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Ever been through something like this?

Example 1 >> After years of working in a job you hate, you decide to go back to school to become a registered nurse. (You always wanted to work in the medical field, but life just didn’t work out that way your first go-round.) Eye rolls from your perpetually disappointed family? You ignore them. Social stigma for going back to school in your 30’s? Who gives a shit. Physical exhaustion from working full-time while studying full-time? You push through. You close out your first year riding high on good grades; the hard work was worth it. Finally able to take a break for the holidays, you head home to visit family. When you get back, a realization hits you: You forgot to submit your financial aid paperwork last semester. You have no money for school, no extra cash in the bank and no way you can afford this year’s tuition. You’re screwed.

Example 2 >> You’re staring down the barrel of a career-making project deadline at work. Only problem? Your last three hours have included of glaring at the blinking cursor on your blank computer screen, checking your emails, DMs, and news feed, grabbing two snacks, and taking the stairs to-and-from your 10 min break. You’ve hit a wall.

Why does shit hit the fan when we’re trying to accomplish something? Why are we so easily blocked, confused, distracted, and forgetful when we’re trying to do something good for ourselves?

The short answer: We’re really good at getting in our own way.

Here’s Why.


Problem #1: You have more than one brain, and they don’t always agree.

Have you ever seen Russian nesting dolls? They’re these little egg-shaped, hand-painted, wooden dolls that split in half to reveal a smaller doll inside, and another inside that, all the way down to an adorable, itty-bitty little doll-nugget.

Yeah, so...that’s your brain.*

{*for the laundry list of scientific references made in this article, scroll all the way to the bottom of this post. xoxo.}

When I say “brain,” you’re picturing a football-shaped, squiggly pinkish blob with two halves. But that’s just the newest part of your brain to evolve and the largest of the “nesting dolls.” Scientists call this the cerebrum, but we’ll call it your Pilot Brain. Your Pilot Brain has four lobes (frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal) that specialize in different “higher thought” stuff, like reasoning, planning, talking, moving, sensing and remembering.

Here's where shit gets weird: Within the outer nesting doll that is your Pilot Brain, you’ll find two more “brains”*; each smaller, less civilized, and more powerful than the last.

Brain #2 sits at the base of your skull. A Nerf-football-sized blob called the cerebellum handles coordination, while just below that, your brain stem connects directly to your spinal cord and handles involuntary stuff like breathing, heart rate, sleeping, sneezing, puking, etc. We’ll call Brain #2 The Plane.

If we travel even deeper into your brain, we’ll get to the final nesting doll, Brain #3. Made up of a bunch of tinier structures, the basal ganglia, and limbic system handle your animal instincts-- the emotions behind hunger, sex, parenting, aggression, and dominance. These are what neuroscientist Paul MacLean (the guy who named the limbic system in 1952) called our “reptilian” (a.k.a. lizard) brain; it’s what overrides rational thought when we’re panicked or aroused and the primary emotion center of the brain. We’ll call this ancient, instinctive, skittish, system-inside-a-system Autopilot Brain.

Autopilot Brain was the first brain structure to form in your mama’s womb and the earliest part of the human mind to evolve, making it much more efficient than Pilot Brain. Since Autopilot Brain is older (evolutionarily speaking) and WAY, WAY faster than Pilot Brain, it can override your more “civilized” plans with it’s panicky, animalistic reactions instantaneously. Autopilot is behind fight-or-flight, happy tears, road rage and the warm-fuzzies; it’s also the reason you can’t seem to get shit done.


Problem #2: Your life is on autopilot.

Unfortunately, your brain is very proud of this. It’s been evolving for millennia, fine-tuning your ability to absorb, assess, and respond to the world, all in less than an instant. Your brain and body have manufactured a near-perfect system to keep you from dying --a thing you’re always almost doing-- and you don’t even have to pay attention for it to work! Autopilot Brain is so efficient and so speedy that it works just outside your awareness, constructing your reality for you, using sensory data and emotional experiences as its building blocks. Here, I'll give you an example:

Let’s say you decide to build your house from scratch. (Impressive!) When the whole thing is finished, you finally get to move in. You’d say you live in this house, right? Sure. Would you also say this house happened to you? Nope. That’s because a house is a thing you build and live inside, not something that “happens.” The fact that you built it doesn’t make it any less real; the studs are real, the drywall is real, and you live inside it. But your house didn’t “happen” to you.


