Why is it so hard to bring about lasting change? Is our will too weak? Our desire not strong enough? Or are we incapable? No, we’re simply human. Everyone feels resistance to change. It’s completely normal and part of our biology to resist change, especially if keeping the status quo doesn’t threaten our survival. Change implies effort and courage to explore which means we might get lost outside of our comfort zone. Our brains are designed to protect us from potential harm by preventing us from tapping into the dark and unknown. Even though our well-known habits, lifestyles and relationships might be uncomfortable, they didn’t kill us. Therefore, our brains will hold on to them, just to ensure our survival and refrain us from taking dangerous risks. Fortunately, science has proven that we can change our brains and therefore our behaviour which enables us to literally create the life we want. Eventually, it’s all just a matter of awareness and in this post I’d like to help you create this awareness, so you can kick unhelpful habits and start building the life you want.
Make sure you Want to Change
We humans tend to be very complex. Few things are as simple as they seem, such as knowing what it is we really want. It seems obvious that you can only change that which you really want, but chances are big that you don’t really want what you’re wishing for. Well, maybe one part of you is truly wishing for this change to happen, but another part of you is still resisting. Get clear on that part that’s afraid of change and that wants to hold on to the familiar. What is it that keeps you from moving on? Why are you afraid of taking the leap? Does your habit maybe have some hidden benefits? Or do you feel you don’t deserve it?
I realized that intrinsic motivation oftentimes eliminates this part within myself that’s actually refusing to change or wants to change for the wrong reasons. Extrinsic motivation is oftentimes fueled by some form of fear, anxiety, need to take control etc. which can impact the degree to which you want to change. If you want to change only because you’re afraid, then it’s your ego who brings about this change and not your Inner Being. When your wish to change is powered by your ego, the mere thought of your desire will fill you with worry, anger, shame or fear. These feelings will make you want to run away from everything and you’ll probably be more consumed by your negative emotions and regulating them, rather than using this energy for positive change.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is powered by your Inner Being and is geared towards growth, harmony, connectedness, and love. It’s easy to know whether you’re driven by your intrinsic motivation, because it will transmit a feeling of hope for a brighter future, of self love and empowerment. Powered by these positive feelings, taking action and bringing about change will feel so much lighter, easier and way more fun. Instead of feeling the victim of your current situation, you’ll feel the master of your future.
Let me give you an example of how you can change a habit quickly just by shifting your perspective from an extrinsic motivation to an intrinsic one. I used to smoke for 16 years. I had tried in the meanwhile to quit a couple of times and even quit an entire year once (because my father promised to buy me a laptop - of course, I started smoking again once I had the laptop). My main motivation to quit was fear and shame. Fear because I was concerned about my health and shame because I realised that in many cultures smoking is frowned upon. I travelled a lot and always felt like I disrespected the local culture by smoking. I could barely enjoy the cigarette, but I simply couldn’t handle my addiction.
Obviously, shame and fear were not the right motivations for me to quit, as I continued smoking year after year, accompanied by these negative emotions. Until I realized that the real problem was the addiction. Above all, I wanted to be free. Suddenly my wish to quit smoking wasn’t accompanied by thoughts of lung cancer and angry locals, but by the feeling of freedom and empowerment. Besides, I also started to respect myself and my body much more and I simply didn’t want to pollute my inner temple with these toxins on a daily basis. Here, I acted out of love for my body, instead of fear of its demise. Together with the help of a book (Jan Geurtz - Quit Smoking in One Day), I eventually quit this 16-year habit within a couple of days. I still occasionally smoke a cigarette with a glass of wine, but I’ve been addiction-free for five years now and I don’t struggle with negative thoughts of fear and shame on a daily basis anymore.
Make sure you Can change
For some people, the first step will be sufficient to really change their behaviour. But oftentimes you’ll need to go one step further: into the depths of your subconsciousness . Even if we really want to change something, we also need to believe that we can do it. We all deal with limiting beliefs which are powerful enough to keep us from changing anything in our lives.
