Modern neuroscience teaches that neurons in your brain that fire together wire together, creating neuro-circuits in the process. The more frequently you activate such neuro-circuits in your brain, and the more passionate or intense your feelings are in the process, the stronger the respective patterns become.
To master any skill, you need to repeat it frequently, and with intensity.
This is why my Karate Sensei taught me to practice each and every move at least 10’000 times to reach perfection. Likewise, the more you practice playing the violin, speaking a foreign language, or engaging in deep philosophical reflection, the stronger the respective neuro-circuits become.
Lao Tzu stated that we need to learn something new every day.
But he obviously knew that our ability to learn is about more than acquiring new knowledge, expanding our horizons, or establishing and strengthening neural connections.
So Lao Tzu went on to say that in order to learn something new, we first need to unlearn.
In order to establish new healthy patterns of thinking, feeling and believing, we need to unlearn the old ones.
We need to delete, overwrite, reprogram or realign old negative patterns, before we can establish new, positive neuro-circuits.
Neuroscientists call this process synaptic pruning.
Imagine your brain as a forest full of trees (which neuroscientists call dendrites), with each tree representing a thought. As in any forest, you may find tall, strong, well established, older trees, with smaller, younger, more vulnerable trees in between.
The more space, nutrients, sunlight and water a tree gets, the more it will be able to flourish, grow and prosper.
The more attention and emotional energy you invest in a thought, the stronger it becomes.
Luckily, you have the equivalent of active forest rangers, specialized cells that monitor and manage the growth of your brain forest. Some of these cells speed up growth and communication, whilst others remove the dead wood.
These specialized forest rangers can help you to overcome your self-sabotage patterns, through a process of pruning and cleaning up the synaptic connections in your brain.
Neuroscientists have found that the synaptic connections that get used least get marked by a specific protein. It seems that when your brain’s forest ranger cells detect such a marker, they attach themselves to the protein and delete the respective synaptic connection.
This is how your brain gets rid of dead wood and waste in the forest of your brain, making space for you to develop new, strong, healthy thought-trees. In order to delete unhealthy self- sabotage patterns, your brain needs to prune the respective neural connections, before you can develop better, stronger thought-trees.
Your brain goes through this pruning and cleaning process whilst you sleep.
That is why a good night’s rest will usually enable you to think more clearly. Even short naps give your brain’s forest wardens the opportunity to clean up the undergrowth and create the space required to create new, healthy thought patterns.
Thus sleep-deprivation is often a key cause of self-sabotage!
If your brain’s forest rangers don’t get enough time and opportunity to do their maintenance work, cleaning out the unhealthy growth and dead wood, your brain will become overgrown, slow and ineffective.
You Can Help Your Forest Rangers!
According to neuroscience, it seems that you can influence what your brain’s forest wardens prune while you sleep, by consciously determining which synaptic connections need to be deleted.
The interesting fact here is that synaptic connections you don’t use get marked for deletion, whilst the thought-trees and neural connections you use frequently, and with intensity, get nurtured and supported in their growth.
This is why it is so important to monitor, manage and focus your thoughts, as well as the related emotions.
Dwelling on negative thoughts, bad experiences, old emotional wounds or even fear of the future will strengthen the respective thought-trees in your brain’s forest, crowding out any young, healthy positive thoughts you might have developed.
Beware Of The Success Gurus
Some success experts teach that you need to associate massive pain with thoughts, beliefs, behaviors or habits you wish to overcome, and at the same time associate incredible pleasure with achieving your desired goals.
This is often referred to as the “push-and-pull” approach to change management.
The logic behind this is that you get pushed or propelled forward by your need to avoid pain, loss, risk or death. And, at the same time, you get pulled towards the successful achievement of your objectives by the promise of the pleasure, joy, fulfillment and satisfaction that awaits you. In our executive coaching practice we have found that this approach seems to work well in the short term, but in the longer term, the positive effects often don’t seem to be sustainable.
The problem with this pleasure-and-pain approach is that attaching powerful, painful emotional energy to the negative patterns you wish to get rid of actually seems to strengthen the respective thought-trees.
Instead of cutting down the self-sabotage trees, this process seems to make them larger, stronger, more powerful, enabling them to physically crowd out the younger, positive thoughts you planted.
Even simply spending time thinking about your self-sabotage patterns, or why you frequently find yourself getting in your own way, will actually strengthen the respective negative thought patterns, beliefs, habits and behaviors.
Since many of these negative thoughts and feelings are toxic, they may cause your brain to release too many or too few hormones and vital nutrients into your body, causing a chemical imbalance and further physical havoc.
You may be growing impatient by now, wishing to jump right in there and get things sorted out immediately, once and for all.
