Blame It On the Brain
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Every month I set a few goals for myself. A combination of things I find pretty simple, like drinking 100 ounces of water each day, to things that are definitely more of a challenge for me, like staying away from those criminally tasty Girl Scout Thin Mints. And inevitably, I meet some of my expectations for the month while completely failing at others. Yes - the Thin Mints fall in the fail column. I can’t seem to kick that behavior, no matter how many times I set it as my goal. I just can’t seem to change.
I want to change. I really do. I want to be better. Not just around Thin Mints but in lots of areas in my life. I think most people do, too. We want to look better, or act better, or just fundamentally do better for ourselves. If only our desire for change was enough to make it so. But there is a bigger culprit at work, preventing us from changing or doing things differently. It’s our wonderful, powerful, almighty brain.
Brains are amazing. Powering all that matters in our bodies, controlling our ability to think and do and feel, we are simply not much without a well-functioning brain at our disposal. Evolution has allowed our brains to evolve for the more complex tasks before us, but even our very distant, newly upright ancestors benefited from the very same brain functions that we do, which haven’t deviated much over the centuries. Without much assistance at all, the brain is, by design, our protector. It protects us from physical threats (cue the adrenaline rush when a sabre tooth tiger is about to chase you). It protects us from emotional threats (cue the memory lapses surrounding the childhood trauma). And it protects us from wasting time, working to make it as easy as possible for us to accomplish our tasks. I mean, with all of that power, what could possibly go wrong?
It’s a genius system really, creating a path to get stuff done efficiently and with the least resistance. It protects us from the unknown, and offers us a constant in life to depend on. But because the brain is busy protecting us and finding the safest, quickest way to think about getting from Point A to Point B, it isn’t considering whether or not that path is the best one. Or the one that we might actually prefer. Untrained, our brain doesn’t always know what is right for us in the long-term, and it might actually prevent us from doing what might serve us better. Our brain on autopilot is perfect when we express good habits and have good outcomes. But you can see how this totally stinks if that well-worn, automatic drive leads us to behaviors that we wish not to repeat, or behaviors that just aren’t who or what we want to be in that given moment.
Which is why change becomes so challenging. We set a goal to do something differently - maybe even better - and our brain, being the good steward of our hearts and souls, drives us back down the well-worn path that we know all too well. And it feels good. To just do it and be done with it and move on. Until we realize that yet again, we repeated a mistake, or repeated a behavior that we actually wanted to change. Our brains don’t really care about change. It doesn’t know about our plans to change. It only knows what has worked for us in the past. So as far as it is concerned, why fix something if it ain’t broke?
The easiest example to relate to is dieting. With traditional dieting, we are being asked to change our behavior of eating. To eat less. Or to eat only certain foods, many of which we may or may not like to eat on a regular basis given their lack of carbohydrates or sugars. Sounds easy enough to just eat something else. So we dive in and about 5 days in - if we are lucky - we hit a wall. We might feel simply awful. Deprived. Depressed. Disappointed that the scale still says the same number. I mean, you can fill in the blank but those feelings are not good and before we know it, we are cheating. And then we might even decide to just quit. Changing the behavior just wasn’t enough because our brain stepped in to help. How did it help? By doing everything it could to stop us from feeling so bad. No one likes to feel deprived or depressed or angry, so the brain jumped into action and found that well-worn path to feeling good again - eating something not on the diet menu.
But diets are just the beginning. Think about any of our behaviors. Attempting to do something risky, either personally or professionally, but choosing to wait for some unknown reason that we justify at the time but never really understand. Attempting to speak up for ourselves but backing down because we are afraid of what others might think. Flossing, or not. Working out, or not. Arguing with our children. Not making our bed each morning. Throwing our socks on the floor in the corner. Doing something over and over again the same way sounds so familiar. Oh yeah - it is. We call these habits. Once they get labeled as habits, many decide they are beyond the reach of change. They are part of who we are. But our habits are simply the behaviors that result from our brains taking the most reliable, most satisfying, least emotionally painful path to get things done.
It is a wonder that we are ever able to change behavior. But let’s not throw in the towel just yet. We just need to approach it differently. Rather than trying to change just the behavior, or the action, we can work to change our brain. Fundamentally, effective, long-lasting change requires more than just setting it as a goal or writing it down. True change happens when we can create a new route for our brain to follow. Then when it kicks into autopilot, it takes us where we want to go as opposed to where it thinks we are the most safe.
So - how to change the brain. Start with acknowledging the well-worn path and why that is the preferred exit. Get curious about why you do what you do. How do you feel when you are doing it? What are you thinking? And what are you able to avoid by doing it, or not doing it? That avoidance is gold, for in there usually lies a lot of the underlying reasons your brain has stepped in to move you around those feelings. Of course we don’t want to feel fear, sadness, loneliness, pain, and so much more. But when we allow those feelings to be realized, instead of ignored and pushed aside, we can better confront how to behave when we feel that way. A repeated acknowledgment of fear, coupled with your insistence to actually feel it in your body and your brain opens new doors. You can see that it won’t kill you to be a little anxious. You can see that it won’t destroy you to feel a bit sad. You can see that you don’t need your brain to quickly drive you to a maladaptive response when you know what you are feeling and can survive it, one minute, one skipped donut at a time. You can tell yourself “when I feel _________________, I am going to do _____________.” But you have to know the feeling and admit the need to deal with it. And then with time, or the next time you feel that way, your brain reconsiders the route, maybe even abandons it for the new one you taught it.
Our brain can be trained to do better for us. We thank it for protecting us but we need to teach it to understand how we feel and how to adapt to those feelings on our terms. Easy? No. Impossible? Not at all. Just remember the next time you are trying to adjust to a new routine or adopt a new behavior and you feel angst or discomfort, it is your brain trying to drag you back to the old ways. Lovingly resist it. Happily accept the challenge. And get back to work. Teach your brain to work for you and with you, not against you.
I’m really excited about working more on my brain to help dismantle my Thin Mint problem. Maybe I can teach it to trigger a negative response when I see that green box. Or maybe I can train it to drive me to stomp on the box whenever I see it, the ultimate reflex for not eating them pulverized under foot. Or I can - oh my - all this talk about Thin Mints has me craving them once again. Gotta run.