Can we really change our minds?

I love a few things more than trying to figure out why and how something in our brains or human behaviour works. It is what gets me into that state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow -  “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.

The one that I’ve currently been puzzling over is how and why we can actually change our minds by accessing and reprogramming our subconscious brain.  

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably already heard, read and seen lots of content about the three-step process to change beliefs, limiting or otherwise, that you might have. 

And if you haven’t, the three steps basically go as follows:

  1. Identify the beliefs you want to change - usually, these live in the dark corners of your subconscious and were formed and reinforced in childhood - so they are really entrenched in who you are
  2. Replace them with another belief - sometimes a non-limiting or empowering belief - depending on what it is that you want to change. 
  3. Repeat those empowering beliefs until the limiting belief no longer exists.

But like me, you might be curious about how and why it works - and maybe even not believe it could actually work if we’re getting real about it. So, let’s suspend mistrust in it working for a minute and ask instead, if it works, why does it, and can we actually change what our subconscious mind thinks, feels and believes?

First off, let's define what we mean by subconscious beliefs. These are the deeply ingrained thoughts and attitudes we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. They're the little voices in our heads that shape our perceptions, actions, and reactions. We're not always aware of them. They're hidden beneath the surface of our conscious mind, influencing us without our even realizing it.

An important thing, I think, to know - and believe - is that subconscious thinking isn’t really thinking. It's feeling and feeling that is tied to our core basic emotions. For example, try thinking way back to the first time in your life that you experienced fear and uncertainty. Whatever caused that fear is likely tied to a belief you hold because it is your subconscious’s greatest desire to keep you safe from danger - and in turn, anything fearful. 

Likewise, think of the first love that you received. What did you need to do, or who did you need to be to receive that love? There’s a core belief in there. 

And changing those core basic emotions is harder than just changing your mind. In fact, it's one of the hardest things you can do. Why? Well, for starters, these beliefs are often formed in childhood and reinforced over years and years of experience. They become so deeply embedded in our minds that they feel like absolute truths. They're the default settings of our brains.

Subconscious beliefs are like those old, ratty t-shirts you just can't seem to throw away. They're comfortable and familiar, and they've been with us for years. They shape our thoughts, actions, and behaviours without our realizing them. And when it comes to changing them, it's like trying to get rid of that comfy t-shirt. You know you should do it, but isn’t it what makes you feel grounded, secure, and attached? Essentially, our subconscious brain is telling our conscious brain that we won’t be safe if we get rid of those old beliefs, behaviours, t-shirts . . . ..

And emotions are harder to change than thoughts; these beliefs are tied to our core, basic and deepest emotions. They're not just thoughts, but feelings. They're the things that make us feel safe, loved, and validated. So when we challenge them, it can feel like we're risking our emotional well-being. It's like trying to take away someone's security blanket. They might not want to let it go, even if it's time to move on.

Another reason it's hard to change subconscious beliefs is that they're often tied to our identity. They become a part of who we are. When we challenge these beliefs, it can feel like we're challenging ourselves. And that can be scary and uncomfortable, making us feel untethered. 

It's like when you try to switch up your style, and your friends are all like, "Wait, who are you?" And you're like, "I'm still me, just with a different wardrobe!" But they don't believe you, and suddenly you're having an existential crisis. Yeah, changing subconscious beliefs can be like that.

Subconscious beliefs are tricky to change because they are often formed to cope with difficult or challenging situations. For example, a person who has experienced trauma may develop subconscious beliefs to protect themselves from future harm. These beliefs may no longer be valid or necessary, but they have become deeply embedded in the person's psyche as a way of staying safe.

So the first step in believing that this process of changing your beliefs is believing that you will still be safe and loved if you let some thoughts go. Yikes! It might be easier just to say this is all woo-hoo nonsense that doesn’t work anyway, right?

But let’s go to that third step instead. Why does repeating those replacement (or empowering) beliefs actually work on rooting out these deeply held subconscious limiting beliefs?

Well, there’s also something else deep in our brain at work called the reticular activating system (RAS) at play. Basically, it's the scientific reason why when you believe something, your conscious brain sees many reasons to believe it is true. It’s like as soon as I bought a silver Jetta it seemed like there were thousands of them on the road everywhere I went or why some people say that see more pregnant people than ever when they’re trying to have a baby. 

The RAS is a network of neurons in the brainstem that regulates arousal, attention, and consciousness. It is responsible for filtering and processing sensory information from our environment and determining which stimuli are important enough to bring to our conscious attention.

The RAS acts as a gatekeeper between the unconscious and conscious parts of the brain. It filters out irrelevant or unimportant information, allowing us to focus our attention on what is most relevant to our goals, needs, and interests. For example, suppose you are sitting in a crowded café trying to work. In that case, your RAS will filter out the noise and distractions around you so you can concentrate on your task, but filtering out your spouse’s voice when you’re trying to work at the kitchen table can be near impossible. 

The RAS also activates the brain's alertness and attention mechanisms. It acts like a switch, turning on the brain's wakefulness and arousal systems when we are in situations that require heightened awareness and focus. This is why the RAS is often called the "arousal system."

One of the most interesting aspects of the RAS is its ability to respond to our beliefs, thoughts, and expectations. The RAS is highly sensitive to the information we give it, and it works to filter and prioritize information that aligns with our beliefs and expectations. This is why people with a strong belief or expectation about something are likelier to notice and focus on information that supports that belief while ignoring or discounting information that contradicts it.

For example, if you believe you are not good at public speaking, your RAS will filter out information that contradicts this belief and focuses on instances where you have failed or struggled. This can reinforce your limiting belief and make it harder to change. However, if you start to replace this negative belief with a more positive one, such as "I am confident and capable of speaking in public," your RAS will filter in the information supporting this belief and make it easier to achieve your goal.

So, interesting! (At least to me). Changing our minds by accessing and reprogramming our subconscious brain is actually possible - and it is backed by science and physiological proof (for all you cynics out there - including me!) It just takes some patience, perseverance, and a whole lot of self-reflection. You have to be willing to question everything you thought you knew. I’m sort of thinking of it like Marie Kondo-ing my brain - holding up each belief up to the light and asking, "Does this spark joy?" If not, it's time to let it go.
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