Change a habit and you’ve changed yourself
Some people believe that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” — meaning, people just don’t change. But the first and possibly most important tool for change is to know with certainty that you can change. You can change because your brain can change — all the way through your life.
“Neuroplasticity” is the term used to describe the flexible nature of our neural wiring. All that we have to do in order to change our brain is change our actions. Our brain can create new patterns that then help us repeat new behaviors, and we become “new people.”
Change is not only possible, it’s necessary. We’re alive only because Hashem believes that we can change. This is the purpose of our existence. As we learn from our morning prayer of Modeh Ani, Hashem restores our soul to us each day because He has faith in us, in our ability to learn, grow, and change.
How Does Change Occur?
Once you believe that change is possible, even mandated, you need to know how behavioral, mental, and emotional changes occur. Our three channels of expression — actions, thoughts, and feelings — are wired into our brains through repetition, becoming our habits.
If we constantly concentrate on what’s wrong with our lives, with other people and with the world, we develop a default negativity. If we frown most of the time, we have a habitually “negative” facial expression. If we regularly concentrate on difficulties, we release a stream of mood-altering chemistry into our bloodstreams and are habitually in a low mood.
Putting all these habits together, one might describe us as being negative people. Repeated behaviors become our character.
Once we understand “character” as a collection of habits we’ve been practicing, change becomes easier. If we became negative people by routinely placing our attention on what’s wrong with everything, then all we have to do is routinely place our attention on what’s good about everything. Once we place our attention on the goodness in ourselves, other people, and the world at large, we’ll be filled with feelings of joy and gratitude which will release mood-altering chemicals into our bloodstream that fill us with energy, positivity, and happiness.
Simply by moving our attention, we’ve altered our “character.” Now those who see us will describe us as positive people. We changed our character by changing one habit. The new behavioral pattern created a cascade of change within us.
Make It Easy
Changing what we usually do is called “changing a habit.” It’s easier to change a habit when we simply give ourselves permission to do something different this time. If my habitual answer to my kids is “no,” I can give myself permission to just say “yes” to the next question asked. Then I can do that again. And again.
By changing my behavior, I’m creating a new brain circuit, and as I add wires to that circuit through repetition, I create an automatic neural pathway that produces a behavioral “habit.” By creating a new habit, I’m altering my character.
Another example: Suppose I want to become more patient. Let’s say I’m a “hot head” because I routinely shout when things aren’t going the way I want them to. The neural pattern that’s formed in my brain due to my constant repetition is: Feel frustrated, shout.
I want to create a new pattern, ideally: feel frustrated, take a slow deep breath, and think before quietly saying whatever I want to say. I just have to be willing to try the new pattern the next time I feel frustrated.
Even if I find myself shouting, I can interrupt the old wiring to start again right in the middle of my shout. “Wait. Let me take a deep breath and take it from the top....” Doing this starts to build the new wiring and weaken the old wiring. I am now on my way to deep brain change and consequently, deep personality change. I just have to do the same thing next time. And the time after that. Forever more.
Fortunately, the new pattern gets easier over time because each practice creates more wiring for that behavior. More wiring causes the behavior to happen more automatically.
So, this year, go ahead and change something you’ve always wanted to change. Do something different just one time. And then do that again. And again. And again.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 661)
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