The Brain Science of Creating Change that Sustains

By Audrey Seymour

The practice of setting New Year’s resolutions has fallen out of favor because even with the best intentions they don’t work for very long. The force of will is a poor match to the force of instinctual behaviors, beliefs and who we take ourselves to be!

The U.S. elections were discouraging for many because the gains in so many areas seem to be slipping away. The election results were a powerful reminder that lasting change that we can build on is impossible without the alignment of all key stakeholders, whether within a nation or within one’s psyche.

How much of the inner transformation you have longed for has endured, and how often have the old patterns settled all too comfortably back into your life?

Inside of InsideIf you are like nearly everyone I talk to, you feel frustrated at the slow pace of change within you. “I’ve been working on this pattern/fear/belief for years, I’m so ready to be done with it!”

While patience is helpful, there are some wonderful shortcuts available through our understanding of brain science relative to the inner workings of the psyche.

The first step is to make peace with the fact that the brain is wired to resist change. This has been an important survival strategy for our genetic ancestors to maximize the predictability of constancy and to minimize the risk and energy expenditure of change. Resisting change is how our bodies maintain a stable equilibrium such as temperature, pressure, and even posture.

You’ve probably also heard me talk about the fact that our genetic ancestors were the ones who made the error of seeing danger where there wasn’t, as opposed to the ones who didn’t see danger when there was. This caused the famous “negativity bias” of the brain. Any change looks dangerous to the subconscious!

The next step is to clarify the instinctual fear underneath your subconscious resistance to a desired change. For example, your habitual resistance may take the form of checking for messages when you should be preparing a presentation, or repeatedly talking yourself out of starting to write the book that lies within you.

At those moments, ask yourself “What is it that I don’t want to feel right now?” Your answer, if you are honest with yourself, will be eye-opening and point exactly to the buried part of you that needs comforting. Back when you were much younger with fewer resources, those feelings would have been too disruptive to experience, so the wisdom of the psyche suppressed them. You’ve likely developed many sophisticated strategies to avoid feeling those feelings. And, the truth is that you are significantly more resourced as an adult and will be able to handle them just fine now.

Therefore, the next step is to calm the alarm bells of the brain by bringing this buried part of you into present time where physical survival is not a high risk. I experienced a beautiful meditative practice from Dr. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher, that I’ve loosely translated here:

  • Find a comfortable seated posture, close your eyes, and start taking deeper breaths
  • Say out loud “I have enough air to breathe” and take another deep breath. Notice how it feels to recognize that indeed you do have enough air to breathe.
  • Say out loud “I have enough food to eat. Yesterday, I had enough food to eat, and tomorrow I will be able to gather enough food to eat.” Take another deep breath and notice how it feels to experience the truth of that statement.
  • Say out loud “I have enough shelter from the weather, wild animals and intruders.” Take another deep breath and recognize the impact of that truth.
  • Say out loud “I receive enough love and respect from my community.” Take yet another deep breath and see how this statement lands.
  • Feel free to add more recognition statements for any other basic safety needs that feel relevant.

If you are like most of us, this elegant practice produces a state of profound calm and safety. With repetition to reinforce new neural pathways, you can overcome the “negativity bias” of the brain towards change.

Free from the tug of war between the drive for change and the drive for constancy, you can move with grace into the natural flow of your calling.