Overcoming Self Sabotage
Using The Science of Change
You may have made resolutions again this year but did you actually tell your emotional brain about them?
Then it is likely that by now, as we hurtle towards 2018, those resolutions are a dim and distant memory.
We humans are notoriously bad at changing habits, but it’s not because we are inherently weak willed -it is because the brain is biologically programmed to keep doing what it has habitually done.
Our brain is designed to keep us alive – not make us happy. So, if you are alive doing the things that you do – it will fight against change.
The habits you have today – whether it’s drinking too much, watching too much TV, procrastinating, or spending too much time on face-book – have all become deeply wired into the subconscious part of the brain through countless repetitions – and the brain pushes to keep doing them. Because that is what it is programmed to do.
Lasting change requires really understanding how our brains work.
The first thing to understand is that there are essentially two brains involved in the process of change. And these two brains set us up for the constant conflict we experience when we try.
The subconscious brain and the pre-frontal cortex
Some people refer to the subconscious as the reptile brain – but this isn’t strictly true. It is actually made up of the brain stem (reptile brain) AND the emotional brain (mammal brain).
I’ll call it the emotional brain from now on for ease of description.
The emotional brain is where our habit patterns are stored. When we repeat something again and again, pathways are built in the brain so that we can access these habits with ease, efficiency and without any conscious thought.
This is how we learn anything from learning to walk, to playing a musical instrument. The more we practice, the less effort and thought we need to apply to a task.
It’s basic neuroplasticity – our brains change and grow in relation to what input they receive.
The prefrontal cortex is the conscious part of the brain.
It’s responsible for planning, long term thinking, maintaining focus and generally over-riding our impulsive urges so we can achieve our goals and dreams.
When we decide that we want to create a new habit – say going to the gym, stopping smoking, cutting back on junk food – this decision is made by the pre-frontal cortex.
But deeply wired into the emotional brain is what we have habitually done.
Perhaps it’s staying in bed and repeatedly hitting snooze, having a cigarette at certain times or stopping at the local take away on the way home from work.
When you decide on a new habit- there is no corresponding brain pattern – it hasn’t yet been wired into the emotional brain so the new habit feels ‘uncomfortable’ and it takes quite a lot of effort to do.
It doesn’t matter that we know it’s good for us or that it will change our life for the better – at the very moment we need to engage in the new behavior – our emotional brain protests.
A key principle of the emotional brain is that is designed to move away from pain and towards pleasure. It does this by generating strong sensations in the body that we experience as either stress or resistance (pain) or an urge to do something (pleasure).
So when we attempt to start a new habit – it’s naturally uncomfortable and the emotional brain resists it and pushes to stay in its comfort zone.
It will always take the path of least resistance .
And so it starts with the excuses:
“I’ll do it tomorrow” “I’m not in the mood” “I’m too tired”
“I’m too stressed right now – it’s not the right time”
“Just this once won’t hurt”
This is where the conflict starts – immediate comfort versus future comfort from long term gain.
And if your Pre-frontal cortex is a bit flimsy – as many of are – there isn’t much of a contest – the emotional brain wins.
For a new habit to become automatic and effortless, it has to be wired into the emotional brain.
And this requires action.
Repeated time and time again.
But this is something that we don’t want to hear. We want instant gratification.
We don’t want to suffer AT ALL.
We want that new body now.
We want to be able to play the guitar flawlessly now.
We want to feel better NOW.
We want change to be EASY.
And this mindset is what keeps us stuck.
Lasting change does take time, effort and consistent action.
The key to overcoming self-sabotage is to get your emotional brain on your side. You need to understand where it is coming from and then manipulate it to work towards your goals not against them.
So how do we do this?
1. Create a strong emotional vision of where you want to be.
As our goals are made in the logical conscious pre-frontal cortex, the emotional brain is not part of the planning. You need to get it involved. So instead of just thinking for example “I want to stop drinking” spend time really imagining how you want to feel when you do.
One incredible aspect of neuro-plasticity that people don’t know is that VISUALISING changes the brain in the same way as actually doing an action. When you repeatedly visualize yourself making the change you want to make, and how you will FEEL when you do – your brain will change in ways that it would if you actually HAD made the change.
As you imagine, time and time again, the positive feelings that will come with the change, the emotional brain will start to associate the change with pleasure and not discomfort.
You need to convince it that it is VITAL that you change.
Often, if our Pre-frontal cortex is not very well developed, visualizing is difficult. To get past this difficulty, make a vision board with images of all the outcomes you want to achieve through the change.
Then look at it EVERY SINGLE DAY – conjuring up the feelings that you imagine you will feel.
The Pre-frontal cortex is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more robust and effective it becomes so every time you imagine the future in a positive way – the more ability the PFC has to over-ride the impulses of the emotional brain.
2. Don’t focus exclusively on the end goal.
This might sound contradictory given the suggestions above but the majority of us focus too much on the end result. It’s like focusing on trying to run a marathon when you have only just started training. Our brain can become overwhelmed.
