What’s Running Your Brain?
There are lots of unhelpful unconscious thought patterns running your brain. Because they’re unconscious, meaning they are so ingrained in your neural pathways that once triggered, the thought patterns are nearly instantaneous and therefore essentially unknown to your conscious mind. I say “essentially unknown” because, in fact, it’s your brain and while you may not always be conscious of the thought pattern, with attention and stillness, you can be aware of the thoughts and beliefs that arise, even in triggering situations, even if there isn’t anything you can do in that moment to counter the ingrained thought and resultant behavior pattern. While many of your thought patterns may be beneficial to you, some may be working against what it is you want from life.
What Do You Believe?
For example, as a child -and without blaming my parents for living their life based on their own thought patterns and beliefs, I learned that when you’ve had a really bad day, you have a stiff drink to help you calm down and manage your emotions. When you’ve been in a car accident, you have a stiff drink to help you calm down and manage your emotions. When you have a party or go out to eat, you have a drink to have fun. Party=drinking. Going out to eat=have a drink or two. One day in my early 20s, on a day with a few emotional upheavals, I started thinking about having a drink. I didn’t have any of my normal hooch in the house so I cast about for something else to drink. And I wondered why I needed a drink so much on this particular day. I then realized that with the ebbing of my emotional upheaval, in its wake I was left with a wrung-out feeling. And that wrung-out feeling meant, in a my habitual way of thinking, I needed a drink to fully calm down from the lows of my day. But really, did I need the drink? How about if I just felt my feelings instead? It was a novel concept: just deal with my bad day without the stiff drink that I was conditioned to think was normal (and necessary).
Later in life, I also learned, once I moved in my with partner 13 years ago, that despite being a feminist down to the bone, I believed that men take out the trash. That first month, the trash can got more and more full and I started wondering when the heck he was going to take out the trash. Finally, I just asked him when he was going to take it out. He looked at it me in wonder, asking me why I thought he would take it out? And I realized only then that I had an unconscious belief pattern that was running my brain without me being fully conscious of it. So I took out the trash and I take out the trash to this day, when it needs it and I’m the one who notices first.
I could go on and on about the beliefs I’ve uncovered with attention and inquiry. Over the years, I’ve become aware of many unconscious thought patterns and had glimpses of many more. I know I have or have had unconscious thought patterns and beliefs about money, how much money I should have, eating, travel, sex, relationships, healthy boundaries, spirituality, compassion, the Divine, and on and on and on ad infinitum.
Thought Patterns versus Beliefs
I use thought patterns and beliefs interchangeably here. There are more learned people than I who know about which is first, the thought pattern or the belief. I look at it as the chicken or the egg. Which came first is likely the thought pattern. And with repetition comes the belief. In regards to my belief about having a stiff drink, I remember my Mom came home one day when I was 9 years old or so. She was shaking and clearly distraught from a car accident she’d just been involved in. Dad immediately when to the liquor cabinet and got her drink, something like rum and coke or vodka and a mix. And she drank it and was much calmer for it. So I thought, “oh, that’s what you do to calm down. You have a drink.” First it was an external thought pattern that I held from seeing it repeated several times throughout my childhood and then an unconscious personal belief, as I began acting on that belief in my own early adulthood.
How To Undo Thought Patterns and Beliefs
There are many ways to uncover your thought patterns and beliefs. I think one of the easiest ways is to begin to be curious about what beliefs are running your brain. Always begin this type of inquiry with compassion. Don’t use this knowledge to beat yourself up for following your conditioned mind from belief to action. Just allow the knowledge to rise to your consciousness with curiosity about who you are and what’s going on in your brain.
These days, for me, because I meditate daily and have for several years. I know from these sessions how my thoughts come unbidden across my mind and how easy I can attach to and follow them. So it’s been easier for me to feel when a thought has hooked me and I am able to feel the unconscious thought pattern trigger me into a reaction. However, until I’m aware of the thought pattern, there’s nothing to be done to stop the triggered response.
The way I first began this inquiry into my unconscious beliefs was to ask the Divine to allow my to see my blind spots. I know I had them and in relationship with my partner and with my extended family, I could see and feel myself being triggered without being able to stop my conditioned response. So I just asked for these beliefs to be shown to me.
