My Favorite Green Shorts: Unlocking Transformation

green shortsA couple of months ago, it finally got warm enough in Minnesota to wear summer clothes. I happily fished out my sandals, t-shirts and shorts from their box under the bed, pulled on my favorite pair of green cut-offs, and found, to my extreme dismay, that I was, um, bulging a bit over the waistband. Which was tight. And uncomfortable. And not the experience I wanted at all. Sure, I could get them on, but the way they used to fit low on my hips was only a vague memory. What to do, what to do?

Here’s the thing. I turned 50 this year. Menopause and I are good friends. Who the hell actually knows what is happening with my hormonal balance, which seems to change daily. I have high values of self-acceptance and am on a very authentic quest of deep self-love. I eat very consciously, and I exercise. A huge part of me just wanted to say “Ah well, so it goes.”

But another part, perhaps immature, perhaps vain, was screaming OMG MY FAVORITE SHORTS DON’T FIT! DAMN IT ALL!

And the truth is, like many of us, I had been on the high end of my “normal” range for a while. Perhaps even the mid-range of a new normal that I didn’t want to own. Sometimes, when the truth stares us right in the face, it can be a blessing. Damn it all.

So I decided it was time to make a shift. I was seeing lots of inspiring photos on FB of people who had successfully completed 30-Day Challenges, and that was the beginning of a structure for me. It was one of those “where will I be in 30 days if I don’t do anything?” moments. And I further decided to bring in everything I knew about neuroscience and consciousness to help. Here’s what I came up with:

#1. I created a tracking grid on Excel with goals for the week and a place to note daily progress. Here’s why: the antidote for feelings of chaos (and I was definitely feeling out of control about my weight!) is structure. This is because chaos is a function of the right hemisphere of the brain being over-activated and “below the line.” When we go to chaos we tend to feel overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless and even ashamed (all emotions processed by the right hemisphere). Structure is a helpful aspect of the left hemisphere (when over-activated, helpful structure becomes unhelpful rigidity, by the way), which can pull us out of chaos and back to a more centered place. Nothing radical, but it gave me some order and control (two more things the brain likes when it is feeling chaotic), and it also kept me focused on my big goal and mini-goals.

#2. I focused on mini-goals as part of the bigger goal. Here’s why: I decided that this time, I wanted to transform, and not just change. After all, as everyone knows, you can fast or restrict calories severely and lose weight, but it all too often comes back on. And I didn’t want to be back in the same place next spring. So it made sense to me that what was needed was to actually rewire my brain, which right now seemed to be wired about 10 pounds heavier than I wanted. Just losing weight was not going to do that. Focusing on new habits in support of losing weight might. In our coaching program, we have a process we call “red yarn, blue yarn” where we use yarn to represent neural pathways around certain habits or beliefs (red for negative and blue for positive). My goal in my 30-day challenge was to create new blue “pathways” that would (ideally) become defaults or habits going forward.

#3. I made sure the goals were positive. Here’s why: the goals needed to be positive because, as I like to say, our brains are essentially like three-year-olds. If you’ve ever tried to get your car keys away from a three-year-old who wants to keep them, you’ll know that it generally doesn’t work to say “Give me my car keys!!” over and over or try to wrest them out of the child’s hands. It’s needlessly difficult and stressful for everyone involved. Far better to say “Here, have this lovely stuffed giraffe” and watch as they lose interest in your keys. Our brains are pretty similar. They respond best when we go towards something rewarding. And I believe that, over time, if we add enough positive things, our brains start to lose interest in the negative ones. It’s a carrot rather than stick strategy, essentially. So for my 30-day challenge, I focused primarily on things I was moving towards rather than things I wanted to move away from.

#4. I made sure the goals were SMART. Here’s why: this is also nothing new, but in my opinion SMART is still a helpful acronym. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. It’s not SMART to have a goal to be nicer to myself, because it is not specific, measurable, or timely (and it may not be attainable and realistic either!) It is SMART to have a goal to say 14 nice things to myself about my body every week. So everything I wanted, I figured out how to break it into a SMART goal. I want to add that because I had weekly, not daily goals, every time I did anything, it counted. For example, if my goal is 10,000 steps per day and I miss a day, I have failed up to seven times each week. But if it is 70,000 steps per week, I get to win every time I take any steps, and at the most, fail once a week.

