Why We Self-Sabotage – Understanding 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, midway through the first month of the new year, 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 been deeply wired into the subconscious part of the brain through countless repetitions – and the brain pushes to keep doing them.
Lasting change involves changing our mindset and really understanding how our brains work.
The first thing to understand is that there are essentially two brains involved in the process of change that set us up for the constant conflict we experience when we try.
The emotional brain – the subconscious part where our emotions and desires originate and the pre-frontal cortex – basically the CEO of the brain. This part is 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 the opposite unhealthy habit. 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 subconscious brain so the new habit feels ‘uncomfortable’and it takes quite a lot of effort to do it. 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.
All it sees is discomfort and it is programmed to move away. It will always take the path of least resistance as its aim is to maintain the status quo i.e. staying in its comfort zone.
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 – just as some CEOs are more effective than others – 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.
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?
- Create a strong emotional vision of where you want to be.
As our goals are made in the logical part of the brain, 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.
Everything we do and I mean EVERYTHING is about how we want to feel or not feel. You need to engage the emotional brain in the goal.
You need to convince it that it is VITAL that you change – show it how it is going to feel immense pleasure if you succeed and how much pain it will feel if you don’t. Bring that future pleasure into the present.
Write down both outcomes in as much vivid emotional detail as you can then close your eyes and visualise both outcomes. Then re-read EVERY SINGLE DAY.
- Don’t focus exclusively on the goal.
This might sound contradictory given the suggestion above but the majority of us focus too much on the end result. It can’t come fast enough. We get frustrated with our slow progress, and give into old behaviors. 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 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.
- 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.
Each time you choose inaction over action you are strenthening 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. So give a lot of emotional value to each and every single step in the process.
- 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-read your future vision to convince the emotional brain that it will ultimately suffer pain if it doesn’t push through.
- Learn the language of your emotional brain.
When you 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 – that will help to re-wire the brain – it really is worth it”
- Let go of the self-criticism.
We all have an inner critic – some louder than others. But it is vital that you try to ignore the constant nagging of “You are 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 is very difficult for us to form new behaviours.
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. Basically, review your battle plan, make some tweaks and carry on.
Change is going to happen whatever we do or not do – just make sure it happens in the direction that you want