Your reality is real, but you built it. It didn’t happen to you.

You’re not observing a pre-existing reality; you are constructing it.


...And the foundation of this reality-house? Your beliefs.

Beliefs determine our actions, whether we are aware of them or not. Beliefs determine everything we do (or don’t do) because they’re tied to something waaaaaay more powerful than just sensory data: Our emotions.

‘Beliefs’ are a set of instructions for your brain and body to follow, based on a set of emotionally color-coded memories.

Example: Let’s say you touch a hot stove and experience searing pain. (f$u@c%k!) Thanks to the sensory data you picked up (hot!) and the involvement of your emotions (pain! fear! danger!), you now believe touching a hot stove should be avoided. (Good call.) Since you don’t need to be thinking about hot stoves all the time, your brain files this away in your subconscious; the next time you see a hot stove, you’re looking at it through this filter of belief.

Belief = Sensory Information + Emotional “Proof.”

Think of your beliefs like working files (i.e. an editable PDF with multiple authors). Sensory data make up the contents of the memory file (hot stove, blistered fingertips), while emotions “color-code” that memory (danger! pain! RED FLAG!) to make it easier for your brain to find later. Your brain ultimately decides how to store information based on how emotionally relevant it is to your survival.

Here’s the thing: While you’ve got no problem coldly labeling someone else’s belief as fact, personal preference, or flat out bullshit...you don’t do that for your own beliefs. Your brain doesn’t file your experiences logically, from ‘subjective opinion’ to ‘objective fact.’ It organizes them by emotional color-codes-- by whatever experience made the most noise, whatever was most awe-inspiring, or horrifying, or earth-shattering. The more intense the emotion of an event, the brighter the memory’s color-code-- and when memories have to be compressed, as they always do, your brain prioritizes saving an emotional color-code over saving any of the memory’s actual details (a scientific concept called ‘somatic marker theory’).

So, there are two ways for information or experience to become a “Fact” in your mind:

1) Be something emotionally neutral that so many people agree on it would be embarrassing to refute. (Like, for example, a belief that the earth revolves around the sun.)

2) Be something so loaded with emotional intensity that it earns permission to overwrite the contents of a memory. (Like, for example, a belief that you are unworthy of love.)


This brings us to Problem #3:

Your mind files all your beliefs in the same folder in your subconscious, labels them “Facts,” and then treats them all with equal validity as if to say: “I can and will act on this.” This means a belief that you’re a loser-piece-of-shit will carry the same factuality in your mind as the laws of physics. This is bad news. This means the things we know to be the truest about ourselves and our life’s possibilities are not necessarily the truest or even the least bit accurate.

...They just happened to be the noisiest.

 

Wondering how this plays out in everyday life?

Example 1 >>

Conscious Pilot Thinks: "I’ll do whatever it takes to go back to school and graduate with a nursing degree."

Subconscious Autopilot Believes: "I’ll never pull it off because it’s too late in life, I’m not smart enough and I don’t deserve to."

Resulting Reality: You “forget” to submit your financial aid paperwork, preventing you from going back to school next semester. If you can’t go back next semester, you’ll never suffer the embarrassment of failing out of school in your 30’s (or prove Autopilot wrong by totally pulling it off). Autopilot Brain thinks it’s protecting you.

Example 2 >>

Conscious Pilot Thinks: "This presentation is really important for my career; I need to finish this ASAP."

Subconscious Autopilot Believes: "If my presentation fails, I’ll be humiliated. If it succeeds, I’ll be given more responsibility (a.k.a. More pressure) and become more attached to a career I’m not sure I even like. I’ll avoid both outcomes by not finishing it in time."

Resulting Reality: You feel mentally “blocked,” ultimately deciding to distract yourself with anything else but the work you need to do. Autopilot Brain thinks it’s protecting you.