#5. I focused more on the being than I did on the doing, and I specifically focused on one key thing. Here’s why: what we believe at the deepest level will trump what we consciously think and intend every time. In order to make real lasting change, it’s most important to shift what you believe, and to shift it at very deep levels. There is fascinating evidence from people with multiple personalities (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) that shows how important this is. Anyone who has ever worked with someone with DID knows that different personalities will often have differences in vision, allergies, and even disease. What one personality experiences physically can be very different from what another experiences, and this will show up in observable and measurable ways, such as one personality having diabetes while another tests normal. In other words, our beliefs create our biology.

To me, this is a fascinating potential doorway to change. But how on earth do we access it? This level of belief is so far below consciousness that me just telling myself “I’m thin and strong” isn’t going to do very much. When we say something consciously that we don’t really believe consciously, our brains tend to reject it. It’s like they are saying, in effect, “yeah, right.” We know too much about ourselves, and our fabulously unhelpful brains will bring up all the evidence as to why what we just said isn’t true, which helps to actually reinforce the old pattern. Lovely, eh?

So now what? How do we bypass the conscious brain and go right to the deepest beliefs for reprogramming. There is some evidence that EFT (commonly known as “tapping”) can help, or work with the breath or the body, and I think these are all areas worth exploring. What I tried, however, was a bit different, and it’s pretty simple. I call it a “feelization,” and here’s how it works for weight loss:

  1. Think of an item of clothing that is a bit too tight for you. I like to use one I like, that I want to wear, so for me, it was the green shorts. Do NOT pick an ideal, or even where you ultimately want to be. It needs to be something that you can imagine fitting into. Back to the SMART aspect of “attainable.”
  2. Imagine this item fitting you more loosely. Really imagine this in as much detail as you can. Feel the waist of your pants loose on your body. Imagine putting your hands into the pockets more easily. Imagine buttoning them without having to suck in your stomach.
  3. Link your “feelization” to another activity, such as walking or driving. You want it to become a habit. For some, it is easier if you do this while you are doing something else that does not require concentration.
  4. Do this as much as you possibly can.
  5. As item becomes looser, adjust. Add a belt, or switch to another item. Keep it attainable, you have to be able to imagine this item, it has to be within your grasp.
  6. It can be helpful to also write some affirmations that are essentially your feelization, because additional details will emerge that you can use. But feeling it is the key. You want to show your body how it feels to be thinner. In essence, you are giving it a new map.

And so, you are wondering, the results? After now almost 60 days, I have lost about 8 pounds, and my green shorts fit loosely again. I am thinner than I have been in years, and it required no effort, dieting, or pain. Which is good, because I don’t believe we are meant to suffer.

I know that everything I mentioned above made a difference: 1) Having a structure and way to track kept me focused on the little things and also kept me from forgetting my intentions. I loved filling out my list every night with the things I had done and looking for opportunities during the day to “get on the chart.”  2) Breaking it down into small goals has actually done the job of creating new habits and beginning to rewire my brain in positive ways. For example, instead of feeling like I “should” go for a walk, I now find myself getting a bit itchy if time or weather prevent me. 3) Having positive goals was simply FUN. I loved my goal of saying nice things to myself about my body, which was so much easier than trying not to say mean things. And I rarely say mean things any more. Hmmm. 4) SMART goals rock. Everything became measurable which meant I could win. Yay! I love to win. My goals felt real and tangible, even though the big picture included a huge intangible, which was self-love. 5) Honestly, I think this one was the real key. Telling my body how it feels to be thin seems like it may be the magic pill we’ve all been looking for. And this one has no side effects and is free.

