Our brains are weird spongey machines that are capable of so much (arguably too much). While we know so much about how they work, there is still so much we don’t know about their potential. What blows me away the most is their malleability; how we actually aren’t confined to a terminal state of mind. How we can change it over time, with creating new habits, learning new things and going out of our way to encourage what the scientists have called neuroplasticity.
This word means exactly how it sounds – we can mould our brain into different ‘shapes’, like play-doh! Almost. So we are in fact capable of change, as easy as it is to say that people can’t or won’t – it’s a matter of whether you are open to the discomfort of the process: reframing our perspectives, changing our behaviour and ultimately, our lives (and more often than not, admitting that we are wrong sometimes!)
Sadly, there’s the darker side to this malleability as well, where unfortunate individuals are subject to the traumatic experience of brainwashing/negative conditioning. But most of us luckily have the freedom of conscious choosing and can decide whether to change our lives for the better and make that commitment.
There are many ways you can encourage your mindset to shift, whether you find that through reading books, learning new skills, moving to a new country and picking up the language/culture, meeting new people, but mostly it’s picked up in the every day small things: we are after all creatures of habit and we are what we repeatedly do. Those small habits that we choose to change and consistently practice – it might be exercising before work, meditating in the mornings, journalling every evening, eating healthier, reducing consumption of X, Y or Z – are the ones that eventually mould our brain into the better version of ourselves. All of the above, amongst many other little microhabits, are what we can pick up incrementally to shift our mindsets, perspectives and motivation to – long story short – get unstuck from our habits that we previously believed defined who we are.
For me, I’ve found that journalling, being more creative, exercising more, reading more and generally having more personal boundaries with myself and others has absolutely helped me reach a certain level of emotional maturity I didn’t previously have access to. But, until recently, I still felt stuck; unable to break free of the one self-sabotaging habit that had its hooks in me pretty deep, my drug of choice: food!
While I read all the books about health, knew all the risks about eating junk and yo-yoing between good and bad (and not having a generally stable, balanced diet), I couldn’t get unhooked from this habit of essentially feeding my emotions with food, whether that was anxiety, fear, doubt, boredom, you name it. My mindset was fixed on the fact that “This is just my identity, I’ve been this way since I can remember, better just surrender to it.” I knew it was all just a chemical reaction in my brain that helped calm and self-soothe and that I could make better choices, but but but! My brain was holding onto this habit and stubborn mindset pretty hard. UNTIL.
Until I came across an article in Mark Manson’s newsletter, the author of the awesome bestselling no-nonsense The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. (If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? Literally drop everything you are doing and go and buy it.)
His ‘Mindfuck Monday’ emails do prompt a bit of a chuckle but the ‘How to Reinvent Yourself’ snippet (below) has actually been the one thing I needed to know this *whole* time. What I took from it isn’t quite as dramatic as reinventing myself, but instead ‘Trying on an Identity.’
Often when we want to change, we focus on the individual behavior and then work up the nerve or willpower to do it. As you’ve probably learned, this rarely goes well.
Part of the reason it goes poorly is that by “forcing” yourself to do X, you are simply reinforcing to yourself that you are the type of person who doesn’t do X.
Simple example: For years and years, I struggled to not drink at parties. I could abstain if I really put my mind to it, but it was always in the form of the thought, “Man, I love drinking at parties, it’s going to suck to not have a drink, but I’ll do it anyway.”
This was setting myself up for failure. I’m already deciding that it’s going to suck before I’ve even done it.
A way to make this much easier is to think of change on an identity level. For example, “What if I was the type of person who hates drinking at parties? What would that feel like?”
And so the proverbial penny dropped. I thought: What if I chose to be an athlete? To have the mindset of an athlete? What if I thought/lived like an athlete?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am closer to being an elephant seal than an athlete, but the reason I chose to ‘try on’ this identity is because I actually want to prioritise health and take it seriously. Maybe it’s the pandemic or the general state of the planet, but I’ve realised that actually I won’t be this young again. And why wouldn’t I want to remain in this healthy state for as long as possible? So then I started reframing my thoughts and urges in those wobbly moments pre-self sabotage: What would an athlete do right now? Would they scoff down this extra portion they don’t need? No, they would eat just enough to fuel their bodies. Would they buy this cookie for the sake of it? No, because that would impede their progress. Would they make this unhealthy dish for dinner? No, they would choose something that would nourish and energise them. And right before I knew it, I broke free of those proverbial chains, giving myself solid hard proof that it was possible! Man it felt good.
And finally, after trying so many (SO MANY) keys in the lock, as it were, I felt like this nugget of mindset-shifting advice has actually worked. I think we humans tend to doubt ourselves by proxy and especially today, it’s so common to be running stories in our minds that make us believe our abilities our limited. But this ‘Trying on an Identity [of your choice]’ tool eliminates all of that – for now – until we begin to believe in ourselves more and more and build that integral level of self trust that will carry us through in life to giving ourselves everything we’ve ever wanted.
What’s holding you back? Probably yourself. So why not try on an identity? Someone you admire or look up to? See how that shifts your state of mind into going from limited to limitless. Told you: our brains are pretty incredible.
Still not convinced? Give this a read.