In order for a muscle to gain strength, it must first be stressed with a load heavier than usual. Muscle fibers tear, creating a minor injury and you experience discomfort, possibly pain. Immediately the body begins repairs, and the muscle fibers grow in strength and size so they can better handle the increased load. When your muscles increase in strength and endurance you can walk farther, climb higher, hug tighter. Your world expands, but first, there is the discomfort.
A similar series of events occur when you push yourself to achieve a new goal. A goal or desire comes from the absence of something you want. You don’t have this yet, because your current thoughts and behaviors do not support this desire. To get what you want, you must do something different, and herein lies the problem. Just like lifting a heavier weight causes discomfort in your muscles, creating new habits with your thoughts and behaviors causes discomfort in your brain.
You may have heard the term, “what fires together, wires together”. This means that with each of your thoughts and behaviors, specific neurons in the brain are activated. When certain thoughts and behaviors are repeatedly paired, they wire together, making this pathway feel like the “easy” way. For example, someone who wants to start an exercise program may have wired this series of thoughts and behaviors: ”I should go for a walk. I’m tired. I’ll do it tomorrow”, and the resulting behavior is continuing to sit on the couch or stay in bed. This pattern may have been going on for years, and inserting a new behavior or thought feels uncomfortable, because your brain is saying, “Wait! I don’t have a neural pathway created for this."
The goal is to create new wiring that pairs the thoughts and behaviors needed to achieve your dreams. In this example it would be to pair the thought, “I should go for a walk” with putting on walking shoes and perhaps the new thought, “My day always goes better when it starts with a walk.” To create this new pairing, you must expect some discomfort. The neural pathways of your old habits have been well greased over the years, and when you chose to do something different, you’re forging a new path that hasn’t been used before. It’s thick with briars, undergrowth, and overhanging limbs. The new path isn’t impassable, but it will take some effort to navigate.
The good news is, the most difficult part of this new path is the beginning. It’s the initiation of the behavior that feels uncomfortable, but once you step outside to walk, start a job application, ask for help to leave a relationship, pick up an apple instead of a bag of chips, you usually feel better immediately, because your behaviors are now congruent with your desires. Right away, the new neural pathways that support your desired change are starting to wire together. Even if you only engage in the new behavior for a few minutes, you’ve begun the groundwork of linking new thoughts and behaviors that create what you want.
Here are a few tips to help you push through the stickiness and discomfort of creating new neural pathways.
1. Set the stage for success - Make sure the dream or change you are pursuing is your own and not prompted by the influence of your parents, a partner, or your social circle. Identify any beliefs or fears that may inhibit your ability to change, and replace these with beliefs that support your goal. My last blog addressed this in more detail.
2. Mindfulness - Be mindful of your unhelpful patterns and bring attention to them, without judgement, to increase awareness of your current behaviors. I love the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting….”. For example, “Isn’t that interesting that I want to be fit and healthy, but I’m choosing to sit here on the couch and watch Netflix.” Keep your inner dialogue focused on labeling what is happening without being critical. The neural pathways of self criticism are six lane, well maintained interstates, and do not need more attention. Once you’ve identified your habitual way of responding, you can replace it with your new behaviors.
3. Affirmations - Replace self sabotaging thoughts with affirmations that support your new behavior. An affirmation is a short phrase, in the present tense, like, “My body is strong and healthy”. Create several affirmations and repeat them multiple times a day, use them as screen savers, put them on sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. The more exposure you have to your affirmations, the easier it will be to insert them in place of your habitual, negative self talk.
3. Expect discomfort - Be prepared for the discomfort, the stickiness, the “this doesn’t feel normal” feeling. Label that feeling when you notice it and remind yourself this is part of the change process. If you’re consistent in making new choices that align with your goals, this discomfort will decrease as new neural pathways are created.
4. Visualize - You can help your brain prepare for new behaviors by visualizing them ahead of time. Visualize the alarm going off, putting on your shoes, and heading out the door for a run, or whatever your desired behavior is. The more detail and emotion you bring to your visualization, the more it will help you. Athletes use visualization regularly to prepare for competition, because it works. Your neural pathways are firing, albeit not as strongly, as if you’re performing that behavior, reinforcing the new connections in your brain.
5. Gratitude - Notice the positive outcomes of your new choices and record them in your gratitude journal. You may include positive emotions, strengths you’ve identified in yourself, and after some time, noticeable progress towards your dream or goal. Reflecting on why you’re grateful for your new behaviors reinforces them, and provides evidence to challenge the thoughts that could sabotage your forward momentum.
6. Prepare for stress - Periods of increased stress deplete your mental energy, making it more likely that your brain will choose the “easy” path. Be prepared for this. If you notice yourself slipping back into old behaviors during times of stress, be compassionate with yourself and refocus on the above tips to get back on track.
You can create new behaviors and achieve your dream, but expect the discomfort. When you notice this, use it not as a reason to give up, but as motivation to continue. The goal is to move through this discomfort, over and over, strengthening the neural pathways of the thoughts and behaviors that will create the life you want.