Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tell Yourself A New Story

“Our virtues are habits as much as our vices…our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds”
 --William James, one of the founders of scientific psychology (1899)

I have always loved a good metaphor, particularly those that give a deeper and clearer insight to an old truth. A lightbulb goes on and we say, "Oh, that's why!” or “that's how!”

With the scientific study of brain function, we now know that learning happens much the way a paper is folded – as the groove becomes more deeply creased, the paper naturally refolds in that same spot, even when you lay it flat on the table.  Our unwanted “automatic” reactions  - the ones that cause us pain or get us into trouble – are the result of the way our paper has been folded by past experiences.  We have learned to look the world as if this is the only way the paper can be folded.

Some old folds - truths accepted in childhood - can haunt us more than fifty years later if they were never quite ironed out.

When my mother was a child in postwar Germany, it was one of her daily chores to go into the cellar and get the potatoes for the day’s meal. It was an old house with an ancient deep cellar. The walls were black with coal dust and only one sad and sooted light bulb gave a glimmer of light - just enough to throw long shadows in the cavernous space, until you went around the corner into an open chamber were the potatoes laid on shelves in complete darkness. Being raised on the old Christian chestnut, “the Devil will get you if you are bad,” and knowing she wasn't always good, this became Mom's daily childhood nightmare. She had convinced herself that one day the Devil would come through one of the big cracks in the floor and grab her in the darkness. She couldn't tell her mom she was afraid the Devil would get her because her mom would then know she had been bad.

Moving to America and living most of her life on an island at the Jersey Shore, Mom never had a cellar again. Actively pursuing a more liberal spiritual path, the Devil too was left behind with the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales.

Retired for some time, Mom recently bought a small 100+ year old cottage near us in Pennsylvania. It also has a 100+ year old cellar with one lightbulb, cobwebs and debris. The first time she went down those barely lit steps, she felt "an eerie creepy feeling take a hold of her," turned around, and quickly went back up. Standing in her kitchen and calling herself a coward, it dawned on her that she was still afraid of cellars, after all this time. (The fold in the paper had never been ironed flat.)

She went down the steps again and got the same feeling, only this time she kept going, telling herself, “this is my house and my cellar and I love it and it loves me!” She doesn't remember how long it took before she felt normal in her cellar. She now uses it as her laundry room and for extra storage. Other than a good cleaning, nothing else has been done down there and Mom is quite content to have it as it is. She has flattened the old fold by retraining her brain.

A friend of ours stopped smoking by frequently telling himself that he was a non-smoker. When the urge to smoke became strong, he would go outside into the fresh air take a few deep breaths and repeat to himself three times slowly that he was a non-smoker. On the weekends, when football games on TV made things especially challenging, he would still go outside and do his usual “I am a non-smoker” routine. Then he would go into another room, where a hard puzzle was in the works and stay there until he felt ready to rejoin the game. He has remained a non-smoker for many, many years.

Over time, the beliefs we accept as “true” become set (like the fold in the paper) and our reactions to our world become predictable and routine. A certain situation will arise, and we respond by becoming fearful, very angry, volatile, stressed or depressed.  The idea that these painful emotions are occurring because of what we believe to be true, rather than what may actually be true, would not cross most people’s minds.  But in many instances, the way out is to iron out the fold, and refold the paper in a new way – to retrain your own brain.

So, when you find yourself unhappy with an old habit, or repeatedly reacting in a painful way to the same situation, you can do something about that. Find the thought you believe is true in “that” specific situation. That's the old fold in the paper. In the above examples it was:

1) The Devil is in the cellar.

2) I am a smoker.

Then replace it with your new truth, repeat it and act on it as often as is needed, to iron out the old belief that you no longer want to accept. Be patient - some creases are old and sharp, but you will make progress. It may be subtle at first, but once the mind has been opened to something new it will never quite close again, unless you wish deliberately it too.

Each effort in the new direction is a step forward, and you cannot fail, if you don't give up!


  1. Great practical article on self destructive beliefs/sabotage. Many individuals talk about limiting beliefs but there seems to be a real void when it comes to practical solutions. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. "Then replace it with your new truth."

    And that continues to be the missing piece. I think most people are not good script writers and can't easily concoct a new personal.

    What people need, what I need, is a Dictionary of Transformational Conversations because I neither have the lifespan or skills to reinvent these conversations for myself and it's certainly highly likely that 99% of the conversations are applicable to everyone.

  3. What is the source for the William James quote?
    As Jeffrey Schwartz pointed out in his book The Mind and the Brain, William James fully understood what we now know to be the reality of the malleability of our neurology.
    In Principles of Psychology 1890, James said that the ability to fix one's attention on a stimulus or a thought and "hold it fast before the mind" was the act tha constituted "the essential achievement of the will"

  4. I love it that this was posted on my 50th birthday, surely the dawn of a new era in my life. Thank you!

  5. Yes very much true Heidi..It's not only with the images..it happens with the sound, the smell and words too..Getting aware of the same and changing works out well..