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Why it's Hard to Change your Thinking

by Thomas Garvey and Helen Kogan(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 246 - May 2018

There are libraries of books encouraging people to understand themselves better; providing useful insights into various aspects of human behaviour. Given this abundance of knowledge, and given that humanity has been around for as long as it has, one wonders why we remain so far from understanding ourselves. This isn’t to say that books haven’t ever improved people’s lives, but many of the changes we make are only superficial and many of our problems are still there, year after year. And even when you can identify the problem, why is it that you are not able to make long lasting changes and, crucially...stick to them!?

It’s because you have a Mind Erosion!

Imagine that a man is walking across a field. If he walks across the field three or four times a month, he will leave no impression on the field at all. However, if he walks across the field more often, a path eventually will begin to form. This is a type of ‘land erosion’. In time, the path makes it easier to walk across the field than any other part of it and our guy gets comfortable choosing it.

Cover Why We Think the Way we Do

Available online from retailers such as Amazon and from good bookstores

Why would he Walk any Other Way?

Imagine that the field is your Consciousness and the path is a thought…let’s say a thought about life, that it is lonely. If you think this thought once or twice a day then it probably won’t have a lasting effect but if you think this thought more often, then it becomes a problem. It’s a problem because each day these thoughts are thought they are gently but consistently ‘digging’ a Mind Erosion of the thought ‘Life is lonely’. The more you use this thought the easier it becomes to 'walk this path', and the more you get used to thinking, ‘Life is lonely’, it begins to feel normal and eventually even comfortable.

When you repeatedly walk a country path, it becomes a ditch. It’s the same with a thought, but in a Mind Erosion the ditch gets deeper and deeper, so that eventually it gets hard to climb, or even see out of. This is how it becomes near-impossible to think any other thought in a given situation and why people will often insist that their ‘Life is lonely’ or ‘…unfair’ or ‘…hard’, no matter how much evidence or encouragement they are given otherwise.

You see, although you might think you want to change the way you live, having a Mind Erosion means in some sense you don’t. You are in fact so comfortable with living / thinking the way you do, that to change would make you feel insecure and put you out of what you (unawarely) consider your ‘comfort zone’. This is why, when you are given the oppor­tunity to take another ‘path’, you (often greatly) resist it. And this is why people can find it so difficult to change patterns of thinking / behaviour. If you want to change your life you need to accept this and encourage yourself to try new ways of thinking even though they will feel uncertain, insecure, unnerving, or even frightening. Keep coming back to the fact that your thoughts are only thoughts, and not necessarily a reflection of reality. Just because you have thought particular thoughts repeatedly over a long period of time, this doesn’t mean that what you are thinking is any more real. Thoughts are just thoughts, your life is what you make it.

Could your Earliest Memories be the key to Unlocking your Potential?

The bedrock of psychotherapy is the influence of early life events on our thoughts and behaviour as adults, and for good reason. But for most of us our early memories are just mundane circumstances we remember but never think much about.

For example, looking back at your life you might remember playing with your parents on your second birthday; then perhaps one of staring at swirls in a carpet pattern sometime later, another comes a year after that; of playing with a worm in the garden with the sun on your back. What is interesting is that although many of these early memories seem very insignificant, they are perhaps some of the most important influences on our lives; indeed, why remember them at all?

For instance, for most of his life all Mark could remember about one of his earliest memories was being about six years old and in the back garden with his dad trying to fix Mark’s bicycle.

Like most people Mark never thought much about it; however, when asked to think about the memory, other bits of information started to appear and an impression emerged pointing to a deeper meaning to this memory. Mark remembered that although his dad was trying to fix it for him he didn't really know how to do it and that Mark was reluctant to show him in case his dad felt  humiliated. Mark kept quiet in the hope his dad would eventually work it out and then he can have his bike back, and belong with his dad. But his dad never worked it out.

The conclusion Mark made from his memory was that from this point he never wanted to show his true potential, and failing was the best way to ensure belonging. He didn't remember actually thinking this at the time but looking back he could see that this was the summary of what he felt.

It doesn’t matter that Mark is obviously no longer in this situation and that this was all a long time ago because it set a kind precedence; a ‘Life Situation’. A Life Situation is a set of circumstances that sets a precedent for future events and behaviours, regardless of the context and relevancy.

This means that Mark's interpretation of what took place went on to influence all aspects of his future life. Looking back Mark could see his life as a series of regrets and missed opportunities because at all the occasions he avoided opportunities to succeed both at work and in his personal life.

Of course it’s possible to develop harmless or positive thoughts from early memories, however, in most cases we tend to develop highly influential, and often dysfunctional thoughts from them, leading to the formation of a generalized template to interpret future experiences - Mark for example viewed himself as a failure (because he knew he was much more capable than he allowed himself to be) and saw people as a burden (because he must put up with less-capable bosses, co-workers, friends etc.). Whenever he found himself in new circumstances/opportunities he would unawarely use these and other associated thoughts as points of reference for how to behave.

So, seemingly unimportant memories like staring at swirls on a carpet can have greater significance behind them. For instance, a child may be losing themselves while looking at the carpet swirls because their parents are rowing in another room; a situation that happened a lot at the time but the individual may grow up simply remembering time spent staring at the swirls, but unawarely there will be a lot of (often, unpleasant) thoughts attached to that simple memory.  