These are limiting beliefs.

A limiting belief exists because your ancient, skittish lizard of an Autopilot Brain is trying its damnedest to protect you. You believe something negative about yourself to be true because at some point (often as early as childhood) you collected experiences that looked just like evidence proving this thing was, in fact, true. If enough examples piled up in your life, your efficient belief-sorting system filed this thing away under ‘Fact About Self’ in your subconscious, doing an excellent job of laying down limiting rules for you to (unknowingly) follow.


Your hidden, subconscious limiting beliefs are the reason your life doesn’t look the way you want it to, the reason you can’t get shit done and the reason you continue to get in your own way.


The good news?

If we can accidentally build our reality, we can intentionally reconstruct it, too. So far, Autopilot Brain has been the architect of your reality-- but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Recent research in neuroscience has proven that the human brain is ‘plastic’- meaning thoughts alone are capable of changing the function and physical structure of the brain. Yes, really (for proof, check out the resources below!). Thoughts have the power to trigger depression and sabotage our lives-- but they also have the power to heal stroke survivors, conquer learning disabilities, overcome mental disorders, and cure diseases. NO JOKE. Science has proven that changing our thoughts actually changes our body chemistry, behavior, and ultimately, our lives.

This means you don’t have to keep living handcuffed to your Autopilot’s fearful decision making anymore. You CAN untangle the mental clusterfuck of limiting beliefs you’ve picked up throughout your lifetime. You CAN get out of your own way and finally shit done.

But to unravel your limiting beliefs and change your life, you need to uncover them first.

More good news: I can help with that.

Wondering what YOUR limiting beliefs are?


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Download the (TOTALLY FREE!) 10-page Cancel Your Subscription to Bullshit Workbook + find out, RN. 

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>> Resources <<

*This “nesting doll” analogy isn’t exactly anatomically accurate; it’s a metaphor to help you understand your brain, which is much, much, more integrated and complicated than it sounds. Cool? Cool.   

- MacLean, Paul D. (1990) The Triune Brain In Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York and London: Plenum Press.

- Kiverstein, J. and Miller, M. (May 6, 2015) The embodied brain: towards a radical embodied cognitive neuroscience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9: 237. Retrieved from 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00237

- Beauregard, M. (Mar 2017) Mind does really matter: evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect. Prog Neurobiol. 81(4):218-36. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2007.01.005

- Bechara, A. and Damasio, A. The Somatic Marker Hypothesis: A Neural Theory of Economic Decision. Games and Economic Behavior. 52 (2005) 336–372. Retrieved from http://people.ict.usc.edu/~gratch/CSCI534/Readings/The%20somatic%20marker%20hypothesis.pdf

- Harris, S. et al., (October 1, 2009)The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. Public Library of Science One. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0007272

- Doidge, Norman. (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

- Benson, H. Klipper, M. Z. (1975) The Relaxation Response. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

- Ledoux, J. (1996) The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

- Damasio, A. (1994 ) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

- Kopotov, J. D. (MAy 13, 2016)  Affective System, Emotions, and Stress. Functional Neuromarkers for Psychiatry (1st Edition): Applications for Diagnosis and Treatment. 207-229. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

- Bechara, A., Damasio, H. and Damasio, A.R. Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, Volume 10, Issue 3, 1 March 2000, Pages 295–307, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/10.3.295.

- The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2004 Jul;5(7):583-9. doi:10.1038/nrn1432

- Cardinal R.N., Parkinson J.A., Hall J., Everitt B.J. (May 2002) Emotion and motivation: the role of the amygdala, ventral striatum, and prefrontal cortex. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 26(3):321-52. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/S0149-7634(02)00007-6

- Kropotov, J.D. (May 3, 2016) “Affective System, Emotions and Stress.” In Functional Neuromarkers for Psychiatry: Applications for Diagnosis and Treatment. London: Academic Press.

- Tsigos C, Kyrou I, Kassi E, et al. Stress, Endocrine Physiology and Pathophysiology. [Updated 2016 Mar 10]. In: De Groot LJ, Chrousos G, Dungan K, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278995/