounded supporting evidence, role models, and inspiring stories that can help you make the case for investing any of your time, energy or resources into making the transformation(s) you need. Weigh the costs and consequences of not staying dedicated to making the changes needed in order to get your
results. Create a list of what you’d sacrifice or have to face if you were to give up all hope of change and not challenge your limiting beliefs. Detail what it would cost you if you were not willing to make any meaningful investments or a consistent, dedicated effort to ensure this change. Write it all out and see for yourself what makes the most sense to do and follow through on. Fully dedicate to getting your results and do what you have to do to keep the faith! Remember, you can ask others to hold you accountable and help inspire you along the way. You could use my Door 1 or Door 2 Guided Visualization and Meditation Recording for this purpose as well.
✦ We are not sure of the consequences, or believe we may face potentially negative consequences, from embracing the new belief. In other words, it may upset the ecology of our life.
✦ For example, embracing an authentic identity (e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.), new career path, or new religious or non religious belief system that conflicts with your cultural or societal norms could cause the need for immediate, drastic and risky changes to your relationships, upsetting your support systems. Embracing the need to set more boundaries could greatly upset the dynamic of an abusive or oppressive relationship.
✦ Potential Antidote — Ask yourself what all the consequences are at present, as well as those likely to happen in the future, for not embracing the new way of being you desire, and write down your answers. Also, ask yourself what you will need to do and who you will need to be so you’re prepared to handle whatever challenges arise as you make this change. Then determine the action steps you’ll need to take and commit yourself to doing what you need to do.
✦ Our minds are not totally sure what the new belief means, or how to implement it.
✦ For example, let’s say you want to have a more calm temperament, and want to adopt the idea of being a cool headed person with self control. If you do not have any reference for that behavior (examples in your own life to draw from, a role model you know in real life, a celebrity, or character from media you’ve read or seen), it would be challenging for your mind to understand what needs to be done. I can’t expect you to make me lutefisk if you do not know what it is. If you’re not familiar with the behavior, or do not put any effort into learning skills to be able to attempt it, it’s highly unlikely that simply thinking of yourself as having them or saying that you have them would actually manifest itself. Research and or skill building may be required in order to adopt this new belief and integrate it into your life. You’ve gotta learn to dance before you believe you’re as good as Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire!
✦ Potential Antidote — Get more clarity by taking some time to find examples of the behavior or attitude in your own life or as demonstrated by someone else. Consider other ways you can learn to build up this quality or habit to be competent at it in order to become confident in it. An NLP visualization exercise called the New Behavior Generator, which I've made available as a Guided Meditation, could help you in this area. Before you commit any effort into adopting a new belief about your identity or an attitude to create a new habit of behavior, you should check to see if the new belief you are wanting to integrate meets the following criteria:
✦ Do you trust it will make you a better person? A wiser, more moral, ethical, empowered, or spiritually evolved person who still has humility and self control? Someone who still honors your core values?
✦ Do you have good role models or examples for the persona, attitudes
and behaviors you are adopting?
✦ Will you have to face any challenges when you embody this new identity, belief, or behavior? Do you trust yourself to handle the challenges that may arise? What can you do to ensure your ability to do so?
What You Can Do Next...
My next post on this subject will cover ways to determine the best adoption strategy, for your personality, to integrate a new belief. I'll provide a rundown on things like Declarative Affirmations (what makes the work or worse than useless). We will also cover a highly underutilized, fascinating, and less known strategy called Interrogative Self Talk. Stay tuned for Part Two!