Shifting Gears / What does it take to do it differently this year?
It happens in the dead of winter, Jan. 1. And it happens at the end of summer. It's happening now. Incongruent as it appears, we seem to want to begin again just when nature is shutting down for a while. This impulse started, I suppose, when we were kids, when summer's end meant a new class, new friends, new possibilities for doing things differently this year. Kids or not, we still hold on to autumn as starting afresh in some way or another.
Good intentions and resolutions. Promises and hopes. We know that road. Starting anew is not such an easy thing, especially when it's about changing something in us. That is, generally, what we are aiming to do at these new beginnings. It should be simple. But, truth be told, we usually end up dragging our same old self -- good and bad -- into each new year.
Perhaps if we knew what we were doing, if we knew how we change, we might have better luck. So here's a primer on change:
First of all, change is a brain thing. It's happening all the time. It's called learning, and it takes place when neurons hook up with other neurons (millions of them) forming new associations -- neural pathways -- in our brain. Learning takes a bit of practice, of course. Thinking about what we just learned, retrieving it for a few times, then doing it again the next day and periodically thereafter (like we did our multiplication tables) usually does the trick. If what we are learning is complicated, then it's helpful if we really understand it because that brings more neurons and associations into the picture.
However, new beginnings are not just about learning. They're also about unlearning. We don't want to do what we've been doing all along. We want to do different things. So in addition to building new neural pathways, we need to forget the old ones. That is the hard part. We learned our no-longer-useful actions and reactions a long time ago. They have become part of our personality. We didn't know anything better, so we used these original ways of being over and over, in many situations. Eventually, we ended up with multiple triggers that could set them off without a second thought. In other words, we have been practicing our outmoded traits and beliefs for a lifetime. Eventually, we labeled ourselves -- shy, quick-to-anger, slow, lazy, unfriendly, a procrastinator, etc. -- because we kept doing the same old thing in the same old way.
Now we are ready to change, replace those labels with something more appealing to us. So here's what to do: Choose one thing and commit yourself to it. Get to know it. In how many ways and in what situations does that one thing you want to change pop into action? Begin to recognize it as a thought, not a truth. It is, after all, just a thought you had, and you learned to believe it was true. Now you know it for what it is -- a bunch of neural connections. Simply a choice of how to interpret situations and how to act.
Because we are human and have amazing brains, we can imagine. We can create a scenario out of nothing but neural connections. Whether it's green transportation or a story, an iPhone or some quality of ourselves, it's all the same process -- the desire, the idea, the working it through in all it's features, mental time-imagining all aspects of the desired new thing. We are such wonderful raw material to work with, there is almost nothing we cannot make happen for ourselves as long as we have courage, commitment and a bit moxie.
Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.