I hope this helps you, a coaching client or someone you care about easily and joyfully create for themselves the body they want. And I’d love to hear any successes or challenges along the way!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Try Is How You Do

Note: this post as updated 9/30/13 (as I gain more discernment and understanding about the process of neuroplasticity). Updates in blue below. Bottom line is that the the key take-away remains the same, although the process of how we get there is a bit different than I thought. Thanks for your patience and understanding 🙂 

We’ve been told there is no try, only do or not do (thanks, Yoda), and there is truth to this. Saying we are “trying” has a different energy than saying we are “doing.” Trying implies tentativeness and brings with it the possibility of failure. Doing, on the other hand, brings with it a fullness of commitment, a level of engagement and YES that says it WILL happen.

keep_trying_by_jelisa1188-d3phrekAnd yet, there is a paradox here. How many of us (or our clients) make it all the way to any sort of lasting change on the first try? We try, we fail, we try again. And sometimes we give up, saying, “I’ll never get it, there is no point in trying.” And that, my friends, can be simply wrong. Because the brain actually loves the try. Each time we focus our attention on what we want, we engage in positive neuroplasticity (simply put, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and change. See My Best Neuroscience Argument for Coaching for more on neuroplasticity). With focused attention over time, we can create and reinforce new neural pathways, locking in patterns and behaviors that are more effective than some of our old habits.

In our advanced coaching course, we explore what is needed to create new patterns for our clients (and ourselves, of course!) Recently, one of our students had the insight that the process of trying is a key part of changing the brain, and should be honored as such. We tend to focus on the fact that we failed, rather than that we did, perhaps, do something towards being able to change at some point.

When a new neural connection is made — for example, we commit to a new habit (in this student’s case, it was healthier eating), there then exists the potential for a new neural pathway (actually many neural connections would be involved in something like a change in diet, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll pretend there is one “healthy eating” pathway). Think of this like a channel in a river. Our dominant pathways are where the energy naturally wants to flow. The more well-used the neural pathway, the more habitual the behavior. When we create a new potential pathway, that’s all there is–potential. Then, each time we use this pathway, a process called “myelination” occurs. Myelin is a fatty coating around the axon of a neuron. The more myelinated the pathway, the stronger it is.

9/30/13 update: it turns out that myelination does not play as big a role in neuroplasticity as I thought. Instead, let me quote Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself ) “When two neurons fire together (or when one fires, causing the other to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly.” It’s not the myelin coating that creates the strong neural pathway, it is the firing itself. And neural pathways that get used a lot tend to be in a state of readiness to fire,  their connections strengthening with usage over time. 

Myelin is not completely out of the picture though. Myelination is part of what creates dominant neural pathways such as those for language. The developing brain has a LOT of myelination going on. And the more myelinated the pathway, the more efficient the impulse is, because myelin is like insulation around a bundle of electrical wires. The more insulated, the more efficient, because less of the electrical impulse gets lost along the way.

There is some evidence that myelination continues into adulthood and is thus part of the process of developing mastery and expertise. But other aspects of neuroplasticity also play a role. For example, with practice, we use fewer neurons to do tasks than we do at the beginning, focusing and specializing our efforts and leaving more of the brain available for other things. Also, the more sensory input we can associate with a certain habit or behavior, the stronger the pathways for that habit will be. 

Our student realized that trying is part of how we  strengthen the new neural pathway. “If I resist having a cookie on Monday, but then give in and have one Tuesday, I have still helped create the change I want,” she shared. “The trick is, over time, to NOT have the cookie more than I have it!” She went on to say that she used to feel like such a failure every time she gave in and went off her diet, which would simply cause her to give up completely. But this knowledge helped her change her perspective dramatically. “Now I just say, ok, I reinforced an old habit pathway, let’s see what I can do with my new ‘healthy eating’ pathway. I don’t have to give up, or beat myself up. It’s all part of the process of change. I used to think trying was a cop-out. Now I see that sometimes, try is how you do.”

So next time you “fail,” whether it be on a diet, a commitment to turning off your cell phone, or keeping your cool in a difficult meeting, don’t be too hard on yourself. Old habits are well-entrenched neural pathways, and they don’t usually change overnight. Instead, remember what our student so wisely said “try is how you do,” and get up, dust yourself off and send more attention down the pathway you want to empower. Sooner or later, it will take over and become dominant.

Henry David Thoreau knew this over 200 years ago. He said:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathways in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. 

And don’t worry if you end up on the wrong path — it’s normal. The other path is waiting for you, and you can walk it at any time.