I recently read the book “The Power of your Subconscious Mind” by Joseph Murphy and I really like how he explained the interaction of our conscious mind and our subconscious mind. He states that we should regard the conscious mind as the watchman in front of the gate of the subconscious mind. So, if your conscious mind doesn’t believe something, it’s not going to make its way to your subconsciousness. This can be perceived as a way to protect the subconscious mind from false impressions since this part of your mind is not capable of reasoning or thinking out things for itself. It only takes orders from the conscious mind and it takes them very literally. It doesn’t understand jokes or contrasts. If you wish money, but you constantly think of the lack of it, it will give you the lack of it. This is why your subconscious mind needs a watchman who protects it from accepting all unfiltered suggestions.
“Films are developed in the dark; likewise, mental pictures are developed in the darkroom of the subconscious mind.”
- Joseph Murphy
And it explains, in my opinion, why most of our problems stem from our childhood. As children we don’t have the capacity to simply oppose the things our parents, other caregivers and adults or even other children tell us. Children are so dependent on their caregivers, thinking that they are not telling them the truth would make them feel very insecure. Therefore, every thoughtless word or words spoken out of helplessness, make their way straight to the conscious mind of the child. In this period, the conscious mind is a rather lenient watchman, as the child is too vulnerable to form their own ideas against those of the parents, their peers or society. As children accept ideas so easily, it’s so important to give children a positive outlook on themselves and the world around them. So, next time think twice before you crash your children’s dreams with your “realistic” world view. Like our brains are trying to protect us from running unnecessary risks, we are trying to protect our children by preparing them for “real” life. But we need to be aware that real life is the life that we create. And we can help our children by creating a positive mindset which is programmed towards possibilities instead of limitations.
Not only our words, but also our deeds can nestle in our childrens subconscious minds. I recently listened to an interview with Iyanla Vazant, a well-known spiritual teacher who grew up with a mindset of poverty. Even when she earned a million dollars a year, she was always broke until the next paycheck came, simply because she was used to it. Her subconscious got used to being penniless by the time the money started to flow again. She couldn’t change this situation until she became aware of it and made a conscious choice to change her beliefs and therefore her reality.
Iyanla first had to make a conscious decision to change the narrative she was telling herself since it’s the conscious mind that gives orders to the subconscious mind. It may look as if our conscious mind is the boss, but eventually it’s the subconscious mind that’s way more powerful. The subconscious mind is the creative part (literally the part that creates) and the part of us that’s in line with our divine source. Our subconscious mind is the one that gives us the power to move mountains against all odds and has the capacity to attract or create situations which are in line with its content. So, if your subconscious mind is filled with harmony, success and abundance, it will follow those orders and make sure they will come into your existence. Logically, the same counts for less ideal contents. Your subconscious mind doesn’t judge about good or bad, it simply acts out.
I have noticed for myself that it’s extremely important to fill my conscious mind with as much positive, inspiring and motivating information and stories as possible. This is probably one of the reasons why I love reading and I can devour one spiritual book after another, simply because it raises my vibration and gives me hope and inspiration. Like this, I confirm over and over again to my conscious mind that it is safe to believe in the benevolence of the universe and the kindness of people, so this information can be forwarded to my subconscious mind. It’s safe to believe in so-called miracles, because they are not as miraculous as they appear to be. Essentially, they are only one thought away.
Next to that, I also refrain from watching the news or aggressive movies. As much as I by now believe in the goodness of the world, I’m also aware of my human tendency towards survival which leads to a negativity bias. In order to survive it’s much more important to be aware of the dangers which is why our survival instinct will always automatically save the negative and dangerous aspects of life. So, by showering myself in negativity do I not only run the risk of imprinting false ideas on my conscious mind, I also create impressions which are much stronger (and therefore more difficult to remove), since they are designed to ensure my survival. Messages of love and hope are great, but you’ll notice it will take much longer for your conscious mind to accept those messages. Messages of fear, on the other hand, are adopted pretty easily and difficult to remove from our screen. Keep your negativity bias in mind and simply thank your system for protecting you and continue indulging yourself in positivity and light.