Because I want to be aware of my beliefs, I am increasingly aware of them. It’s just how it works. When the thought pattern is not that important or so clearly irrational, it’s easier to substitute new thought patterns in its place. No, it’s not exclusively men’s job to take out the trash. Boom. Belief updated. Yes, I can have a bad day without having a stiff drink. (I have to say with that one, the pull remain strong and I remain confronted with the thought to have a drink after a bad day, so I know there are more unexamined thoughts beneath this behavior pattern plus years of habit!).
Some ways to become aware of your unconscious thought patterns and beliefs:
- Ask to become aware of them
- Seek out professional help with a therapist to uncover some of the bigger ones operating in your life
- Write your way to knowledge.
- Take a fresh sheet of paper. At the top of the paper, write “Here’s what I really believe about (subject)”. (Money, Relationship, Food, Pleasure, You Name It)
- Begin to write in a stream of consciousness way without stopping or censoring yourself. State “I really believe that (subject) is … For example, I really believe money is hard to get, evil, corrupting, means selling your soul, etc. Or I really believe that relationship with someone else means the loss of myself, being chained to another person’s whims, etc.
- Keep going and write down at least 10 beliefs but try for more.
- Now that you’re aware of a negative belief that you’d like to change, try to tease out the thought patterns or belief under that belief. So if money is hard to get, what is the belief or thought pattern that supports that belief? Keep writing.
- Try on better feeling thought patterns and use a consciously created thought pattern as a response whenever the old belief arises, now that you can feel and/or know what the conditioned, negative thought pattern is. For example, if you’ve believed that money is hard to get, what happens if you start thinking that money is easy to get, how does that feel? Can you believe that instead?
- With caution and care, ask a trusted and loving family member or friend what is one blind spot you have. Obviously, do this one with someone in your life who will tell you the truth about yourself in a way that isn’t finally the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to criticize you or go running with it as way to list your every perceived flaw. This is simply one thing in your life that they notice which it seems you’re not aware of.
Some conditioned thought patterns are so deep and ingrained and arise so fast that they don’t cross your frontal cortex and you don’t have the opportunity to initially respond in a new and more thoughtful way. Be kind and compassionate to yourself in these circumstances (in every circumstance, ideally). Something profound in you is being triggered so don’t be dismayed if you can’t help yourself. (With the obvious exception if you’re engaging in harmful or self-harmful behavior. With these, you should get help immediately through professional help and remove yourself from the situation wherever possible).
If you can, just stop the triggered response. When you feel attacked and you’re in the middle of yelling back a response, just close your mouth and stop, even mid-sentence. Try to understand what thoughts arose in the situation and try to become aware of them. When you open your banking app, seeing your balance and feeling a wave of fear about to engulf you as you worry about all that needs to get paid, stand up and take a breath. Take a short walk and watch the thoughts that arise about fear, money, lack.
By engaging in new patterns as soon as you’re aware that you’ve been triggered, you can start to unwind your conditioned response little by little even as the initial response is so fast and habitual that you can’t yet control it. And begin to start a new thought pattern that are helpful to you.
Willpower Doesn’t Help
An additional caveat- Don’t try to use willpower to change your response to unconscious thought or beliefs. It’s a losing proposition. You only have so much willpower and one day, you’ll be tired, hungry, or angry enough that your willpower will fail you and you’ll respond to the trigger in your conditioned behavior pattern based on your true/old beliefs. Willpower is not a long term, permanent answer to negative thought patterns and beliefs.
Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life
By understanding what thoughts and beliefs are running your brain, you can replace them with more helpful and empowering thoughts. Staying present with your thought despite a rising tide of conditioned responses will help you to understand and change your thinking- changing your life
Steve Pavlina‘s blog is always a great source about conscious awareness and behavior change.
Martha Beck is always a great source. Period.
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. This is a great book that goes over how effective, and limited, willpower really is. It also shows how industry and corporations are highjacking your instincts and what you can do to become aware and counter these tactics. It also helps you become of aware of your habitual actions.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. This book was formative in my understanding about biology and thought patterns. His most compelling concept is one where the author, a psychologist, notes the mind is like an elephant of conditioned desires and impulses. On top of the elephant is conscious intention as an ineffectual rider. So using your willpower as a jockey riding an elephant of desires and conditioned thinking, you can see how ineffective willpower is. Instead, delving into your beliefs is one of the most effective ways to change your behavior patterns.
Byron Katie is amazing for using inquiry to question our thoughts. She has a lot of free resources. If you’re looking to understand your triggers and blind spots (after you’re out of the profound trauma of fresh tragedy), I think her tools are amazing.
How about you? What has helped you uncover and change your conditioned response?