We all seem to prefer the quick fix, the shortcuts, the heroic approach of taking massive, immediate action, rather than taking the time to get things done properly.
And I have to confess, it is true that sometimes making a single, firm decision can clean out a whole set of negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors and habits in a split second.
This is what happened to my father in law.
He was a heavy, heavy smoker for most of his life.
Plus he drank loads of coffee.
He loved his food, ate plenty of it, and got very little exercise.
The doctors put him on one diet after another.
But none of them worked.
Until he had a heart-attack.
And then another.
He never touched another cigarette for the rest of his life as of that moment.
We call this shock therapy.
The ultimate quick fix.
It is very heroic.
The stuff films are made of.
But you don’t need to have a heart-attack to successfully get rid of your self-sabotage patterns and experience a real breakthrough, with sustainable, satisfying success.
My wife is a medical doctor – an orthopedic surgeon. She often tells me that her patients will only comply with her “doctor’s orders” as long as they feel pain, or as long as the uncomfortable symptoms persist.
Most patients would prefer to simply receive a magic pill, to make the pain go away, or some cortisone, to make the rash disappear.
But if she gives them this type of medication, they typically will no longer comply with the other things she tells them to do, like:
- change their diet, drink more water, use the supplements she prescribes
- get more exercise on a regular basis
- book sessions with a specialized physiotherapist
Even if she tells patients that they risk the amputation of a finger, a hand, an arm or a leg – that danger seems to be so far away in the distant future, that patients will not change their routines.
Patients seem to prefer risking a potential, but seemingly improbable, future loss, rather than making uncomfortable changes in the here and now.
And then, when the highly improbable event occurs, they heroically bite the bullet, and my wife needs to cut off part of their body.
Such heroic action may be impressive.
But it is not very intelligent.
Let me tell you – the body remembers the hand you lost, and it continues to feel the pain.
So, what should you do instead of this heroic approach?
The solution may seem too simple for you to believe.
But as you probably know, not everything that looks simple is actually that simple when you get down to putting it into action.
My Sensei made those Karate moves look very simple.
But it took me a long time to get them right.
As so often, knowing does not equal doing.
How To Delete Self-Sabotage Patterns
It seems that all you really need to do, in order to overcome your self-sabotage patterns, is to identify the respective negative thoughts, emotions, beliefs, habits and behaviors, and mark them for deletion.
How do you mark them?
By deliberately paying these thoughts and emotions no more attention, once you have identified them.
Starve them to death!
This may sound brutal.
But indeed, if you want to stop these self-sabotage patterns from limiting your ability to succeed, you need to be ruthless.
Once you have marked the self-sabotage thought-trees for deletion, allow your brain’s forest wardens to do their work.
Let them cut down the old, limiting, self-sabotage thought-trees you have identified, and then proactively replace them with beautiful, healthy, positive ones!
What we focus on grows, whilst what we ignore dies.
Your Mind’s Main Modes Of Operation:
According to modern psychology, it seems that your mind operates in three main modes:
1. The growth mode, in which we engage in creative, expansive, positive, life-affirming thoughts, feelings, activities and relationships
2. The maintenance mode, in which we operate in neutral gear, going nowhere
3. The protective survival mode, in which we engage in defensive, conservative, risk-averse, negative, fight- or flight activities.
Your self-sabotage patterns operate in the second and third mode.
To stop these patterns, you need to move into the first, positive, creative mode.
No, this is not just about positive thinking, affirmations, declarations or incantations.
In order to operate effectively in the constructive mode of mental activity, you need to get into a state of flow and think deeply.
The Deep Thought Technique
Neuroscientists have found that you need to engage in deep, concentrated thinking for 10 – 15 minutes per day, over a period of at least one week, in order to firmly establish a new thought pattern in your brain.
The process involves 6 simple steps that you repeat frequently – ideally every day, and preferably whilst engaged in some pleasant, flowful activity (like cooking, gardening, hiking, jogging, meditating):
1. Pick a personally relevant topic you wish to think about deeply, then consciously interrogate, assess and analyze it from all possible angles
2. Focus on the pleasant activity you are engaged in, stop consciously thinking about the topic, get into a state of flow, and let your subconscious do the creative work. Take note of any ideas, insights, inklings or intuitive concepts that come to mind
3. Immediately document these insights (I suggest that you keep a thought-journal)
4. Then decide on specific, simple action steps you can take to put these insights to the test immediately
5. Take action and document your experiences, what worked, what not, and why.
6. Refine your approach based on the feedback received, during your next thought process, and take action to establish strong personal references and experiences.
Experience shows that if you stick with this process for two months or more, you will form a new, strong, healthy thinking habit.
Remember – you get more of what you focus on.
So learn to manage your focus.
And enjoy the process.