When you train for a marathon, you focus on the goals for that day. Perhaps at the beginning you aim for a mile – and then slowly you increase. You trust that your system of weekly training will do the job.
Once you have decided how you want your life to be – let go of the outcome and work on the system that will get you there.
So, if it is losing weight – what are the smallest changes you can make every day to ensure it happens.
Set up a system of actions you need to take to get there. Perhaps you need to go to the gym 4 times a week and lay off the carbs. Trust that by following the system you will end up where you want to be.
3. Give a lot of positive emotional weight to each small success.
Self-sabotage often starts with discounting the small steps. We tell ourselves that missing one gym session won’t matter – or one cigarette won’t hurt. But it absolutely does matter. Once you let the rot set in you are on a fast, slippery slope to failure. If you slip today, you will give yourself permission to slip again, and again, and again.
Each time you choose inaction over action you are strengthening the brain pathways of the old behaviour. But each time you choose action over inaction – you are helping to wire the new behaviour into the brain. Give a lot of emotional value to each and every single step in the process.
4. Celebrate ANYTHING that you do towards your goal.
We often have an all or nothing way of thinking.
Unless we work out for an hour we have failed – 30 mins just really doesn’t cut it.
If we have a list of ten things to do and we only do seven – we consider it a failure. But human motivation to change and progress relies on a chemical called dopamine. The more dopamine we can generate, the more motivated we are to take action.
And dopamine is released when we achieve something we set out to achieve.
So really focus on what you do achieve.
If it is only 5 things of the list – don’t use the word “only’ – say to yourself – wow I did 5 more things than I would normally have done.
Train yourself to celebrate any success no matter how small. You will be rewarded by dopamine which will increase your motivation to do more
5. Become familiar with your own resistance.
Whenever we have something to do – even if we know we will enjoy it – often we feel a certain amount of resistance. We feel distracted and delay whatever it is we need to do for as long as possible. This is the heart of procrastination and the death blow to our well laid plans.
But resistance to change is a very normal part of the human experience.
Accept that you will, more often than not, feel it and learn to push through it.
Re-visit your future vision to convince the emotional brain that it will ultimately suffer pain if it doesn’t push through.
6. Learn the language of your emotional brain.
When your emotional brain starts to protest change, it will have a litany of excuses and reasons that it bombards you with.
Write them all down on a piece of paper and then provide the counter argument. So, when it starts to say – “I’m too tired to work out today” Answer it with “just do 10 mins – it really is worth it”
You’ll find that spouts out the same excuses over and over again, rapidly and in quick succession – as these excuses also have their own neural pathways. The key is to repeat the counter thoughts over and over again until they become the default.
7. Let go of the self-criticism.
We all have an inner critic – some louder than others. But it’s vital that you try to ignore the constant nagging of
“You’re such a loser”, “Why can’t you just get up and do it?” ” is there something wrong with you?”
If you don’t follow through on the plan for the day – don’t beat yourself up. The stress and guilt that this causes, actually reduces the strength of the Pre-frontal cortex to over-ride the emotional brain and stay focused on long term goals
When we get stuck in a cycle of self-loathing and shame – it’s very difficult for us to form new behaviours. In times of stress, the brain automatically defaults to old, deeply wired coping mechanisms. So, if you are feeling stressed and sorry for yourself, you are going to find it very hard to overcome the urge to stuff yourself with high calorie food or open that bottle of wine.
Instead, have compassion for yourself – remind yourself that change is hard, but reflect on why the day wasn’t a success, review your future vision and try again tomorrow.
8. Practice mindful awareness.
We spend most of our day on automatic pilot. Most of what we do and why we do it, we are not consciously aware of. In fact, 95 % of our decisions, our feelings and our actions are subconscious – basically outside of our conscious control.
We need to become far more aware of the underlying thoughts and feelings that sabotage our plans time and time again. At that moment – at that very point when you make the decision not to go to the gym, or to have that beer when you promised yourself you wouldn’t – What was going on for you? What were you feeling? What did you tell yourself?
Research has shown that bringing conscious attention and focus to your internal states actually strengthens the wiring from the PFC down to the emotional brain. Overtime, this make the PFC much more efficient in over-riding our urges to revert back to old ways of acting.
Throughout the day, for a couple of minutes at a time just stop and ask yourself
“What am I thinking?”
“What am I emotions am I experiencing?”
“What sensations are going on in my body?”
When inevitably you slip up or stop following through on you plans for change – DON”T GIVE UP.
Take it as a learning experience and bring in an attitude of curiosity. Ask yourself WHY you stopped or went back to the old habits. Ask yourself what thoughts were behind it. Ask yourself if there are certain feeling states that caused you to revert back.
The only failure is when you give up completely. Each time you ‘fail’ is actually an opportunity to grow, to better understand yourself and how your brain works.
Change is going to happen whatever we do or not do – just make sure it happens in the direction that you want