Make sure you Do it
Okay, so now you have your motivation and your mindset sorted out, how come you’re still struggling? Because you need to change the structure of your brain by practicing. Our brains are full of neural pathways which are tightly wired together, in order to make life easier for us. Throughout our lives we learn techniques and habits which ensure our survival. Once we know a specific habit is safe - or at least has allowed us to survive- we continue using those neural pathways. By the time we grow old, however, these techniques we’ve developed throughout childhood -oftentimes in the form of defense mechanisms- start to bug us. We realize that people-pleasing was a safe strategy as a kid of an alcoholic father, but it doesn’t serve us anymore. Or we’re jealous to see that other people earn money while having fun, whereas we learned at home that we have to work hard for it. These are our limiting beliefs which I discussed earlier and just by being aware of them we can’t expect them to disappear.
Our defense mechanisms and limiting beliefs have served us for a long time, otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are now. With these beliefs we made it into adulthood which is a sure sign that these strategies are safe. As I indicated in the introduction, wanting to change can lead us into unknown and potentially dangerous territory. Therefore, our brains are built in such a way that the neural pathway for a specific habit or belief are connected very tightly to each other. The more we use a specific neural pathway, the tighter the connection is going to be and the more difficult it is to veer off that path. (There’s much more to say about the functioning of our brain and why we stay stuck in our habits, but for now I’ll stick to the basics. If you’re interested in knowing more about the science around neuroplasticity, I can highly recommend the work of Joe Dispenza.)
But there’s good news. Even though the connections might be really tight, our brains are still capable of changing the neural pathway. This simply needs practice. I’m sure you’ve heard people saying that it takes 21 or 40 days for a change to occur. Now you know why - because this is approximately the amount of time you need to build new neural pathways which are connected to new habits and belief patterns. Of course, these new neural pathways will be just as tightly connected as the old pathways, depending on how often you use these specific routes. So, exhibiting the desired behaviour will be just as easy as exhibiting the undesired behavior. You just need to get over this initial uncomfortable threshold of going off the beaten track.
Obviously, these 21 or 40 days are an estimation and many factors play a role in whether or not you succeed in building those new neural pathways. But the most effective way to successfully wire those neurons together is by feeling the desired change. You might wonder at this point how you can feel something which isn’t part of your reality yet. Easy - with your imagination. Research shows that there’s practically no difference between doing something physically or mentally, the neurons will fire either way.
The most important part is that we really feel the emotion while we’re “rehearsing” our desired change. It should feel as if it had already entered into our existence. At this point, we don’t need to worry anymore about the outcome, as we can feel in our bodies that it’s there. It’s like planting a seed. Once you plant it, you don’t expect the plant to emerge immediately. First, you nourish the seed and create the perfect conditions, trusting in the fact that it will come. You don’t worry it might not sprout, you expect it to. And while you’re watering your seed and caring for it, you’re waiting in joyful anticipation for the beautiful plant.
You can do this exercise with literally anything you wish to change: imagine yourself to be calm and serene when you suffer from temper tantrums; feel the feeling of deep and intense love when you want to create love in your life and relax into the feeling of money flowing towards you when you’re experiencing lack. Obviously, you first need to tackle the first two steps before this can work. As long as you resist the change in some way or still hold limiting beliefs, it’s like planting a seed in unprepared soil. You’ll first need to weed the ground and make sure the soil is fertile, before anything can grow. Without these conditions, you only run the risk of adding another limiting belief to your system: that neuroplasticity is a hoax and you’re forever stuck with the life you’ve always known.
Maybe you feel resistant to go through this process just by reading this post. And yes, the process might bring up a lot of unresolved pain and issues which won’t always be easy to deal with, but in the end it’s so rewarding. These steps can really help you to free yourself from your restrictions and gradually the pain and frustration will turn into empowerment and peace. Especially the last step can also be a lot of fun! Once you realize that the feelings are all inside of you and that you can always conjure them up whenever you want, a huge load will fall off your shoulders. Suddenly bringing about change in your life will be more of a game, a fun activity while you’re in this world, rather than an anxiety-ridden necessity.