You will already know what your earliest memories are but if not look out for when you say things like, “I don’t know why but I always seem to remember this time when…” or “This memory has always stuck in my head when…” or "It's funny that I always think of…" Or words to this effect.

The secret then to finding out more about them is to ask questions about the memory. Although it may seem like we question our lives all the time, like “Why did that happen?” or “Why does Mary make me react in that way?” in truth, most people only ask themselves very superficial questions which often leads to only very superficial responses: “It just did”, “That’s just Mary being Mary”, “That’s just who I am”. Or, if an answer doesn’t come, give up. But… with a little more effort, deeper answers will start to come.

To increase your awareness ask questions about the circumstances; about how you felt at the time, what thoughts were there, what impressions you have now, and whether/how these things are connected. Ask questions like, who was there, how old was I, how was I dressed, do these facts add up, are the circumstances logical, what was I doing before, what did I do after, what do I know now of what was going on in life at the time? From here you need see if you are forming an impression of that time, one that you can’t make sense of and then try and find words to define this impression. And don't give up when the answers do not immediately come. Keep going. If struggling perhaps ask a friend to let you tell them all that you remember about your memory and allow them to ask you questions about it. See where this takes you.

Mark works for a public company but now, thanks to seeing these thoughts, manages the large team he once just worked within. After his promotion he overheard a colleague say "At last someone who knows what they're doing”.

Why are you Avoiding your Problems? How to Stop Avoiding your Problems; 5 Steps to Effectively Deal with Problems

We've all had times where there is something at the back of our minds that just keeps nagging away at us. We know it's there and we roughly know what it is but we keep avoiding it. Often, these are just everyday stresses but if left alone they nag away at us, causing anxiety and suffering.
So, what is it that stops us looking at our problems?

Fear

Fear that the issue we have can't be resolved or that to resolve the fear will require suffering e.g. owning up to some disloyalty with a friend or telling your boss you messed something up. However, avoiding the issue doesn't mean that the problem isn't there or that it will go away of its own accord. Moreover, looking at the issue won't make it any worse - you are only looking at it, so really you are suffering for nothing. So stop! What's the point in continuing this anxiety?

Deal with the issue in a systematic way and start moving on with your life. Tackle the problem  head on by following each of the stages below to get to a point where you can be free of this background noise.

1. Get started 

Often getting started is the hardest part. As stated, fear is what has prevented  you doing this before, so at this point you will need a bit of courage to take the first step. If you really want to be free of anxiety you will need to establish what the problem is by establishing exactly what it is that's bothering you. Stating the issue precisely can only be done by being honest with yourself. Ask yourself, what is it that I am avoiding thinking about? Find a sentence that sums it up and say it out loud to yourself or a friend - this alone will relieve some of the stress. If you find you can't hit the nail on the head, then you're not being honest enough. This is where your mind will help you if you ask it; keep asking questions about your problem and eventually the summary will pop into your mind. 

2. Take it to the Extreme

Once you've established what the issue is, take it to the extreme: Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? And then go for it…go all the way and look at the worst thing that could happen as a result of what you have been anxious about. Next, see if this is really likely because our fears are often irrational. However, if the worst could happen, then you have to fully accept this as a possibility and accept that it could happen. By acknowledging this extreme outcome as feasible, the fear of it will begin to dissipate. From here, think through what you would do if this outcome were to occur. Ok, so maybe this scenario is far from ideal but will the world be over?...It’s unlikely and in most cases life will go on with the fear greatly reduced.  

3. Find Solutions, They are There

Once you have established and accepted that the worst could happen, you are free to think about how to solve things.  Fear shrinks the minds capacity to think clearly. Having reduced your fear, give yourself the opportunity to come up with solutions. Take it as read, that every hopeless situation has at least two solutions; this will spur you on to look for them. Often the reason you think nothing can be done is because for a long time you have avoided thinking about it.

It may also be that you don't need to be that concerned. Perhaps you are fretting about something that might never happen. Prepare for it but remember you only need to cross that bridge when you reach it (don't lose yourself from it, just sort the things that need to be sorted out first).

4. Make Decisions

Once you've thought through what you will do, if and when the time has come to make a decision, make it and put yourself in a position of no return. Make yourself follow through on what you've decided is right. Don't leave things unresolved or to chance as this is just wanting to fail.

5. Lastly…Come to Terms with your Resolution

One thing that will get in the way of making a decision and following through on it, is the thought that it might not work. To surmount this obstacle remember you can only do your best - there is nothing more you can do. Do your best and you will have peace of mind you did everything you could. I did my best and then whatever happens, happens. 

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About Thomas Garvey and Helen Kogan

Thomas Garvey became an actor in the late 1980s after studying performing arts at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, then directing and teaching at the Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts. He has appeared in plays, musicals and opera in venues ranging from the fringe through to major regional theatres and London’s Royal Opera House. As a teacher, Garvey has taught at The Kogan Academy for over fifteen years. He lives with his family in Cockfosters, North London.

Helen Kogan PhD holds a degree in Neuroscience and a Doctorate in Behavioural Neuropharmacology. After her father’s death in 2004, Helen temporarily took the role of Principal at The Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts and remained Chair of the board for a subsequent decade. In 2009, she published an actor's guide, The Science of Acting, before directing her research towards the evolution of consciousness around the globe. Why We Think the Way We Do and How to Change It by Thomas Garvey and Dr Helen Kogan (Clink Street Publishing 2017 in paperback and e-book) is available to buy online from retailers including Amazon and to order from all good bookstores.

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