One of main reasons, okay who am I kidding, THE MAIN reason why I pursued Psychology as a career, was due to the freedom I experienced from understanding why we are the way we are. Prior to my first year as a Psych student, I felt burdened by my past and trapped in my own head. Every thought, every impulse, every action was a result of how I viewed myself. I believed that my vision of myself and the world was final, that there was no escaping the life that was given to me…But by understanding the science of human behavior, I learned that I didn’t have to be victim of my thoughts any longer.
I learned that our caregivers, our upbringing, our society and environment play a pivotal role in how we view the world. I learned that these belief systems were taught to us, both directly and indirectly. And by understanding that these were all learned behaviors, I found freedom in knowing that I could unlearn them. How? By simply letting it go.
To get a better understanding of how we can free ourselves from ourselves, I have listed 5 strategies that I not only practice on myself, but that I apply in therapy with clients. These practices come from years of study and implementation. They are proven to cause change in thought process and behavior.
Understand that your belief system was learned. I can’t stress the importance of understanding that the way in which we view ourself and the world, comes from what we were taught by our caregivers, our society and our environment. It is both unfortunate, and also liberating to know that what we believe in is due to what was taught to us. By understanding this, we can choose to abandon that belief system and adopt a new one, as we have the power to do so. As children, we depended on our caregivers for survival. We assumed that their way was the right way, and therefore we adopted those ways being, despite how they made us feel. Our sponge like minds, mirrored the behaviors that were exposed to us and naturally, we acted on them, as if they were our own. Our informal supports, our environment, schooling, and media also influenced our perception. Our need for survival (a.k.a. need to fit in with our families and in our society in fear of being left out) played, and continues to play a huge factor in our behavior. What’s interesting is that we’ve evolved so much as a species, however our primal needs remain the same.
Just as we learned our belief system, we can unlearn it. Sounds confusing, but we “unlearn” more often than we think. Take, for example, that co-worker of yours that you believe gives you stink eye everytime you cross paths with her (maybe a personal experience of mine), and later discovering that she’s actually quite nice. Or the time our ancestors thought the world was flat, and later learning that it’s actually round. We had to unlearn what we originally thought, and replace it with what we have now discovered. Everyday, there is new research being published that contradicts what we think we know, from foods to eat more of or to avoid, to hazardous substances to not purchase, to harmful environmental factors to actually be aware of. If we know that we’re capable of unlearning something that does not positively benefit us, why couldn’t we dismiss old viewpoints of ourselves and adopt new ones that better serve our mental health?
Identify your bothersome thoughts. It was hard to look at the thoughts that were negatively effecting me, partially because I didn’t want to accept that I was capable of having these thoughts. Most of the time, they were the very same patronizing thoughts that would frequent me throughout my days. It’s crazy to think that we have about 60,000 thoughts a day, however only choose to act on a certain few. Usually these certain few have been following us since childhood, instilled in us from an early age…And until we don’t identify what those self-defeating thoughts are, we won’t be free from them. These thoughts are usually unpleasant, and acknowledging them is sometimes hard to do. That’s why therapy can be helpful, to help us identify that which we tend to deny or ignore.
Separate yourself from your thoughts. The process of separating ourselves from our thoughts is what attracted me to Cognitive Psychology. Cognitive Psychology is the study of mental processes such as attention, language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking. The practice of identifying our thoughts and separating ourselves from them is proven to better our perception of ourselves and the world significantly. This practice has honestly brought so much relief to my life. I now know that I am not my thought and I can choose to separate myself from it at any time.
Replace your unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones. When we replace our not so pleasant thoughts with thoughts that better serve us, our brain literally begins to rewire itself. Science has named this process, plasticity. The brain rewires itself by creating new synaptic pathways between existing neurons. In other words, by continuously telling yourself “I’m amazing”, for example, your brain will gradually reprogram itself to believe it to be true.
Practice, like every day! I can’t stress the importance of practice. Just as we have to practice mastering a skill, changing our thought process requires the same consistent effort. Everyday, tell yourself affirmating thoughts about yourself and the world, until you begin to see it flourish.
My practice with this process has only just begun. Everyday I’m confronted with with unpleasant thoughts, but I’m not burdened by them as much as I used to be. I realize that changing my thought process requires patience and consistency. But by understanding that change is possible, it motivates me to not only keep fighting for myself, but to help others in their fight for freedom as well.