Change is hard
“Although difficult, change is always possible. What holds us back from making the changes we desire are our own limiting thoughts and actions.”
~ Satsuki Shibuya
Have you ever wished you were different, but felt stuck with what you had?
I have. Thousands of times.
I’ve wished that I wasn’t so shy. I’ve wished that I wasn’t so socially awkward. I’ve wished that I was funnier. I’ve wished that I wasn’t so nervous speaking in front of large groups of people. I’ve wished that I was more athletic, more interesting, a better writer.
Have you noticed there are some ways we think we can change and there are other ways we think we can’t?
When I first started my current job about a year ago, I didn’t know anything about the business, but I was reasonably confident that one day I would better understand what was going on. Lo and behold, today I very slightly better understand what is going on! Yay!
Then, there are other things. Things that we tell ourselves we are, things we decide define our sense of self. I’m an angry person. I’m not good a math. I’m terrified of speaking in front of large groups of people.
And we mean these things in a much more fundamental sense than I did when I was talking about my job.
We are saying something about our capacities. Our potentials. Our possibilities.
We think these things are intrinsic to who we are as people, as individuals, and that they cannot be changed or altered. In fact, it might not even occur to many of us that they could be any different.
In this way, we come to look at aspects of ourselves in two different ways: one part of us is fixed, permanent, and unchanging, while the other is fluid, temporary, and constantly changing.
Have you ever stopped to consider that where you draw that line is arbitrary?
I’m not one of those people who is going to say that any of us can do absolutely anything.
But what I am saying is that where we happen to draw that line is probably holding us back.
So, how can we broaden our thinking about change so that we aren’t stuck in the box we’ve decided we fit into?
Patterns, nothing but patterns
Though the human brain is possibly the most complex machine in the universe, there are certain things about it that we know, and have known for millennia.
The Buddha is believed to have expressed the idea, whatever you frequently think about and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of your mind. Amazingly, the Buddha understood 2,600 years before modern science that our brains change in response to repetition.
It’s a simple idea that may seem obvious to you, but it suggests the somewhat radical notion that many of the traits we use to define ourselves are simply conditioned responses.
If you experience fear whenever speaking to a group of people, you are more likely to experience fear when speaking to a group of people in the future.
If you constantly tell yourself you are bad at math, you are more likely to tell yourself that you are bad at math in the future.
If you anxiously ruminate about the future, you are more likely to anxiously ruminate about the future, well, in the future.
The more we do something, anything really, the more likely we are to do it again. As this cycle repeats itself over and over, it’s easy to see how we come to perceive those actions as being fundamental to the person we think we are.
So, the way we perceive ourselves is self-reinforcing.
Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously expressed the idea, “neurons that fire together, wire together” to describe how pathways form in the brain and are then reinforced by repetition.
But how do these ideas help us?
They help us by pushing us to understand that we are the way we are because of years of repetition, years of conditioning, and not because there is some fixed and unchangeable self that is, and will always be, terrified of public speaking, bad at math, or anxious about the future.
This means that whatever we believe to be fundamental to who we are as individuals is simply a historic pattern of thinking and behaving that has created strong neural pathways between relevant parts of the brain.
The question then is, can we change those fundamental pathways to become something other than who we are?
The plastic brain
Prior to the late 20th century, the prevailing scientific wisdom was that the brain was changeable until our 20s and then remained relatively static until we died (see here).
And isn’t that what it feels like?
Even when I was in my teens, I didn’t feel like I could change much. I felt trapped inside a scared, shy, and timid little body.
Well, to say I felt trapped would suggest that I felt separate from my fear, shyness, and timidity, which I most certainly did not. I would have said that those things were me, and I them.
However, what neuroscience tells us today is that the human brain is capable of radical change throughout life, even into old age.
Of course, we know this intuitively. Everyone has heard the phrase, practice makes perfect.
Yet, when we think of what practice means, we limit ourselves to physical activities.
What if our mental activities can also be changed through repetition?
Well, we know that gratefulness practices (see here, here, here, and here) and meditation practices (see here, here, and here) can change how we think and what we think about, as well as change the physical structure of our brains.
How is this possible?
This is made possible due to a trait of our brains known as neuroplasticity. This trait is critical to our brains, as they must constantly reorganize in response to our changing environment (see here).
But this is also critically important for us to understand, because without the knowledge that our brains can change we feel stuck with what we’ve got.
But, even if we realize we can change, it’s still incredibly hard.
So, what gives?
Evolution and change
We all know how hard it is to change. Whether starting a new exercise regime, a new diet, or learning a new language, we find that our inspiration to change runs out within a week or two.
What’s going on?
Well, evolution is kinda to blame.
Although we gained this miraculous experience of consciousness through evolution, that same mechanism often holds us back from getting what we want.
Evolution is a natural mechanism that has finely tuned our biological processes for survival.
Because our brain developed under evolutionary pressures, we are all subject to certain constraints when it comes to change.
1. Our strategy for survival has kept us alive to date (obviously!), which is saying something real about the effectiveness of that strategy: it’s working!
2. Change requires energy. Whether we’re changing our physical bodies through exercise or changing the way we think about the world by rewiring our neural connections, these changes take energy, which is considered scarce by our biology.
Maybe you can see this in your own life: without a persistent and significant pressure to change, it rarely happens.
And this of course makes evolutionary sense.
Otherwise, we’d be changing on a whim and needlessly wasting resources.
Could you imagine a species that changed their survival strategy on a whim? How long do you think it would take for that species to go extinct?
It wouldn’t be long.
Species survive because they find strategies that work and then they stick to them. They aren’t constantly reinventing themselves just for the hell of it.
But, we’re not in this just to survive, are we?
For most of us, survival isn’t enough. We are seeking something deeper and more meaningful. We are looking for ways to find fulfillment, happiness, eudaimonia, whatever you want to call it.
So, when we try to change something about ourselves because we think it will improve our lives, it’s worth remembering that our biology is going to be fighting against us, which is why we’re probably going to fail over and over again.
This is simply the process.
Remind yourself: I am a brain
Every once in a while, it helps to remind yourself that it is your brain that defines your conscious experience.
Your brain might be complex, but it still operates on certain principles that are worth remembering, like this one:
Change = new action x repetition
When we inevitably feel trapped with a trait that we’d prefer not to have, it’s worth remembering, we can change, it just won’t be easy.
As they say, knowledge is power.
When we understand that our patterns of thinking and behaving are no more than neural pathways in the brain and that these can be changed, the reality of our individual predicaments is altered.
When I defined myself (in the most fundamental sense) as shy, there was nothing I could do about it.
But when I understood that my shyness was simply a strongly reinforced pattern of behaving, thinking, and feeling, I finally understood that I didn’t have to be that way.
I felt less trapped and the world suddenly seemed more hopeful.
This knowledge is a tool you can put in your toolbox to remind yourself that your life doesn’t have to be stuck where it is.
I hope you can put this knowledge to good use :)