The Problems with Positive Thinking (and what we can do about it)

Why does “positive thinking” work sometimes and not others? Why are some people able to “manifest prosperity” ala The Secret while others fail again and again? Why are there some areas of life where I have been able to shift my own limiting beliefs easily and others I have not (no matter how hard I try)? I should say that I actually believe that thinking positively is essential to happiness, creates a much more fulfilling life, and is possible. The problem is, we don’t always know how to do it effectively. Maybe this is because I think there are a couple of essential problems with positive thinking from a neuroscience perspective. One, the brain is designed to keep us safe, and two, we are powerfully shaped by our subconscious.

Problem Number One: The Brain is Designed to Keep Us Safe

Years ago, before I began studying neuroscience, my amazing business partner Ursula and I intuited our way to something powerful. We started designing activities in our workshops to “trick the brain.” We realized that the direct approach to learning often didn’t work for people, so we came up with numerous ways to go through the side door.

A classic example of one of these activities we call “The Metaphor Process.” It was created because it’s incredibly powerful to simply be present with your emotions. When we can notice what is going on without judgment, something will shift. This can also be very difficult. When we would ask people to sit with an uncomfortable feeling, such as anger, fear or grief, they often couldn’t do it. Their rational brains would take them away, change the focus, attempt to diminish the feeling, or get lost in a long story. But when we created some separation by first having them think of a metaphor for the feeling, and then be present to the metaphor, it worked magically.

I believe this is because we’ve got well-worn neural pathways designed to keep us safe and away from emotions that we were taught are unacceptable. If there is no room for our anger or sadness as a very young child, we’ll learn other strategies that don’t earn us social rejection (neuroscience has shown us that social rejection activates the pain centers in the brain). As babies and young children (and arguably, every stage of life) social connections are critical to survival. Thus, asking someone to experience these emotions can feel threatening to their very survival and the brain is having none of it. It says “I’m on the job here and we are just not going there.

This is true on the positive side as well. It is scary to the brain threaten any kind of old pattern that was created to keep us safe. So becoming more open? Scary, not doing that. Speaking up for myself? Nope. Promoting my new business and letting people know I think I have something valuable to offer? Um…. maybe next year.

Problem Number Two:  We Are Powerfully Shaped by Our Subconscious

Fun facts time. Do you know that if I give you a warm drink, you’ll feel warmer towards me? If you wear a doctor’s white coat (and you know it is a doctor’s coat, not a painter’s) you’ll actually be smarter? If you stand with your shoulders hunched over and head hanging down you’ll feel less competent and confident (you can try this one at home)? And (freaky fun fact) studies of people with multiple personalities have shown that is possible for personalities living in the same body to have different physiology? One personality can be allergic to orange juice while another is not. Welts will appear and disappear depending on who is “in” the body.

So the problem isn’t so much positive thinking per se, it’s how to help people “think positively” on the subconscious level. You see, when we try to think ourselves into a new, more positive belief, if it is incongruent with what the embodied self believes at the core, it won’t stick. In fact, it can even have a sort of “bounce back” effect. Like Jack Handy, we say to ourselves “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” and our deeper awareness says “Oh no I’m not and oh no they don’t,” at the subconscious level reinforcing the limiting belief instead of the positive one.

I believe that we can use the power of positive thinking to change our lives, but we need to do it taking into account how the brain works. Telling ourselves something we don’t actually believe is no help whatsoever and can even make things worse. We need to find ways to expand on what we do believe until we are where we want to be.

My friend Laura Fenamore is a weight loss coach who figured this out years ago. Overweight and miserable, she realized that somehow the key to weight loss was in loving herself. But as much as she tried to love her body, she simply couldn’t. It was a lie, and the old stubborn beliefs about herself kept her stuck at a weight she didn’t want. Then one day she saw that if she could simply love one pinky, really and truly, it would be a place to start. She did. She told herself her pinky was beautiful, and it worked because she believed it. From there, she went on gradually to the rest of her body, and you should see her now. She coaches, teaches and supports people now who want to learn how to love themselves into a healthy weight.

As you can probably guess, I strongly believe in the power of coaching to help people shift and transform. But remember how much the brain wants to keep us safe, and how dramatically we are shaped by things far out of our conscious control. My best advice? Find ways to come in through the side door and trick the brain, and help people start with what they can actually believe and keep pushing them to expand that edge.